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What you do when you return home from volunteering abroad is even more important than the work you will do overseas. Your international volunteer efforts don't need to be confined to the 2 weeks or even 2 years that you served abroad. Back home, you will be able to mobilize resources and influence people and policies more easily than while you were abroad.

When you return from your volunteer experience abroad, however, be prepared for 'reverse culture shock'. You may find that while you've had a life-changing experience, your friends, family and co-workers won't be able to appreciate the impact it has had on you. Their values and outlook on life will be just the same as when you left, whereas your own beliefs and priorities may have been completely rearranged.

Some international volunteer programs will organize re-entry meetings or alumni gatherings to support you in your re-integration process. Take advantage of these opportunities or seek out other individuals who have had similar experiences abroad. Finding people with whom you can share your experiences is very important. By sharing your stories, you are not only deepening your own understanding of the experience, but you are serving as the link between your community and the one you have just returned from. Whether it's through informal discussions with your friends or through formal presentations, you can be an effective advocate for the community you were serving overseas. Many returned volunteeers have become active in community groups involved in international development issues, environmental causes, or human rights work.

Here are some other steps you can take to make your international volunteer experience count upon your return home.

  • Prepare a slide show or presentation for a school, university, community organization, religious institution, business, or volunteer club such as the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs.

  • Join a network of people working for sustainable development or human rights internationally. Organizations that may coordinate such efforts include Oxfam, Amnesty International, Bread for the World, Fifty Years is Enough, Youth ACTion for Global JUSTice (JustAct), Washington Office on Africa/Africa Policy Information Center, Mexico Solidarity Network, Peace Action, International Development and Exchange (IDEX), Development Group for Alternative Policies (DGAP), Grassroots International, and The Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First).

  • Get involved in efforts to solve social problems in your own community, either through a volunteer, internship, or paid position with a community-based organization.

  • Support a material aid campaign for grassroots programs abroad

  • Host a fundraiser of your own to support the program you were involved with abroad

  • Volunteer with the agency that sent you abroad. Many of them rely on word of mouth to recruit new volunteers.

  • Send a letter to the editor of your local paper, challenging any misleading attitudes about the country where you volunteered. Demonstrate how local people are working to solve their own problems.

  • Stay in touch with the people you met abroad through your service work. The community members who host volunteers from abroad are more likely to continue doing so if they know that they are forming lasting friendships and an international support network. Even one letter a year will be much appreciated.

If you are wondering what kind of job you can get upon your return home, don't despair! There are many ways in which your international volunteer experience can translate into a job back home. Don't limit yourself to thinking about a career in international development, although this too is a possibility. If you taught English abroad, consider working as a teacher in your own community. If you did health work in a low-income community in Latin-America, you might find work at a clinic a Spanish-speaking community at home. If you worked on environmental conservation projects while overseas, seek out environmental organizations which emphasize the global nature of environmental issues. If you do not have enough experience in the area you're interested in, why not pursue an internship or formal education to learn more? While networking, don't overlook the other alumni from your international volunteer program.

For more ideas on the ways to get involved in international advocacy or sustainable development, we recommend reading:

"Bridging the Global Gap: A Handbook to Linking Citizens of the First and Third Worlds" (by Medea Benjamin and Andrea Freedman, Global Exchange, 800-497-1994). Includes a useful resource guide listing organizations involved in various development education projects, from study tours and alternative trading networks to issue specific research and lobby groups.

"Working for Global Justice Directory" (Youth ACTion for Global JUSTice, 1999, 415-431-4204). A handbook of volunteer, internship, educational travel, or career opportunities in the US and abroad, which focus on global justice.