Why volunteering abroad is so valuable for your career and why you shouldn’t think so highly of yourself for doing it 

Today is Friday the 29th July 2016. On Monday myself and Georgia will be flying to Tokyo and our 5 week adventure in Malaysia would have come to an end. Experiences like this pang for reflection and today whilst helping to make some benches in the 32 degree sun I have achieved just that. I have been thinking about the lessons I have learnt during my time in Banting and how I can transfer my new skills I have learned to my job back home. Next is a list of 10 reasons why I think everyone should at least once in their life volunteer in a foreign country which will benefit their career, social consciousness and mental abilities.

  • You learn multi cultural business etiquette

Everyone is familiar with popular business etiquette formalities like accepting gifts with both hands in China or by bowing at the specific height to colleagues in Thailand. However, what is specific in regards to volunteering or indeed working abroad is the categorical conventionalities between business partners during meetings and or arrangements which I have noticed during my travels.

  • You have the opportunity to learn other languages

During my volunteering expedition in Malaysia I of course picked up a decent amount of Malay language, most notably the basics. How are you? Good morning! But I also learned more complicated sentences like how to order food and asking for something specific. This not only boosts the memory function in your brain and helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease but also gives you credibility with the locals offering their respect to you at least trying to make an effort. Another advantage of volunteering abroad is that you get to meet other volunteers from all over the world. Meeting 2 girls who spoke French enabled me to practice French daily and be corrected on my mistakes by a native speaker. More than a language app and an online course could ever teach you in the same amount of time.

  • You appreciate the times you got paid to work

Fairly simple! Appreciatively, I receive 3 meals a day, accommodation and other benefits for volunteering but I am spending more than I am receiving. It makes getting that crisp pay check at the end of a working month that little bit more satisfactory.

  • The skills you learn are more varied than you can imagine

On the description of what my ‘roles and responsibilities’ were when applying to volunteer I was moderately comfortable that I would be capable of doing the tasks described. It wasn’t until I got underway to begin building, plastering, constructing amongst other things does it really sink in how much you are gradually learning new skills that you don’t usually get an opportunity to learn unless you work as a labourer at home or are into DIY. It wasn’t just those skills that I learned, I also gained an unprecedented amount of knowledge on the tourism and hospitality industry and well as how a business varies in Asia compared to England.

  • You network internationally

Why would you choose to volunteer abroad compared to volunteer at home? Is it the weather? The food? The fashion? Maybe, but unlikely. Most volunteers, like me, volunteer in a foreign land to experience the people and the culture. During volunteering projects you have access to some of the most intelligent, self-aware and creative people out there. It is a haven for networking not only socially but also in terms for future job opportunities. During my volunteering project I got offered work at a University in Kuala Lumpur in an English language class by a guest at the resort. No lie.

  • You better grasp your strengths and weaknesses

In my opinion most jobs don’t offer enough freedom for you to explore in detail what your true strengths and weaknesses are. During interviews you always hear the standard ‘my greatest strength is teamwork’ or, ‘my biggest weakness is that I work too hard’. These are superficial and practically unreliable pieces of information. Learning about your individual strengths and weaknesses is like learning that no human thumb print is identical. No two people encompass identical strengths or weaknesses, your skills and personalised repertoire is much more subtle and complicated than that. I have only just begun to understand the beginning of my strengths and weaknesses to the extent I cannot physically write in enough detail about them.

  • A more clear career path will be under development

What I know for sure after volunteering in Malaysia is that I definitely will not become a manual labourer. Although I have learnt many skills within that field I know that it is not for me. I also am convinced that the tourism and hospitality sector is not for me. However, just as much as I am ruling out certain career paths I am also involuntarily noticing fields that I am interested in. I love writing. I think I liked my job back home more than I realised I did and I have taken a more acute interest in foreign languages. These insights would not have come around without me experiencing my time in Malaysia over the past 5 weeks.

  • Your communication skills will become second to none

Communicating on a professional and formal basis in work can be seen as a skill on its own. However what about communicating socially in a less formal way? This relates to my point about the advantages of learning a foreign language abroad. A lot of the Malay and Orang Asli people I have worked with speak incredibly impressive English but still communication can be difficult, especially when a specific demand is requested. Communicating in a more patient, harmonious, clear and concise way has taught me to incorporate that at work. During my thesis at University I learned that communication between employees can lead to some costly downfalls in all businesses. Just as much as it is necessary to be able to speak English in a workplace in an English speaking country, it is even more important to be able to communicate (which is a different concept altogether than merely speaking) compatibly.

