EIL Explore is an opportunity to learn outside of the familiar, to step beyond convenience and your usual environment. It offers the chance to widen your perspective, your experience and your way of living by pushing through difficulties and discomforts you may experience while you’re abroad. Regardless of the award, and based on our experience over the past 20 years, we know that ALL participants will face various challenges that will impact on them to a greater degree than they expect.
The traditions, customs, daily life, norms and values of a community are integral to its culture. Adjusting to a new way of life different to your own can be a shock to your system, despite preparation. In Japan, a daily 6am start to a long day is the norm. In Guatemala, volunteers tend to stay indoors after 6pm. In Mexico, ‘wolf-whistling’ and unsolicited male attention happens frequently. You will be confronted and challenged with a wide variety of situations throughout your experience, and flexibility, patience and resilience will be required. The demands of the daily routine, the cultural taboos or social boundaries should not be underestimated. Cultures vary. People adjust differently. Begin with an open mind.
Chatting and sharing stories is a great way to get to know your new community, however your language skills might not be as strong as you would like. In many of the EIL Explore destinations, English is not spoken widely. This can be isolating and can delay you settling into your host family or community. Prior language skills are not required for your application, however your willingness to take part in a language course while abroad (or taking the initiative to begin learning a language prior to departure) will only help in your immersion.
Remember - language is one part of communication. Your approach to people, your eagerness to be involved in daily tasks and your willingness to try new things are all ways to communicate with your host community that do not require words.
Moving through the World
Many EIL Explore participants do not have a lot of previous international travel experience. EIL Explore is aimed at those who would otherwise not have the opportunity to travel abroad on such adventures. Many supports are in place to allow participants overcome the practical challenges of international travel and living abroad. However, it is very important that you expect a degree of inconvenience, discomfort and stress while transiting airports and commuting to your project by yourself as well as sharing a new home. Lost luggage, less-than-helpful staff and delays, if irritating, are all manageable and are best considered as part of the experience.
We all have our methods of de-stressing and managing our lives at home. However, when you are away from home and you’re un-able to access resources that you would ordinarily have, how will you manage your stress? Are you a light sleeper? Picky eater? Need your coffee to start your day? What if the shower doesn't work? When you are not getting enough sleep, getting used to a new diet or adjusting to a new routine, it can be very hard to feel confident in your surroundings and react as positively to people and situations as you would have at home. It is important to be conscious of this; giving yourself a little more room to adjust and to be extra patient and understanding.
Some EIL Explore awards involve working directly on themed project while abroad. Whether this is a sector you are familiar with or not, the challenges that the workload, physical environment and even the weather can have on a participant can be testing. These practical realities of volunteering abroad can clash with your expectations of the experience. Closely linked to cultural challenges, the project on a local level might not work to fit your 8 week schedule. In Latin America, dates and time can be more fluid than you are used to, where deadlines and plans can extend to ‘Mañana’ (tomorrow) without much concern.
You can expect to be dealing with real issues and problems at ground level. You should not, however, expect that your work would have a world-changing result in just a few weeks. Many partner projects work with groups that face discrimination and abuse of human rights in their everyday lives. If you are working with people who are HIV positive, sex workers, refugees, etc., your overall aim while on placement should be to elicit a sense of self-worth and a feeling of inclusion in those you are helping.
You will have to deal not only with issues but also with individual cases, where realities are sometimes heartbreaking. You should not see this as a breeding ground for pity or even sadness. Instead, use the lessons that each story teaches you to be proactive in your role.
EIL Explore’s ‘Travel. Learn. Change.’ can be invigorating, life-changing and rewarding, however it is never easy. Don’t mistake the opportunity with tourism. “I know of no better or quicker way to step into my greatness than to step out of what's familiar.” ― Vironika Tugaleva