Module 1: Culture and the Volunteer
Even for those who love to travel to new places, it is not easy for someone to leave the comforts of their home and immerse themselves in a completely unfamiliar environment. All volunteers who travel abroad will experience some degree of culture shock. To cushion this shock and ensure an enjoyable, effective volunteer experience, preparation is essential. Volunteers can minimize culture shock by knowing what to expect when they arrive at their destination. If you have some understanding of local customs and norms, your transition to living in your target local community will be faster and smoother. You will indeed be living abroad; do not consider your volunteer experience a short visit to a foreign country or it will be very difficult to overcome your ethnocentrism, the belief that one's own way of life or culture is superior to those of others, and open your mind to understanding and absorbing the local culture.
“I’ve been abroad a lot of times... [but] I was really excited… to go and really live somewhere for two months and not just be a visitor. Working with Unite for Sight in Asikuma last summer was fantastic. It was the most memorable summer I ever had.”(1)—Jackie Madison, Unite For Sight Volunteer in Ghana
Know that you are not alone in this process. The local organizational staff will be your guides for all cultural needs. In this foreign culture, they are experts and you are a novice. The countless routine daily tasks that you effortlessly undertake in your home country will likely pose a challenge overseas. Take advantage of staff members to help you with everything from basic communication and common courtesy to learning what foods to eat and dealing with people who ask you for money and favors.
(1) “Jackie Madison Speaks About Volunteering With Dr. Baah.” Online Video Clip. Uniteforsight.org. Accessed on 02 December 2008.