Volunteering Abroad: An Opportunity You Can’t Afford to Miss
how six little rascals enhanced my study abroad experience and shaped my future goals.
By Terah Summers, University of Hawai’i at Manoa
“Hola chicas,” I say trying to hide how nervous I am. Six pairs of bright eyes glinting with mischief stared back at me. Those adorable, youthful faces masked what little rascals they would become in the next hour. Somebody help me. My instinct was to run for my life. But I took a deep breath, put a smile on my face, and bravely stepped into the classroom.
When I first signed up to be a volunteer at a Spanish girl’s school in Seville, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I greatly underestimated the challenge of keeping six rambunctious Spanish girls entertained for an hour and a half. My task was to teach English to the girls. This proved to be especially difficult when my Spanish was as elementary as their English. Never in my life was I faced with such a daunting challenge. But despite the time I wanted to pull my hair out, volunteering ended up being a rewarding experience that taught me a lot about myself.. My study abroad experience became much more than a six month vacation. For the first time since I arrived in Seville I felt like a member of the community instead of a foreigner. I was no longer the outsider looking in. After volunteering, I’m even considering teaching abroad in the future. So here are a few reasons why you should consider volunteering while studying abroad.
1) You feel more connected to the local community-
When I first came to Seville, I felt like I wasn’t fully engaged with my adopted city. Sure I was taking strolls in Parque María Luisa and eating as much olive oil and bread as a local would. But I was going to an international school and so all my classmates were from America. Nothing wrong with that, but I knew I would have to try a little harder to get access to the local community. It wasn’t until I started making local friends and volunteering that my study abroad began to feel more than an extended vacation. Volunteering gave me a sense of purpose and belonging in the community. So for that hour and a half at the girl’s school got a glimpse of the “authentic” life in Seville.
2) It forces you to step out of your comfort zone-
Studying abroad is all about challenging yourself and stepping outside of your comfort zone. And volunteering is a great way give that philosophy a test drive. I’ll admit, there were times while volunteering where I felt defeated and intimidated. One thing I do wish was that I had a better grasp of Spanish before I started volunteering, or I had been given a brief training. But volunteering really did help me to step outside of my comfort zone and face my fears. Looking back I’m not sure how I did it and managed to communicate with the girls, but when there’s a will there’s a way!
3) You learn the art of patience-
“Julia why are you crying?” “Pilar please raise your hand, don’t scream my name.” “Alejandra! Did you just hit María!” Such is the life of a volunteer at a girl’s school. You learn the art of patience. When I would get frustrated I would remind myself that, “kids will be kids.” So when you want to wring a student’s neck, let patience win and take a deep breath.
4) Your students become your teacher-
Looking back I’m not sure who learned more, the girls or me. I learned so much from them. They taught me new Spanish words to what its like to grow up in Spain. The great thing about learning Spanish from young children is they don’t judge you the way some of your peers do. But they taught me more than just Spanish. They made me laugh. They made me scream “SILENCIO” in a scary voice. They made me realize there’s nothing more beautiful than the heart of a child. And at the end of each day, they gave me a hug on their way out of the classroom.
5) It can shape your future goals-
One of the most rewarding, affordable ways to live abroad for an extended period of time is to teach abroad. This is one of the possible paths I want to take after I graduate college. I’ve always wanted to make a positive impact in the world. And I strongly believe education is the solution to so many world problems. So what better way to make a difference then teaching the next generation of young students? And because of the six niñas in the Spanish school, I know what I’m getting into next time!
You can transform your study abroad into something more than an extended vacation if you decide to volunteer. And there are so many more opportunities than just teaching. If teaching isn’t your thing, consider volunteering in a hospital, helping build houses for the homeless, or spending time with the elderly in a retirement home. In the end, I’m very happy I decided to volunteer while studying abroad. So now it’s your turn!