BY: ELSA THOMASMA
Life as I knew it changed forever when I stepped foot in the Philippines for the very first time. My eyes were opened, my senses invigorated, and my mind introduced to a country, people, and culture that I never could have dreamed of existing. What was meant to be a short-term volunteer program, turned into somewhat of an obsession, with my mind constantly planning my trip back to my second home across the world – and what has now become my full-time, real life abroad.
Call me an MTV “True Life” poster girl for “I turned my international volunteer program into a full-time job abroad” if you’d like, but I just consider myself extremely blessed and fortunate to have had such wonderful opportunities offered to me in just seven short years. However, I’m also here to tell you: you can make it happen too.
My first trip was the most simple way I could think of to get out of a summer job after my freshman year of college (we’ve all been there right?), but when I returned home “simple” wasn’t a word anywhere close to how I would describe my experience, and there wasn’t a single drop of “cutting-corners” attitude left in me.
Volunteering abroad at any point in your life won’t be a one-time event that leaves you unmarked for all of eternity. It is impossible to walk away from a volunteer experience without being changed – in some way – forever. You’ve heard it before from friends, you’ve read it in articles, you’ve heard the marketing taglines of all those volunteer organizations out there, but it is seriously the truth. I promise, volunteering abroad will be life-changing.
By taking that first trip to the Philippines, I built connections with people from all over the world that shared my passion for helping others, something that I felt had always made me that “weird kid” at school trying to reach out to the social outcasts in my classes so I could help them feel included. I met people from Canada, Australia, England, Hong Kong, and of course, the Philippines; incredible people who have entirely different life experiences, languages, cultures, and goals. Learning more about their hopes and dreams for the future, showed me that the future is truly limitless, and that there are way more opportunities in the world than there were in my small hometown of 12,000 people.
While volunteering in the Philippines, I was also introduced intimately to poverty, hunger, social development projects, and the realities faced by nonprofit organizations around the world. My I-can’t-help-but-help-people mentality most definitely directed me to ask the right questions so I could make that “real difference” that so many volunteers aspire to make during their time abroad. I learned about the real struggles of the organization, the communities, and the country.
I found out that my way was not always the right way; in fact, at just 19, my way was surely the wrong way more times than not. My Western-centric mindset was challenged, overthrown, and flat out assaulted by my experiences with the real world, giving me a more honest, compassionate outlook on all human beings in the world at large. These realizations allowed me to see my place in the world, as well as all the possibilities the world was presenting to me.
How could I return home from this type of experience the same ol’ gal I was upon departure? I couldn’t, and you won’t be able to either. Like I said, it is impossible.
By maintaining connections with the local organization I worked with, I continued sharing their project needs, fundraising campaigns, and struggles with more and more people, infiltrating my network with the new lessons I had learned. I was changing (my part of) the world after returning home from my volunteer program abroad, not only letting my experiences change me.
After being blessed with another opportunity to volunteer for a full semester, as a full-time student I might add, I found a project that was calling my name so loudly that I found it hard to imagine myself not seeing it through. As soon as I threw my graduation hat in the air, I knew life was going to take me back to the Philippines. And I was right, it did, in less than a year.
Before I began working on my “dream project”, I reached out to my connections with the local organization to see if I could shift from volunteer to intern, to get those professional points on my résumé. Again, my naive mind had no idea what this would end up actually doing to my life; the domino effect at its best. One thing led to another, and the founder of the organization was reaching out to me, and eventually offering me a job with his IT company, which was based (guess where!?) in the Philippines.
How could a small town girl from Southern Michigan who graduated with a degree in Psychology and Sociology get an editing job with an IT company on the other side of the world?
By volunteering abroad my friends; it is the truth. Choosing to volunteer abroad altered my goals, my career, and my future.
Seven years ago, I was just a 19 year old searching for something to fill the time during summer.
Five years ago, I returned to the Philippines to fulfill an insatiable hunger and curiosity.
Three years ago, I moved to the Philippines permanently to work for GoAbroad.com.
I can no longer imagine my future without a connection to my new home; there is no longer a separation between “my life” and “the Philippines”.
I turned my short-term volunteer trip into a full-fledged life abroad, but it is not because I have some special powers (though my name is Elsa). It is because I let my dreams guide me, and I didn’t let anything stand in my way of pursuing them. Take the first step to changing your life, and no it won’t require any fad diets or self-help books. All you have do is find a volunteer program and dedicate yourself to it for any length of time, and then just sit back and let life’s incredible nature drive you.