Travelling & Volunteering As Savvy Career Moves? You Better Believe It

A year and a half ago I faced up to the realisation that I wasn’t happy with my life. I was five years into a successful teaching career, yet I knew I couldn’t continue. Each time I stood in front of my students I was overcome with envy: envious of their opportunities as yet wide open and endless; a vast ocean of choices, decisions and life to be experienced.

One night, out for cocktails with a friend, the conversation glided towards mutual friends who had left the UK to teach, volunteer abroad or travel. It was then that I had my epiphany.

I didn’t want to be the one idly flicking through others’ photos of grinning, assured adventurers posing before breath-taking backdrops; they would be my pictures instead. I needed to leave my job and I needed to travel. Although giving everything up for life on the other side of the world was a risk, it was one I had seen others take and never look back from.

Fast-forward to September 2015, and I know that this was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Leaving your comfort zone

When I left the UK, I was driven by a desire to travel meaningfully and with a sense of purpose; to go further beneath the skin of South America than just your regular tourist. So when I discovered a seven-month volunteering position with the education NGO BiblioWorks, based in Sucre, I applied without hesitation, recognising that not only would my teaching experience be of benefit, but a prolonged stint learning the traditions, language and culture of the country would give me an invaluable insight into Bolivia.

Since then, I’ve encountered other organisations whose attitudes towards community development resonate with my own, and so have spent time volunteering with Up Close Bolivia near La Paz, and will soon be moving to Cusco, Peru to work for five months with the charity LAFF.

What I’ve discovered is that travelling is not just about climbing Machu Picchu, snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef or standing in awe before the Taj Mahal. No, it’s about submitting yourself to the unknown, and discovering talents and capabilities you never knew you had.

It’s about learning that when you finally return to ‘normal’ life and face a boardroom of directors for a presentation, or have to speak in front of a room full of hundreds of people, it won’t even begin to faze you, as you once successfully delivered that English lesson to 30 rowdy teenagers in a tiny village in Bolivia. Or being faced with a major issue at work is nothing compared to arriving in that strange, foreign city, where no one speaks English but where you successfully navigated the public transport, alone.

Improve your CV

Employers have moved on from viewing travelling as simply an extended holiday, to recognising it as a valuable opportunity for employees to change their perspectives on the world; your experiences and interactions with people from across the globe can alter your viewpoint on all aspects of life.

In a recent article, discussing what they believed their employees should have done before turning 30, an overwhelming number of the CEOs interviewed mentioned travel and its personal, but also professional, benefits. Facing unexpected situations, being truly independent and coping in a foreign context are all skills that guarantee success in any workplace or career.  

Combining this with volunteering can also give you a wealth of abilities and experiences to add to your CV, setting you apart from others who may have followed the traditional school-university-work route. For me, appearing on live Bolivian television and radio while being interviewed in Spanish is just one of many perfect examples that could be used in a future job interview. This illustrates how brilliant my time spent volunteering has made me at thinking on my feet and embracing moments outside of my comfort zone.

Every moment that I have spent volunteering has helped me to decide the career path that I will pursue when I return home, and realise how easily I can promote what I have learned to future employers. One of the most useful skills has come from working alongside local Bolivian people: you soon develop the ability to speak and work with anyone regardless of their background, but more importantly, to overcome any cultural or linguistic barriers that you might face.

From gesturing and miming wildly, to drawing silly pictures, I have used every tool in my power to communicate, and my clear desire to achieve this – and to not be bothered that I look like an idiot in the meantime – has put people at ease; a skill so essential yet one that people in professional contexts often fail to master.

Problem-solving the best ways to persuade more children to visit a village library, and how to get their teachers excited by the prospect of reading has also shown me what can be achieved with few resources, enthusiasm and positivity.

Be creative and crazy

Ultimately, this is the crux of volunteering: regardless of the context and the country you’re in, you will always come up with creative, sometimes crazy, ways to achieve the goals of the organisation, realising your own capacity to adapt to whatever the situation requires. Your capacity for working unsupervised, for spearheading ideas and projects and carrying them forward with passion and self-drive are required each and every day, and these experiences of achieving change – however small and seemingly insignificant – against adverse conditions, are skills that will set you up for life. Not only that, they will allow you to stand out from others when it comes to that job interview.

Volunteering can also have its pitfalls, so before you commit to any organisation, carefully examining their goals and how they go about achieving them can ensure that your work will be meaningful and have the greatest impact.

The Facebook page Better Volunteering regularly posts about ways that volunteers can check that organisations are serving, and not exploiting, the communities they work with and is worth reading their advice before applying for a placement.

Similarly, thinking carefully about your own skill-set beforehand is also essential: by selecting those that will help you build upon previous skills rather than starting right at the beginning will mean that both you, and the people you work with, will get the most out of the experience.

Make a proper committment 

Most importantly, committing to at least a month’s placement – particularly for those involving children – will increase your impact, giving you more chance to learn about the needs of the organisation and how your work can help. By doing this, you will have a greater chance to meet and build friendships with local people and other volunteers; connections that can mean a lot to you personally, but may also open up professional pathways in the future.

For many people in their 20s, whether those graduating from university or who have already been working for a few years, cutting ties and throwing yourself into the unknown can seem terrifying and counterintuitive to finding your perfect career, but it doesn’t have to be. We often forget that the skills learned in school, university and the workplace are not the only ones that help us to grow as people: travel and volunteering also give you the chance to become who you want to be, to discover your passions and abilities, and the confidence to realise that you can achieve your goals.

So if you find yourself surveying your life, wondering is this it? and thinking wistfully about travel as your next career move, don’t just brush it away as a whim. Sometimes the most exciting and life-altering decisions seem the riskiest, but you never know what brilliant experiences are awaiting you until you take them!

Steph Dyson quit teaching in the North West of England after five years, only to discover that no other job gives as generous holiday allowances and that if she ever wanted a decent holiday again, she's have to take up travel full-time. So she did. She now blogs about solo travel, volunteering and education at Worldly Adventurer. Follow her on twitter @worldlyadventur.