Travel advisory

Examining how many students abroad are underprepared for the hardships of overseas
volunteering and how Laurier’s global studies department is working to change this
hazardous trend

For many, volunteering overseas provides the perfect mixture of travel, adventure and self-sacrifice.

But traveling as a volunteer abroad is full of unforeseen hurdles and obstacles.

Many university students have realized too late that they lacked the personal, emotional and practical training they needed to venture out into the field of humanitarian, development and
medical aid in developing countries around the world.

“They told us it was going to be hard,” Wilfrid Laurier University student Brier Pennanen says of her pre-departure training before her trip to rural South Africa. She volunteered to work on a
medical project with an international volunteer organization.

“We knew it was going to be hard, but being in the situation you’re in, when you’re sticking your hand in a bed sore … I don’t think you can understand something like this until you’re in the situation; they don’t teach you it in school.”

“People who choose projects that are touching and challenging, there needs to be some sort of counseling session … maybe workshops on coping.”

NGOs like Northeast Medical Teams International and specialists like Robert Young Pelton in his book The World’s Most Dangerous Places warn against the effects of traveling and volunteering

This is particularly true in especially intense and emotional environments, where volunteers can become susceptible to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and reactions (PTSR).

Volunteers need to be forewarned that PTSD can manifest itself in a variety of small ways, including avoiding connections to past events, distressing dreams or even disturbed sleep.

“PTSR can be treated easily and effectively, sometimes with only one counseling or debriefing session,” explains Pelton’s book.

And with the United Nations alone boasting volunteers numbering almost 8000, there are many individuals around the world who need to be made aware that preparation for volunteer
missions abroad is a necessary component for all levels of humanitarian work.

Unchartered waters

The emotional toll that volunteering abroad can take on university students is not the only concern for those considering this type of travel.

When traveling abroad “expect the unexpected” is Pennanen’s motto.

Pennanen, who just recently returned from two months abroad working on a medical project in rural South Africa with African Impact, claims that the biggest hurdle she encountered while
volunteering – along with the emotional toll the project took on her – was learning to work as a team with upwards of 20 other international students.

“You have to fly by the seat of your pants,” Pennanen explains. Although she claims that her experience abroad was generally a good one, she warns that adequate preparation is an imperative
component of volunteering overseas.

“I can imagine if someone had a negative experience that preparation ahead of time could have been helpful.”

Beau Frigault, a graduate student of the University of Guelph who traveled to Equador to build a school two years ago, agrees.

He believes that students need to prepare for the worst and that many are unaware that their volunteering abroad will involve such an unstructured life style.

“Go into the excursion with an open mind,” he suggests. “You will see things you never thought you would … you will be pushed out of your comfort zone and … your view of the world will change.”

No ‘I’ in team

Both Pennanen and Frigault believe that forming strong ties with teammates on projects will help smooth out any unpreparedness that a volunteer encounters.

“Having a social network around you to support you in those really hard times is important,” Pennanen explained. “I would have just sat and cried if I hadn’t had people agree things were upsetting and told me the next step; ‘here’s what we can do, here’s how we can change the situation.’”

Jen Holden, who recently returned from Peru, agrees. Holden believes that her trip’s success was the result of her fellow volunteers.

“There were a lot of us [but] everyone got along so well and felt that we gained so much from each other,” she explains.

Holden warns on choosing the right NGO or volunteer organization.

“There are honestly some that are much better than others,” Holden said. If a volunteer’s first experience is a bad one “it’ll deter people away from doing volunteer work.”

Alison Schofield, a returning Laurier student who volunteered delivering food during a famine in rural India in the summer of 2008, has returned to Morocco as a leadership intern, helping a Global Youth Network group complete their school project.

Schofield claims that creating a team atmosphere helped prepare her volunteers for the worst while they were abroad. She also warns of the emotional toll volunteering can take on most

“You meet a lot of people and you see a lot of different plights,” she explained.

“You do kind of feel a sense of guilt for being able to have won God’s Lottery to be born in North America.”

“Know why you’re going and be true to that,” Schofield warns, claiming that you only get out of a volunteer experience what you put into it.

Help from a rejuvenated Global Studies Experience

Not only is it important to create positive ties with teammates while volunteering abroad, it is also important to have support back home before one leaves on his or her adventure abroad.

It is an issue many Laurier students have struggled with.

Volunteering abroad as a Laurier student has been a contentious issue in the past few years, especially for those participating in the global studies department’s Global Studies Experience (GSE) program.

If approved, global studies students are able to receive a credit towards their undergraduate degree for a service of over four weeks in a placement overseas, or in some special incidences, at
home in Canada.

Once a mandatory requirement and a big draw for global studies students, the GSE program has experienced a sad fall from grace.

“I felt that I was just doing everything on my own, completely in the dark,” explained Pennanen.

“There has to be a social network within global studies [made up of] students that are doing the GSE,” she said.

“I think [the department] is working on that.”

The global studies department is making amends to a program that has failed to adequately prepare students for their placements abroad in past years.

“It was more my organization that prepared me,” said Schofield, who completed her GSE last fall.

“I don’t necessarily blame the global studies department,” Schofield continued.

“I know that they are working on [improving] it, which is a little bit comforting.”

Chair of the department Michel Desjardins says that the GSE is undergoing some major changes.

This coming year, students will have to enroll in a two part in-class requirement – one class is taken in the winter semester before one leaves on the volunteer trip, and the other half is taken
upon their return the following fall semester.

Desjardins hopes that this change will “create more clarity on the part of students” and allow them to enter their field work with “eyes wide open.”

The department is also creating the Global Students’ Education Abroad Fund, in which faculty members will be putting money towards monetary scholarships. Desjardins notes that the grants could amount to $500 for each student that is selected.

“[We are] hoping this fund is the beginning of something more substantial,” said Desjardins, who believes that volunteering abroad is a necessary component and “the beginning of more serious
reflection” for participants once they are back in the classroom.

However, those involved recognize that the changes to the GSE program will not happen overnight.

“[It’s] a two to three year project for us,” said Desjardins. He hopes that the change in structure of in-class theoretical teachings will create a better environment where students can achieve the
support system they need to learn from each others’ experiences, much like the social network Pennanen suggests.

As for the emotional toll that volunteering abroad puts on participants, Timothy Donais, who will be the instructor for next year’s GSE class, hopes that the preparation of a class beforehand, which will contain both practical and theoretical components, will better prepare Laurier students for their trips overseas.

“What we’re hoping to do is to give them the opportunity to get started on the thought process before they leave so they’re much better able to process some of these big questions while they’re there and also further reflect on them when they return,” explains Donais.

Whether they agree or disagree on what is most important for the preparation of volunteers abroad, there’s no doubt that the global studies department values the GSE program.

Those who have participated in experiences abroad agree that it is an important component not only for students of international affairs, but for anyone who is willing to give their all on a project

“Do it while you have the means to do it,” said Schofield.

“It makes some of the stuff they read come alive in the way that it doesn’t if you’ve never been out there, and allows you to be more critical,” agrees Donais.

“Every moment of this experience was to the fullest extent rewarding beyond words,” gushes Holden.

And most agree, despite their emotional and physical hardships and the stress of volunteering abroad, at the end of the day the experiences etched in their minds are positive ones.