  • Your decision making will improve dramatically

When people ‘make decisions’ in a workplace it usually, not always but usually is a decision they have made before.Should we renew this contract with X supplier? Should we loan more money to this customer? What can we do to motivate our staff? I have fallen into the trap occasionally that when I am deciding on something I think that it is a decision I have not made before, when really I already know the answer.Volunteering conjures up a much more wide variety of decision making opportunities that I can guarantee you have not experienced so far in your life (unless you have already volunteered in a foreign country.) During my first week or so in Malaysia I found myself bewildered by how many new decisions I was making a day. It really struck a chord with how limited my decision making background was. During volunteering I learned a bunch of new decision making processes through experience, intuition, instinct, unpredictability and confusion.

  • Every day WILL be different

My favourite line on a job advertisement, ‘everyday will be different’. No it won’t. I mean, yes theoretically each day is a new and unique day but each day being distinguishable from the last? Really? You tell me what you did 3 weeks ago last Thursday. It was just another day at the office right? When employers use this statement to advertise a job it is supposed to allure you into the realm of curiosity that each day you will learn something new and exciting. How often is this actually the case though? On the other hand, I can categorically confirm that each day volunteering something different occurs and it usually is out of your comfort zone too. One day you can be plastering in the morning, introducing guests to the business in the afternoon and organising team building games in the evening. The next day you can be asked to help with first aiding a person who has fallen ill, watching a Komodo Dragon walk past you on the way to the toilet and have to fix a tent that has been ripped apart by monkeys. All of these things happened to me on two consecutive days. When was the last time you were in the queue for the toilet at work and a Komodo Dragon brushed past your feet?

At this point you must be thinking how all of this sounds great. However as well as there is many benefits of volunteering I am increasingly aware of the detrimental and unrecognised flaws that comes along with it. Next I am going to list a couple instances where caution should be taken when deciding to volunteer and indeed if you’re planning on hiring volunteers for your own project or business.

As described in a entertaining book by Rolf Dobelli, room for error is certainly achievable when entering the world of volunteering. I have had this thought many times during the construction phase of my volunteer work. Let’s say I earn £100 a day at work back in England. However, regardless of having a safe, stable job I decide to volunteer in Malaysia to help construct a new school. I have all the best intentions of making the world a better place, or do I? I earn £100 a day at work, an Indonesian or Malaysian carpenter lets say for example earns £5 a day at work. It would be more sensible for me (who wants to create a better world) to work an extra 5 days, save £500 and get in touch with the school to employ 20 South Asian carpenters for the week who will no doubt be much more suitable for the role of building a new school than me. Logically this makes more sense, but in reality the only reason a lot of people volunteer is to get their weathered hands dirty and to whet their untamed ego. Economists as mentioned in Rolf Dombellis book call this ‘Volunteers folly’. By offering my sub- par skills I am taking work away from a valuable tradesman and not contributing no way near the amount compared to if I donated £500 straight to the school. As mentioned before, volunteering works so well because it is a haven for the ego to put up its boots and rest on a fluffy cushion of pseudo-altruism. The only person where it is worth them going out and building a new school in Malaysia are celebrities. As they offer something that sometimes money cannot buy. Publicity. In summary, do a bit of research before you sign up to volunteer and write a list of reasons of why you want to volunteer and why particularly at the place you’re thinking of. Without sounding pessimistic, (which occasionally I cannot help due my innate habit of over thinking and critically analysing everything) are you really going to be helping? Or is a charitable weeks pay check a more suitable donation to the world?

Another unspoken obligation that travelers must abide to is the ethical reasoning involved with volunteering. Unfortunately, many volunteering projects and schemes don’t have the necessary experience to provide helpful work for travelers who aim to assist the disadvantaged or in need. The land which makes up the resort that I am volunteering at was bought from the Orang Asli people. Ethically, the owner did superb in the negotiations when buying the property. The price was fair, Orang Asli residents in the local Kampong were given top priority when it came to jobs at the resort and everyone from the village enjoys free access. This is what I mean when I mention that it is important that you are contributing to a worthy cause, with good moral backgrounds and a compassionate heart. Otherwise, what’s the point?

So there you go. I think the past 5 weeks will stay with me for a long time. It has created a burning desire to offer up my unskilled services to more volunteering projects at home and abroad. Lets see where the next one takes me.

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