How to Live Your Overseas Dream 

With equal parts determination and information, you can see the world as a volunteer.

Committing yourself to spending large amounts of time -- months, even years -- in a foreign country is one of the most radical ways you can permanently change your life, short of gender reassignment, a vow of poverty, or swearing off chocolate brownies forever. As far as resolutions go, this is a biggie.

I can't help but recall a friend who traveled to Southeast Asia on vacation and ended up working as a club DJ in Indonesia. When, years later, I ran into him at Berkeley's Amoeba Music, on a visit home to see relatives and buy new vinyl to take back to Jakarta, there was no question his experiences overseas had enriched his life considerably. He was a changed man: more worldly, easygoing, and considerably happier.

For an earlier generation, joining the Peace Corps was perhaps the only readily apparent way for everyday Americans to see the world without being in the employ of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. (Of course, rumors soon abounded that the organization was being used as a CIA front, which sort of takes all the fun out of helping develop Third World countries.) And while the Peace Corps still exists today, the good news is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of international development programs to choose from.

To be sure, volunteering overseas is a far more serious undertaking than going to the gym twice a week, keeping an eye on your cholesterol intake, or putting your newly updated résumé on Monster.com. Making a commitment of this type means not only changing your lifestyle, but learning new life skills -- and, in some cases, entirely new languages -- as well as uprooting yourself from your nice, comfortable easy chair and plopping yourself down in an alien land, one with completely different cultural, social, or religious values than you're probably used to.

Digging irrigation ditches in Israel, planting trees in Turkey, or distributing AIDS pamphlets in Pakistan might require you to acquire a level of humility you weren't totally in touch with in America, or force you to come face to face with the way the rest of the world actually lives, a reality rarely hinted at on the evening news. At the very least, you'll be able to learn new life lessons, which you can eventually assimilate into what you already know, or maybe took for granted.

If you long to visit exotic lands, but your exposure to foreign countries has been limited to the Discovery Channel, occasional glances at the Sunday Travel section, or the dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebook your sister brought back from Brazil a decade ago, you probably need help getting such a major resolution off the ground.

But where to begin such a monumental undertaking? Ay, there's the rub. Unless your daddy is an ambassador or diplomat with international connections to share, you might want to start with How to Live Your Dreams of Volunteering Overseas, an invaluable handbook and resource guide published by Penguin. Written by Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher, and Stefano DeZerega, it covers the basics and beyond of volunteering in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Each author had distinct reasons for becoming an international volunteer. Their book's introduction not only hints at how you can personalize their overseas experience to suit your own tastes, but also shows how such decisions can lead to long-term careers. DeZerega, for instance, started out by doing a student project on Nicaragua at Berkeley High in 1984, which led to a trip to Central America to meet with brigadistas -- young Nicaraguans who assisted indigenous coffee growers with their harvesting efforts.

"These volunteers gave me faith to continue caring about people I had never met and challenged me to look at my own life and how it connected to others' struggles," he writes. "I could see that they had derived great strength from their experiences." DeZerega continues to work for international solidarity to this day as executive director of JustAct, a youth activist organization dedicated to human rights issues.

Collins, on the other hand, grew up in a suburb of Cincinnati, where he was inspired by a pamphlet he read in a parochial school social-studies class, which he describes as having an "American-Catholics-help-the poor-spin." He was drawn to the stories and photographs of "white-cassocked priests doing cool things: helping Indians on the shores of Lake Titicaca ... driving Jeeps through vast herds of wild animals in Tanzania ... or meeting with a group of Chinese women in Hong Kong who hoped to organize a neighborhood noodle factory." He asked one of the priests if he could join one of their missions during his summer vacation, which led to him traveling to Santiago, Chile, where he handed out government cheese to hungry peasants. Fifteen years after his first international volunteering experience, Collins founded the Oakland-based advocacy group Food First, a nonprofit think tank whose mission is to identify the root causes of hunger and poverty worldwide.

After graduating from Wesleyan University in 1986, Heckscher interned at the Washington Office on Africa, a lobbying organization working for human rights and democracy in Africa. "I was quite passionate about my work," she writes, "but I eventually came to understand that US policies toward Africa would not change until more people here were aware of the effects of these policies." Heckscher decided to volunteer in Africa to gain firsthand knowledge of the issues involved in her work, but was skeptical of joining the Peace Corps. Instead, she joined the Institute for International Cooperation and Development in 1987, winding up in Zambia on a nine-month-long tree-planting project. Upon her return, Heckscher taught workshops on overseas volunteering, and eventually became the director of the Washington office of Global Exchange.

The authors say one of the biggest pluses of the international volunteering experience is the "process of self-discovery," as well as the reward of helping others to help themselves. Volunteering overseas can be a way of simplifying your life, dealing with a midcareer or midlife crisis, or gaining valuable real-world experience between college and graduate school.

Along with personal growth, spiritual development also can factor into the equation. It's a lot easier to visit Thailand's Buddhist temples if you're already in the country, for one thing. In addition to the native beliefs, rituals, and superstitions that volunteers may encounter, many international volunteer programs have ties to religious organizations. And while, historically speaking, traditional missionaries have sometimes done more harm than good to indigenous peoples in their zeal to convert them, things have changed since the colonial era. The authors note the existence of several progressive-minded, faith-based organizations that also are culturally sensitive and have become "examples of faith in action by working for social justice."

Most of the advice dispensed in the section called "How to Be an Effective International Volunteer" is of the common-sense variety. Even so, it's good to think about things like overcoming language barriers, dealing with your own cultural insensitivity, and how race and gender issues can play out in foreign countries. It should go without saying that "racial stereotypes abound in all parts of the world," as the book notes, but it's nice to get an idea of what that actually means. We are informed that "If you are Asian American, some people may not believe that you are from the United States." Likewise, "If you are Chicano, everyone may expect you to speak Spanish fluently."

On the topic of gender, the authors point out that not only is Baywatch the most popular American TV show overseas, but that porn also has filtered back to non-Western countries, resulting in prejudicial attitudes and widespread stereotyping about the availability and sexual proclivities of Western women. Combine that with the rigidly designed gender roles and assumptions of many other cultures, and you have a recipe for machismo-related misunderstandings, or worse.

One of the book's most useful chapters, "Staying Involved After You Get Back," provides numerous scenarios for re-entering the United States, maintaining contacts with overseas acquaintances, and continuing the learning experience by keeping in touch with your volunteer organization. This chapter also covers what, for many overseas volunteers, seems like a natural next step: getting involved in organizations such as Global Exchange, Oxfam America, Food First, or Peace Action -- in effect, transforming your once-in-a-lifetime experience into something life-changing.

The book also explores the particulars of joining the Peace Corps in a chapter that grapples with the organization's status as an arm of the US government. The authors visited Peace Corps sites in fifteen countries, interviewed organizations that host its volunteers, and rounded out their research with Web sites and literature. What emerges is an objective overview that provides detailed information about why you would want to join (it's well-funded, well-established, and pays your way) and why you might want to look elsewhere (there are lots of rules and regulations, a lengthy application process, and volunteers can't choose where they will be placed).

More than one hundred other volunteer organizations are profiled in the 470-page volume, covering various short-, medium-, and long-term projects in depth. Both national and internationally based organizations are included, several of which have offices right here in the Bay Area. Phone numbers, mailing addresses, and e-mail contacts are provided for each program the authors discuss at length. Since volunteer programs can vary widely in terms of scope, focus, and context, this section makes it easier to compare potential programs at a glance, and identify their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Even if you're not planning a career as a human rights activist or social justice worker, you can benefit from volunteering overseas. It's a great way to thoroughly experience another culture; most tourists don't get the chance to interact with locals as closely as do volunteer workers. Becoming a volunteer also could create untold opportunities for you, both professionally and personally. Thankfully, the authors of How to Live Your Dream ... also saw fit to include a section on alternatives to volunteering, which mainly provides tips on how to find a job in another country. This could come in handy, whether you want to defray the costs involved with volunteering (most programs, with the exception of the Peace Corps, don't pay living or transportation expenses), or are considering staying overseas after the completion of your program.

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