A different kind of culture shock

Though some may bristle to hear it, most international volunteers—myself included—have struggled with some element of culture shock.

“What am I going to do?” we may ask ourselves when thinking about our volunteer assignment. And when self-doubt creeps in, it can lead to frustration, fear, or even a sense that we’ve been given an impossible task. These are all symptoms of culture shock—the personal disorientation that some travelers feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life. And unfortunately, these doubts keep some potentially great volunteers from ever volunteering abroad the first place.

Many international volunteers are used to a results-oriented culture: test scores, earnings reports, salaries, and awards define our success. When we volunteer abroad, it can be difficult to let go of the idea that success means immediate and tangible results. As volunteers, we want to see and feel our impact right away.

The problem with this is that sustainable change takes time. When the Peace Corps was established, its founders understood that the real impact of their volunteers would be felt over generations rather than weeks, months, or even years. As a result, the Peace Corps mission—much like the CCS mission— is process-driven, and not defined by immediate results.

So let’s revisit the, “What am I going to do?” concern and re-frame the question. Start by asking yourself “To be effective, what won’t I do?”

There are a few obvious answers: pushing my own agenda over that of my hosts; engaging in practices that can be deemed unsustainable, harmful, or disrespectful; and setting unrealistic expectations for what I can or cannot do during my time. Though it may sound basic, following these guidelines can pave the way for long-term impact. By entering a new culture with an open mind and a focus on community need, you can become a systemic part of a local solution.

Hundreds of CCS partner organizations around the world have reported the positive impact of CCS volunteers, citing things like increased school attendance, increased community awareness and involvement in development initiatives, a decrease in negative stigmas towards vulnerable populations such as those with disabilities or those living with HIV/AIDS, and a noticeable increase in the morale and productivity of the staff working at these local agencies.

If we all recalibrate our expectations and embrace the challenge of volunteering internationally, we can support some incredible local organizations working to achieve real and sustainable change for the communities in which they operate. And with that mindset, what can’t we do?

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