Volunteering on a gap year - would I recommend it?

I was recently asked about my experience of volunteering abroad, and as I started answering I realised I completely missed one of my trips out! It made me realise how long ago those experiences were....and how old I sometimes feel now! 

When I was at university I found my 4 years quite a struggle to stick with. I loved my placements, but hated the lectures and coursework that I had to complete for the rest of the time. As a way to break up the time into managable chunks, I volunteered and travelled in the summers and Christmases when I could afford to do so. I ended up doing four experiences in my 4 years; a volunteer placement/experience in Kenya, a volunteer experience in India and two summers as a literacy teacher for a charity in New York.

 

In India I volunteered with a school, and lived with the Headmaster's family. It was a definite culture change; I didn't take any Western clothes with me, and just wore Indian clothing. Many of the people I met had never seen a white person before, had never seen blonde hair before and hadn't even seen freckles before. I used to have crowds of children follow me in the street, and random ladies stroking me, or trying to rub my freckles away.
I was actually there during the tsunami and very close to the coast, so we had an anxious Christmas time hoping all of the children would return to school safely.

 

I applied to work in a summer camp with Bunac, which is a somewhat random assignment to a camp. You don't get to chose, but a camp selects you. The gods were definitely shining, as a charity camp picked me, which had a purpose of working with underprivilaged girls from New York, to raise their self esteem, expectations and aspirations. Perfect! The second summer I was hired directly as a Literacy teacher, without Bunac's involvement (with a much better pay!).
Oddly, these two summers were the biggest personal challenge to me, and tested me the most. At a summer camp you get very little alone time, and for an only child like me it pushed a lot of my buttons! The teens were also very challenging at times, and really stretched and developed my teaching skills more than I could imagine. The second summer was particulary tough for me, but I was super proud that I stuck it out, and of the work I'd completed with the children.
I also went travelling around the states after one of these summers teaching, which is when I rather unluckily got caught in Hurricane Katrina.

 In Kenya I went out with the charity who I sponsored a child through - Out of Afrika. I met the child I sponsored, visited her school and home, but volunteered in a college run the charity. I actually worked with the staff, rather than the children, teaching them computer skills. I worked with the lecturers in the morning, and in the afternoon the groundsmen, who had never even touched a computer before and spoke no English. 

 Getting the groundsmen an email address each was a pretty cool experience. It took hours, as we only had one very very slow computer that would connect to the internet, but I knew that it was a great opportunity for them. They'd literally never touched a computer before! Using a mouse is a very tricky skill to master - which is something we rarely see in the UK now.

Being away from home, in very isolated parts of the world can feel lonely at times, and having to speak clearly at all times can be exhausting. You don't realise how fast native English speakers can talk to each other! I'm sure that these experiences, all of which I did on my own, have helped shape me, or perhaps I was able to have them due to the person I already was, but they were definitely character building on many levels!

 

Would I recommend volunteering abroad? I can't think of any reason why anyone shouldn't try it once, if they ever have the opportunity. Opening our minds, exploring new horizons and meeting people from lifestyles we could never even imagine has to be worth a try.