Making volunteer work part of your study abroad experience is a great opportunity to learn more about the culture you are living in. It allows you to see the country through a different lens that you don’t get to see when traveling as a tourist. It gives you the opportunity to understand the struggles that the country faces and how you can help with them.
I have had the opportunity to participate in a couple of volunteer activities mostly geared towards environmental conservation and farming, since that is related to my field of study. They were enriching experiences that made me more in touch with Thailand. Some of them touched me so much and expanded my knowledge of many of the struggles that people face that we never hear about or learn in a classroom. It also has given me the chance to then share what I learned with others through things like social media.
One of the experiences that really opened my eyes was when I got the opportunity to volunteer in an elephant sanctuary where they rescue elephants that are abused and exploited in rides and shows for tourists. For many tourists that come to Thailand, riding an elephant is on their top to do list, or going to shows where these elephants perform. What they don’t think about is the abuse that these animals go through to learn these tricks and the pain they have to go through when people ride them. I cried so much when I was learning about this and I hope that people educate themselves and instead of riding elephants, choose to instead learn about the many other ways they can connect with beautiful creatures.
As an exchange student looking for volunteer opportunities, I found that the biggest challenges are the language barrier and the flexibility of the programs. The language barrier is something that is very difficult to work around, especially when you arrive in a country without knowing any of the language like I did. While there are many volunteer opportunities for foreigners, the majority revolve around teaching English to Thai people. Teaching English is a great way to give back to the community since this is a skill that is very useful for the people of Thailand, but if you are not a native English speaker (like me) it is difficult and requires a very strong commitment. This also brings me to my other piece of advice which is understanding the importance of flexibility. While studying abroad I believe that your utmost priority is to study, followed by learning from your travels and involvement in your community. What I found was that many volunteer programs in Thailand ask for a lot of time from their volunteers, something that is very difficult as a student since you can’t skip class. I understand the need for long-term volunteers because the organizations need responsible people who they can regularly count on to expand their mission. But as an exchange student this is not always possible.
To overcome this, I recommend talking to your host university about potential places you could volunteer as a student. This way you overcome the language barrier, since the host university has connections with different people and they can help you visit multiple organizations to learn more about different issues and needs in your host country. This method worked well for me, and I was blessed by the fact that the International Office of our university organizes entire trips for international students to volunteer and learn about the issues of the country, something that I hope many other universities implement and that I will suggest to my own university back home.
Another thing that I wish I thought about more before coming here is the opportunity to participate in an internship as a volunteer. Since paid internships are rare and tricky with student visas, volunteer internships are a great way to build up your professional resume while simultaneously volunteering in an area of your choice. I can imagine this is a great way to earn credit while abroad, and it also allows you to have a set time during the week to work on something you are passionate about.
Apart from volunteering I strongly recommend learning about the minorities in your host country because you will learn a great deal about situations you probably didn’t know existed. I had the opportunity to visit a community center and mosque for Thai Muslims, the biggest minority in Thailand, and learned so many things I was very ignorant about before. One thing that really impacted me was learning how Thailand is affected by the global refugee crisis, in addition to the European and Middle Eastern countries you hear about in the news. Many Burmese and Chinese Muslims leave their country and come to Thailand to escape persecution from their governments and that is something I was very ignorant about before and glad I could learn about.
It doesn’t matter what kind of volunteering you choose to get involved in. Every kind action matters and impacts at least one person. When you see the results of your efforts, it fills you with great pride and a deeper connection with your surroundings. After our final exams I will have some time before leaving Thailand, and I look forward to dedicating that time to visiting and volunteering at local farms for a couple of weeks. As I begin packing to return to Puerto Rico, I will also remember to donate everything I can’t take back home with me in my luggage.