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What I've Learned From Volunteering Abroad

by Anna Balch on August 23, 2018

By Anna Balch

In December 2016, I was finishing up my first semester of my senior year in college.  Like any senior I was stressing about what I would do post-graduation.  I was graduating from a liberal arts college with a degree in Spanish – not applicable to what I wanted to be doing without any further education.  I had decided last minute not to attend graduate school and had already missed all of the application deadlines so there was no going back on that decision.  

With no real job prospects lined up, I decided to take a leap of faith and go traveling for a year.  I wasn’t looking to country hop but rather to immerse myself in a culture for an extended period of time.  Having studied languages (unofficially) in university, I figured this was the perfect opportunity for me to become fluent in another language and learn more about the culture firsthand. 

Earlier that year, I had the chance to travel to Brazil for a month long study abroad experience and fell in love with the country!  I decided to look there first.  I found a few intriguing opportunities, applied but didn’t get any of them.  I eventually found a very small nonprofit in Rio de Janeiro.  I committed to volunteer with them for six months, despite the fact that I wouldn’t be making any money.  It sounded like the perfect adventure but there was another catch – it was in a favela,which from everything I had heard was not the safest place to be.  The word faveladirectly translates to slums, if that tells you anything.

I arrived to Brazil in June 2017, just after graduating, with relatively selfish motivations.  The experience was about me - the goal was to narrow down a career path and it just so happened that I would also be doing something to help others in the meantime.  Within my first week, I realized that in fact it wasn’t about me at all.  I realized just how incredible these kids truly were and just how lucky I was to have had this opportunity.  I extended my stay and six months turned into ten.  During the time I spent working in Brazil, I made lifelong memories, met volunteers who came in from around the world, giving up their time to help these kids and I learned life lessons that I will take with me forever.  More importantly, I watched a group of incredible young kids grow and mature over those ten months. 

Since leaving Brazil in February this year, I have had two other opportunities that have taught me just as much as my time in Brazil, some of the same things and some new.  Looking back on my experiences, things seem to have fallen into place quite well for me. That’s not to say it’s all been perfect, there have been challenges to overcome and difficult times I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through – regardless, I have had some wonderful opportunities basically fall into my lap during that time.  One of those is the job I am currently working down in Mexico, with an organization I plan to stay with long term.    

If you had asked me during university if I was truly happy with where I was, my answer to you would have been “no” without any hesitation.  I always felt like I was getting a great education but that nothing ever went my way – it always felt like I would take one step forward and two devastatingly large steps back.  While I tried not to play the victim, I did let it get to me and I did let it affect my overall experience.  However, if you asked me again now if I was happy with the experience I had at university, my answer to you would still be “no” but this time I would add that it was no one’s fault but my own. 

So why do I say that my experience at university was my own fault?  Because if there is one thing I have learned over the last year, it is that we shape our own experiences.  If we go into something with a negative attitude, we will come out of it with a negative experience.  During university, when things didn’t go my way, I got negative. It was everyone else’s fault but my own, it was the “stupid” university as I often put it – they were out to get me.  I would go into each year dreading what was ahead of me that semester, thinking “I can’t wait to graduate.”  I would get negative and ruin the experience for myself, often times before it even began.    

Two and a half years later, I’ve finally learned my lesson thanks to the kids I had the pleasure to work with.  The kids showed up to our project every day with smiles on their faces despite facing extreme poverty, violence in their community and much more. On top of that, there wasn’t much that could wipe that smile off of their faces – not the violence, not the unsupportive parents, nothing.  Their energy and enthusiasm rubbed off on me, making me a happier person overall. Like the kids, I learned to smile regardless of what the day brings and not to let anyone or anything wipe that smile off my face. 

The way I see it now, we have two options – we can go into an experience wishing for it to be over or we can appreciate the experience for what it is.  Here’s just one example - Mondays.  Everyone hates Mondays.  We can go into a new work week dreading the return to our monotonous job, wishing for the weekend to return again or we can go into it thinking just how fortunate we are to have the job, looking forward to and enjoying each challenge that is thrown at us.  After learning my lesson the hard way, I now choose the latter and find my bad days are few and far between.  As a popular young popstar named Hannah Montana once said “life’s what you make it!” She wasn’t wrong.  We shape each one of our experiences whether we realize it or not.   So my challenge for you is the next time you find yourself dreading to go back to work or sinking into a negative attitude about something, look back on the little things.  Put a smile on your face, embrace the challenges and make the most of the opportunity. 

Of course it’s easier for me to sit here and say this in a blog post, I don’t know you and I don’t know what you have been through – but why do we go through life with anything but a smile on our faces?  Life is short and we’ve only got one.  Of course it’s ok to have a bad day, the tough times are what define us, but learn from it and move past it.  Put that smile back on your face and keep enjoying life for what it is.    


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