4 career lessons I learned while volunteering abroad

In honor of National Volunteer Week, we’re talking about how volunteering can both help your community and help your career.

Photo credit: Denis Vrublevski, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Denis Vrublevski, Shutterstock

I’ve spent the past five months volunteering in Cambodia through the Harpswell Foundation and traveling independently in the region. I arrived home just a few weeks ago and I don’t have a full-time job lined up. However, that’s not to say that I haven’t gained anything for my career. Exactly the opposite: The most valuable asset I’m bringing to my renewed career search is a better sense of self than I had before I left. Here’s what I gained for my career after volunteering abroad:

 I (re)defined my needs 

“Needs” are multifaceted. While traveling with minimal items, my material needs were on constant radar. (Do I have my bathing suit in case I find an awesome place to swim? Am I pretty sure this street food won’t make me sick? Are my knees and shoulders covered in case I need to step inside a pagoda? Etc.) At home, my material needs are much simpler, since I have a good sense of both what I need and where to get it. Now that I’ve returned home after living with a backpack (or technically, a rolling carry-on), I’ve learned how little I actually need in terms of material items. This clarified sense of material needs takes some pressure off my job search, because I’ve returned much happier to live on less.

Beyond material needs are my emotional needs. Am I connected with family and friends? Am I doing something meaningful? Am I living with intention? These are questions that arose often while being abroad, and were actually the easier ones to answer than when I’ve been home. While traveling, more often than not, the resounding answer was yes! But at home, meeting these needs requires more deliberation and conscious check-ins. It’s all too easy to adopt old habits and fall prey to old stress-inducers (including an old job description).

But as I remember the values I gained while being abroad, including living on less, embracing new connections, and expressing enthusiasm and gratitude at every opportunity, I’m allowing those lessons to transform how I live at home, as well as what I’m looking for in my next career step.

I learned more about my strengths, weaknesses, and interests

Because I constantly exposed myself to new experiences – exploring ancient temples, teaching nutrition, learning Khmer, beekeeping on an organic farm ­– I’ve honed my strengths and  explored my weaknesses like never before. Teaching classes helped me build my impromptu speaking skills and practice some group activity techniques I had learned in a previous youth development experience. I also encountered a wealth of complex topics due to the traumatic history of my host country, Cambodia, including women’s safety, poverty, and genocide. Dealing with these issues with my students put me in touch with a deeper place of compassion than I had accessed before, and I’ve recognized my strong capacity and desire to engage these sensitive subjects.

On the flip side, while volunteering through WWOOF in New Zealand, my fantasies about being a farmer in an idyllic rural countryside were dashed as I quickly learned farming is not the key to fulfilling work for me. That lesson was just as valuable as discovering my strengths while teaching in Cambodia.

While diving into so many different environments, my interests also expanded. In addition to caring deeply about youth and women’s empowerment, I have new passions for promoting eco-tourism and animal rights, as well as ending human trafficking. All of these fields are ones I encountered while traveling that I hadn’t had the time to explore before.

I’m rediscovering home

It helps that my home city of Atlanta is ever-changing, but no matter where you’re from, returning from a volunteer experience abroad will allow you to see home through new eyes.

There were some activities I wanted to do in Atlanta that I didn’t prioritize before, either due to time or distance. Now that I’ve come back from the other side of the world, any inhibition about getting involved in my home city is gone. (After all, what’s a 45-minute drive to volunteer to do something I love after months of multi-hour bus rides?) I’ve already discovered new ways to continue good habits I developed while traveling (hiking, journaling, and photography), and with Idealist’s local pages, it’s easier than ever to find ways to get involved at home.

I’m (still) embracing transition

I wrote a post about embracing transition while I was job searching in Cambodia, and those tips are holding true for me now that I’ve returned. After completing my three-month volunteer term and traveling independently for two months, I’ve gained a sense of necessary flexibility that helps with adjusting to coming back home. In both experiences, plans changed (often!) due to language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, and lack of signage (literally). I learned to roll with the punches, and go on [insert that awesome adventure here] no matter the weather.

But there’s something different about embracing transition while I’m abroad and when I’m back home. With once-stifled and new passions bubbling up, I’m in a perfect place to launch into something else new – in the form of my next career step.  I’m considering meeting with a career counselor to turn my renewed sense of self into actionable next steps. As traveling has reinforced for me, good things always come along, and when one opportunity doesn’t work out, an even better one arises.

Overall, while I initially considered volunteering abroad to be a career break, I’ve returned realizing that this trip wasn’t time off, but another way to explore my interests, address my weaknesses, and build my strengths—all parts of embracing a fulfilling life. Volunteering abroad has not directly led me to a new career, nor has it resulted in crystal clear answers about what I’m seeking in my work. But the more I reflect on the experience, the more I realize that the impact will be everlasting. I’m excited to see what comes next!

Did volunteering abroad change your perspective on your career? Share your insights below.



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Shannon is an interactive media specialist who believes education and accessible technology will change the world. She recently returned from volunteering in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the Harpswell Foundation, a leadership center for Cambodian women in college. Connect with Shannon on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterst, and thegreenchest.com
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    • Meritxell
    • April 11, 2014

    What a great post Shannon! thank you for sharing your experiences with us. This was indeed really helpful and inspiring.
    After getting to a point of frustration in my career – also in my life- I decided to take action. I’ve been discovering new interests via traveling and meeting some inspiring people lately and I’m trying to explore career possibilities that are more fulfilling and mindful. I’m currently looking for a volunteer opportunity abroad for this summer related to youth and women empowerment and sustainable tourism development.

    Kind regards,


    • Shannon
    • April 14, 2014

    Hi Meritxell,

    Thanks for your feedback on this post! It’s difficult to encapsulate what career benefits can come from something as seemingly non-career-like as travel, but it’s amazing the perspective we gain, huh? I’m happy to hear you’ve been able to take some time to travel and are considering volunteering abroad. I recommend volunteering with The Harpswell Foundation for a great dose of women’s empowerment. There are a ton of other opportunities on Idealist and other pages too – let us know what you find!

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