How Volunteering Abroad Changed My Life

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“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Gandhi

I was about to board a plane, and I was terrified. Not because I was afraid of flying — because I was afraid of what awaited me at my destination.

“I could turn around now,” I said to myself. “Nobody would blame me. I could just go back to my job at the ice cream shop and have a nice quiet summer.”

The year was 2005. The plane’s destination? Tanzania.

I’d never traveled somewhere so different before, and I had no idea what to expect when I arrived. But I’ve never been one to turn away from adventure — even when it scares me — so when the rest of my group started shuffling on board, I did, too.

Little did I know that the next six weeks would change my life forever.

What Volunteering in Tanzania Was Like

I traveled to Tanzania as part of a university program the summer after my freshman year. We spent several weeks outside of Arusha, volunteering at both a community center and orphanage.

Though we did many other exciting things on our trip — like go on safari and hike part of Mt. Kilimanjaro — it was our time volunteering that stuck with me.

That’s because volunteering allowed me to truly connect with the Tanzanian people. If I hadn’t volunteered, I never would’ve gotten an inside look at their way of life. I would’ve been just another tourist, which — though there’s nothing wrong with that — would not have shaped me the way that volunteering did.

By volunteering, we were able to integrate ourselves into the lives of local families — sharing meals, playing with their kids, and visiting their homes.

These experiences were eye-opening, educational, and inspiring:

… Eye-opening to see how few physical possessions — yet how much love and personal strength — they had.

… Educational to experience their culture first-hand: I learned to cook ugali, milk a cow, and wear a kanga.

… Inspiring to witness their close-knit family ties and seemingly endless positivity.

Volunteering abroad taught me so much about the world — and about myself. I grew more in those few weeks than I did my entire first year of college.

How Volunteering Abroad Changed Me

In case you couldn’t tell, volunteering abroad was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Though it’s impossible to quantify the impact it had on me, I can share a few specific things it gave me:

Gratitude… for what I have

When I returned from my trip, I literally kissed a toilet at the JFK airport. I’m pretty sure I cried during my first hot shower. That’s because these are things I didn’t have during my time in Tanzania. More importantly, they’re things I used to take for granted.

To this day, I sometimes will say a silent “Thank you” as I turn on the faucet to get a drink of water. One of the best things volunteering abroad gave me? A deep gratitude for the comforts and opportunities we have.

Appreciation… for new cultures

The Tanzanian people are welcoming, strong, and overwhelmingly positive. Their language, clothing, and culture is beautiful.

Growing up in rural New York State, I’d never before experienced people so different from me. As I expressed above, it scared me at first. But during my time in Tanzania, I learned to appreciate our differences — and our similarities. Volunteering abroad taught me the beauty of diversity.

Hunger… for exploration

Though I was happy to return home after those six weeks, I was confident it wouldn’t be my last adventure. I knew I wanted to continue exploring this vast world, meeting people from different backgrounds, trying new foods, and discovering unique landscapes.

Not only did volunteering abroad open my eyes to the magnitude and beauty of the world around us, it made me an absolute travel addict.

Commitment… to helping people

I’ll be honest: volunteering feels good. Giving back to others and seeing the smiles on their faces is a feeling unmatched by anything else.

After experiencing this in Tanzania, I decided to help people wherever and whenever I could — for them and for myself. Whether it’s letting someone cut in front of me in the grocery line, or volunteering in my hometown or another country, my experience taught me that making the world a better place is a simple step you can take each and every day.

What If…?

It’s now been 10 years since I traveled to Tanzania, and these principles still guide me.

I graduated college in 2008, and ever since, I have been working and traveling my way around the world. I’ve volunteered everywhere from South Korea to France to Nicaragua to North Carolina. I practice gratitude daily and am always striving to meet new people and learn about different ways of life.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t gotten on that plane to East Africa.

Would I have ever tasted coconut milk straight from a coconut?

Would I have ever danced with the Masai? Or bathed an elephant in Thailand?

Would I be the person I am today?

I’ll never know the answers to these questions.

What I do know? I’ll forever be grateful I got on that plane. Because volunteering abroad led me to the life I have today — which I wouldn’t change for anything.

Would you like to volunteer abroad? Where would you like to go?

Photo by Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire