With 12 other college students from the United States and Canada, I took a leap of faith. We each signed our names on a contract committing us to a trip across the globe to Thailand. We each spent six months preparing to travel overseas and raising the money to fund the trip. And we each stepped onto the same plane to start an experience we would never forget.
Every year, students who have a passion for culture and volunteer work travel to many places around the world to expand their knowledge and gain experience. One organization that provides service opportunities combined with adventure travel is International Student Volunteers, Inc. (ISV).
Participants in this program travel to countries such as Thailand, Costa Rica, South Africa, New Zealand, and Ecuador. While there, they work to enhance community infrastructure, teach English, provide recreational activities, and establish community-building programs.
“You get a deeper cultural immersion,” says Simon Costain, International Marketing Director of ISV, when talking about service travel. “When most people travel to volunteer, they expect to get to help out a community or environment. Students generally don’t realize that giving of themselves changes their lives far more than they thought it would.” Costain adds that traveling for adventure alone doesn’t provide “a profound life-changing moment” that can come from service travel.
Why do people choose to volunteer in a foreign country? Vasavi Kanneganti, a student from Syracuse University, shares why her decision to take a trip to Thailand completely changed her life. “I’ve heard so many unique things about Thailand,” she says. “The service description on the ISV website offered a connection with children. I do care about the environment, but I’ve always had a much stronger reaction to human-to-human interactions.”
Kanneganti, the other volunteers, and I worked in Chiang Dao, Thailand, with the Makhampom Theatre Group. Makhampom was established in 1981 to unify the community through experimental theater. The experience provided us with a unique service opportunity that added to the novelty of being in Thailand.
Housed and fed at the Makhampom Living Theatre—and surrounded by rice fields, lakes, and the constant buzz of insects and frogs—we were always busy. We prepared English lessons, created puppetry from recycled materials, and practiced skits to promote awareness of environmental conservation in the community. We took these lessons to three different schools in northern Thailand and taught hundreds of children who spoke little English.
Part of the trip included a two-night stay in a hill-tribe village called Pang Daeng Nok in the town of Chiang Dao. As we arrived at the village, we were immediately surrounded by children, who grabbed our hands and pulled us to the main pavilion. The children taught us to walk on wooden stilts and spin wooden tops.
As we were playing games with the kids, one little boy sat right next to me on the cement, handed me a book, and said, “You!” So I read it. He handed me book after book as I finished each one, even though he didn’t understand anything I was reading.
Joseph Durago, a volunteer who graduated from California Polytechnic State University before going to Thailand, says his favorite part about being in the hill-tribe village was his opportunity to stay in the house of the village elder and his family. “He was really hospitable,” says Durago. “Although there was a huge language barrier, we were able to communicate, and I got some insight into what his life and his family’s lives were like.”
With the villagers, we planted trees; weeded and planted a garden; and built a fence, fishpond, and mushroom house. The work that we finished in two hours would have taken the villagers a whole week to do by themselves.
Durago says the experience was very humbling: “I haven’t really experienced anything like that before.”
Students who are trying to decide whether or not they should participate in a service-volunteer trip can consider Kanneganti’s advice: “If you want to help, there are so many ways to go about it,” she says. “Volunteer projects are very underrated—they kind of get a reputation for manual labor. But the relationships you build with the other volunteers and the people you’re serving is just priceless. I think anyone could get something out of volunteering, so I encourage anyone of any age to go.”