While preparing for an international volunteer placement tends to include an extensive packing list, visa applications and the purchase of gum for the long plane ride, it can be easy to forget to prepare for one of the most challenging elements of travel: culture shock.
Preparing yourself before you arrive at your placement will help in the process of learning and adapting to a new and different environment. It can also help with coping when elements of culture shock and homesickness do inevitably arise.
So here are a few pre-departure tips:
Do your research
Spend time learning about your placement country, its culture and customs. In doing so, less will come as a surprise once you are there, and it can be fun to have interesting facts to reflect on and share when things you previously learned about arise.
Expand your network
Whether it is a returned volunteer or someone born in your placement country, find someone to speak with about what to expect, about exciting things to see and do, and about what makes the country unique and a great place to be.
Start making friends early
Connect with fellow volunteers! Whether it is online or in person, speaking with others in a similar position is a great way to remember that you are not alone in how you are feeling about volunteering in a new country. As well, you will already have a familiar support network once you arrive.
Why not find a restaurant that serves the types of food you will be eating as a volunteer? What a fun way to become familiar with some dishes and flavours while at the same time spending quality time with your family and friends.
Pack some bits of comfort
Feeling homesick is an extremely common experience when adjusting to living in a new country. While it is best to not dwell on feelings of how everything is different and new, it can be helpful to bring along a few little things from home that make you happy. Consider packing a special treat, photos of your family and friends to remind yourself that they will be there when you return, a favourite book or even craft supplies to let your mind wonder. (As an alumni myself, one of my favourite little treats I brought to Ghana was cinnamon flavoured toothpaste! It brought an extra smile to my face each time I used it.)
Furthermore, pack a journal and calendar. Writing is a great way to process your thoughts and feelings while taking some quiet time to yourself, and maintaining a regular schedule (which includes exercise!) helps you to feel productive and plans things to look forward to.
Most importantly - Remember that you aren’t alone in how you feel!
Experiencing culture shock is normal and part of the process of traveling to somewhere new. So take comfort in the discomfort – it’s part of learning. Traveling somewhere new challenges what you know and, as a result, expands your perspective. Even the most seasoned travelers experience culture shock; it’s not a bad thing at all!