I like to joke that when it comes to international volunteering, I am a ‘repeat offender’. Of course, my hope is that I offended as few people as possible and preferably no one. I have been an international volunteer in some capacity for various lengths of times on five programs in Zimbabwe (with UNA-Canada), Malawi (twice with WUSC), Tanzania and Vietnam (with Uniterra). My goal was always the opposite of offensive behaviour. International volunteering taught me cross-cultural understanding, fostered life-long friendships and shaped my understanding of the possibilities for – and pathways to – solidarity.
So much of what I do (for my professional work and my ongoing community volunteering) and who I am now (how I see the world, what I value, and how I understand differences and commonalities) is shaped by those experiences in my 20s, and again in my 40s.
It turns out I’m not alone. Canadians who participated in international volunteering programs also spoke of their time abroad as transformational. In a survey completed by 450 returned volunteers, we learned a lot about the nature of that transformational experience and some of those finding are summarized here.
The study of returned volunteer experiences was funded by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). A survey was administered in 2018 with a goal of learning more about the long-term impacts of international volunteering on prosocial behaviours (including ongoing volunteering and giving in Canada and abroad). With the help of a research team, and with input from volunteer cooperation program organizations, the survey was administered in French and English, analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively, and summarized in this report on The Effects of International Volunteering on Community-based Engagement in Canada.
In total, 77% of returned volunteers considered their time as an international volunteer a “transformational experience”. For those who considered their experiences transformational, they were also more likely to prioritize global assistance and to prioritize prosocial study or career choices focused on helping others.
When asked: “In what ways was your life changed by your international volunteer experience?” several respondents expressed an enhanced awareness and understanding of social and economic development issues. Other impacts identified by the survey respondents included the development of enhanced cross-cultural communication skills; increased empathy and openness as a result of volunteering internationally; and having more friends, acquaintances and contacts who live in other countries. Some noted they had gained skills in social justice and ethics. As one returned volunteer expressed, the international volunteering experience put them “much more in tune [with] and aware of the plight of people around the world.” The returned volunteers used the language of compassion and empathy to explain how she felt about her prosocial contributions. The impact of this empathy and reflection is a sense of duty or responsibility to act on this knowledge and “to build awareness amongst people here about the realities that people face overseas.”
The impacts of international volunteering experiences can also be measured in the positive contributions returned volunteers make in their home communities in Canada. Examples of local commitments included contributions to Canadian community associations; volunteer work with political parties or elections advocacy efforts; civic engagement with socio-economic issues at home, particularly with immigrant and Indigenous communities in Canada; and support to First Nations organizations or projects. As one participant elaborated: “[From] my first experience, I would say that my volunteering in Canada became more politically and social justice focused”. Concern with – and prioritization of – global issues can therefore be embedded in locally-based prosocial activities and volunteer work. Several participants noted how the international volunteer experience inspired their interests in working with newcomer communities in Canada. These RVs considered the experience one that taught relational skills, and as one person said: “I could really relate to their [newcomers’] experience being in a new country that they didn’t know, that they couldn’t speak the language. I am now a social worker working with refugees.” In reflecting on other work done to support immigrant communities in Canada, another participant wrote that the international volunteer placement renewed their “desire to work with immigrants” specifically in the areas of literacy and economic opportunities.
Several participants identified additional commitments to both global and local prosocial efforts including activities such as “serving on a board for a struggling non-profit in Canada [while also providing]… volunteer support to another organization in the Caribbean.”
Other survey participants highlighted the way the volunteer abroad experience resulted in major changes in their study direction or career focus. The career changes focused extensively on helping professions. Beyond specifically mentioning international development career paths, numerous survey participants reinforced the value of the international volunteering experience in terms of careers that enable them to engage generally in prosocial work – or work that allows them to help others.
In terms of transformational experiences, a quote from one international volunteer sums up the survey data findings, and my own experience, very well when she says the international volunteering experience is now “woven into the fabric of my life”.
* The arguments presented here are summarized from a journal article (under review as of November 18, 2019) authored by Rebecca Tiessen, Katelyn Cassin and Benjamin Lough. The research was made possible by the outstanding contributions of several research assistants, in particular: Pascale Saint-Denis, Katelyn Cassin, and Calla Barnett and with the generous support of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).
* The findings from this study will be presented at the Association for Research on Non-Profit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) conference in San Diego from November 21-24, 2019. For a copy of this conference paper, email: email@example.com.