Volunteering abroad? How to make the most of your experience!

Nigel AbelloNigel Abello

Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned whilst volunteering to Papua New Guinea and Cambodia.

In my 20 years of living, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few chances to volunteer and travel overseas. Two of my most memorable experiences go back to when I was volunteering internationally in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and then in Cambodia. Funnily enough these weren’t organised adult programs that I found online but opportunities presented before me.

For some people, they see these opportunities as expanded forms of ‘voluntourism’. If you’re not familiar with the term, voluntourism means volunteer tourism. It’s an industry that is growing especially in young adults and sparks debate as to whether it does more harm than good. I tend to have conflicting opinions on this topic but my general consensus is that if you have good intentions to go overseas and help others that need help, then feel free. Just try not to boast about it and use it as leverage…

But that’s beside the point! Now is my opportunity to tell you about some of the greatest things I’ve learnt whilst volunteering in PNG and Cambodia and how you can make the most of your experience!

Papua New Guinea

To provide some context, in the gap between graduating high school and starting university I decided to go on a volunteering trip in Papua New Guinea at the start of 2014. It was a Lasallian program offered to me in year 12 and I decided to make the most of it. Essentially, four other volunteers and myself went to high schools around Port Moresby, PNG and taught leadership lessons to college leaders whilst engaging with the students. This brings me to my first point…


1. Be open minded to meeting long-life friends

I never thought that in the space of nine days I would have such a strong connection with the other volunteers. Given that I was the only volunteer from Melbourne and the rest were all from Sydney, that didn’t stop us from having a laugh, getting to know each other and really developing great friendships. Whilst doing so we were helping youth in another part of the world who have the some of the best sense of optimism, joy and laughter. On another note, I quickly learned that if you meet someone from PNG, more often than not they will have an amazing singing voice. Definitely something you should find out for yourself!


2. Anything you do can make an impact

Look at the 18 year-old me! But more importantly look how happy these kids are! After our day finished we would go down to the local park and play basketball and footy with a whole lot of locals. I never thought I would be embraced by a culture so openly and have the opportunity to make someone’s day around the world. I remember describing what Australia is like and seeing their faces light up. I mean if I can make a kid smile for one day, then I believe I’ve done something good. Try it next time.


This was my most recent trip that went from November 2015 through to January 2016. I was actually interning for a non-profit organisation, Metamorphic International, through conducting some monitoring and evaluation of water/sanitation programs throughout the country.

In just under 7 weeks I travelled to nearly all of the provinces around the country whilst meeting new people. Let me tell you, Cambodia is totally different to any other country you may have been to. The people there have so much hope for the future whilst still acknowledging the pain from their past.


3. Never forget how lucky we are

I got to see people living in some pretty terrible conditions – without clean water, without toilets and even without certainty that they will have food the next meal. I’ve grown up in Australia with all of these as certainties when I should be seeing them as luxuries. However, I did happen to meet people with optimism and hope that every day they’re life will get better in some way or another.

There’s a universal language we all speak but we rarely acknowledge – it’s a smile. It can transcend language barriers and can make a long-lasting impact. Earlier in the year I would just smile at times I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me. I guess I just see it as a sign of respect that means a lot more than a friendly gesture.


4. Spend your free time traveling

I had 7 weeks in Cambodia – I spent Christmas and New Year’s there so you would imagine I had free time to travel. If only I knew about Leezair when I was there because it would have made last-minute planning so much easier.

So if you’re about to volunteer overseas sometime soon, check out how you can pack like a boss.

If you learnt something in your own travels, tell us in the comments below. I’d love to have a read!

Nigel Abello
Thanks for reading guys!

Nigel Abello

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