12 Dec

What I Learned While Volunteering Abroad

When I graduated school, like many of my generation, I had no idea where I wanted to go. No aspirations on what I wanted to be. A friend suggested that volunteering abroad teaching English as a foreign language could help me get away from my problems and get a fresh perspective on things. I had my doubts. How could someone as confused as I teach anyone?

But my friend insisted. It wouldn’t be as if I were teaching mathematics or seventeenth century philosophy, the program required me to speak what I arguably knew best, the English language. Would I have to know other languages? All I knew were some French colloquialisms. Again, he insisted it wasn’t necessary. In fact, the schools I would work for would demand that I speak nothing but English in the classrooms. I was enthralled and weeks later I sent in my applications to several organisations. Here was the chance to leave my current clueless situation behind and travel the world. Little did I know that I would be embarking on an educational experience rivaling the best of Australian schools. My first volunteering experiences would send me to Thailand, Serbia, and Greece. Each country, its citizens, my pupils, would teach me and change forever my notions of culture and what it means to live in this globalized world of ours.

After a brief training and introduction seminar, my program sent me to my first host country, Thailand. I found this program through EDventure International, who also have programs in Cambodia, Costa Rica and Australia, you can found out more by visiting their website.

English Teaching in Thailand

I was, understandably, quite nervous entering my first foreign classroom. I was afraid my students would be very serious and see straight through my thinly veiled ignorance. But they were a jovial lot. I found myself eagerly making up games for the class, searching for fun ways to introduce the lessons. I was often done with classes by 15:00 (3:00 pm), giving me plenty of time to meet up with new-found English and non-English speaking friends. The gardens and historical sites around Thailand are uniquely beautiful, perfect for the wandering historian. With having so much time off in the afternoon and weekends I often found myself heading to the country’s pristine beaches. For those interested in teaching English primarily for the travel aspect, Thailand is especially enticing for its low-cost airfare to surrounding countries (often less than $100) to nearby Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Teaching English in SerbiaAfter my stay in this East Asian wonderland, I decided to apply for several other programs and continue to travel – my next job sent me to Serbia. The best program for volunteering in Europe I found was European Voluntary Service – they offer a database with hundreds of organisations all over Europe, and their projects deal with a variety of areas – art, culture, environment, disability, minorities, gender equality, media and education are just some of the themes. Needless to say, I chose education.

Experiencing Serbia was unlike anything I have ever known. My home country, Australia, has never had bombings, or undergone brutal government takeovers. The experience of a major city like Brisbane being bombed is a reality completely foreign to me. To those in Serbia, however, this is a reality that existed just yesterday. Serbia was bombed in 1999, and because of this my decision to teach there might sound rash, but the Serbia I experienced was a modern, peaceful European country – in March of this year it became a full candidate for European Union membership. Education has since become a high priority for Serbian youth, with knowledge of the English language becoming near compulsory.

Since I volunteered in an education centre dedicated both to teaching foreign languages and media literacy, I also had the opportunity to visit some of the neighbouring countries and work on international projects both in Belgrade and in other places, which was a thrilling experience. Belgrade is a proud, old city with a wealth of historical buildings and museums, and my favourite activity there was visiting the Kalemegdan fortress (which is luckily very close to the city centre), with its wonderful view of the confluence of the Sava river into the Danube.

Teaching English in Athens GreeceMy final destination was Greece. While volunteering in Serbia, I met many people working in different non-profit organisations, one of which was in Athens, Greece. I was offered a job teaching English language in Athens for four months, and since I really fell in love with Eastern Europe I accepted.

With the pure beauty of the Greek isles, the magnificence of history in your backdoor, and the relaxed nature of the Greek population, the area is often accused of being oversaturated with wannabe English teacher applicants. My students were very polite and hard-working and just as in Thailand and Serbia, I found the experience highly rewarding. In my off days I would often tour the bigger cities like Athens, or take weekend trips to the islands with ex-patriots and other English-speaking teachers. Many people from Serbia and the rest of Europe spend their summer holidays in Greece, and having spent a lot of time on their wonderful beaches I fully understand this – do not miss out on visiting the seaside if you get the opportunity to go there. Even though Greece is currently going through severe political and economic changes, it is a beautiful country with friendly, hospitable people.

Leaving your home country is an extremely hard thing to do, but it also might the best thing you will ever do. Be prepared to be very lonely, but connecting with other travels is almost easier than making friends in your hometown. Teaching English to students gave me a confidence I never knew I had, giving me skills I didn’t know I lacked. I experienced new cultures, foreign languages, and hidden histories. In both teaching students and meeting new friends, I taught myself and lost myself in some of the most beautiful, exotic, and mesmerizing places in the world.

About The Author: 
This post was written by Dunya Carter who found her passion for travel through volunteering and teaching English language abroad. She is currently working as a consultant for EDventure International.