I was halfway through my junior year study abroad semester in Argentina when I made the unwavering vow to myself that I would return to Latin America the moment I graduated from college. I had fourteen months to research programs and decide which country I wanted to experience, and after hours of research, I chose a summer-long internship as a volunteer teacher in Ecuador. Eager for my post-graduation plan to begin, I sailed through my spring semester and counted down the days until I would be in another country again.
A week after my graduation, I left for leisure travel in Colombia before making my way down to Ecuador to begin my internship. I was in the country for about seventy-two hours before I was on a flight back home.
There were many reasons this program and I were not a good fit for one another, and because I respect the work they do as an organization, I will not be naming the nonprofit involved. Instead, this post is intended to serve as a resource for volunteers abroad who might find themselves in a situation where they need to leave earlier than anticipated, whether due to personal issues, emergencies at home, or problems with the host organization not upholding their end of the contract. It’s a stressful situation, and below is a list of tips I compiled for other travelers who might need to leave their international volunteer experiences earlier than they anticipated.
“Well, technically you are a quitter,” one of my friends told me on the phone, “but only because you’re quitting something. But in a stigmatized way? You’re definitely not a quitter.” This remains the most helpful bit of advice I received while talking to my friends and family about my decision to leave Ecuador because it reminded me there were concrete reasons that made me want to quit. My choice to leave the country wasn’t arbitrary, just like my decision to join the program wasn’t capricious. Sometimes our plans don’t go as we imagined, and our decision to abandon those original blueprints doesn’t make us lesser people.
This was the hardest part for me because I didn’t want to offend my host family or the non-profit team members with whom I was working. I started by speaking with the in-country representatives, and I told them I needed to leave. They tried to convince me to stay like I’d imagine most organizations would, but the key here was to be firm with my choice. Most the individuals I spoke with believed what I was feeling was a form of culture shock and that it would disappear in a few days, but I knew otherwise. I recommend approaching these difficult conversations with a concrete idea of the outcome you desire because otherwise, you might find yourself agreeing to a temporary solution for a potentially long-term issue.
I kept a copy of mine on my phone, but a paper version works just as well. This allows you to not only reread the terms of your agreement as you arrange your departure, but it helps the on-site employees to know your particular situation, as well. Most of the individuals I encountered didn’t know about my specific contract, so our conversations were expedited when I could show them the exact terms of my agreement. This helped me as an anxious traveler, and it allowed for me to have more efficient conversations with the nonprofit’s team members. It also ensured all parties were satisfied with our final decision and that we could all part ways on amicable terms.
I had been in communication with this organization for more than four months, and they invested a substantial amount of energy in my internship by sending me dozens of emails and engaging in several Skype conversations with me. I was set to be a volunteer English teacher with my own English classes, too, so my decision to vacate the position early undoubtedly left the organization in an undesirable position since they had to find a last-minute replacement. I stand by my decision to leave because I would have been a distracted, miserable teacher, and that would have negatively affected my students. However, it’s important for volunteers to remember their decision to stay or leave affects all parties involved, and verbally acknowledging this when speaking with your supervisor is respectful and appropriate.
As a volunteer teacher, for me this meant going back to my host family’s house and telling them in-person I would be leaving. But for others, and not only volunteer teachers, this might mean talking to your co-volunteer teacher or to local co-workers. Even though we’re just volunteers, these nonprofits rely on our presence, and in small communities like the one where I was placed, my arrival had been anticipated for months. While volunteers might have the opportunity to travel to another community and build new relationships with a culture that is different from their own, we volunteers might be the only representatives of our culture these community members meet in their lifetime. Therefore, a disrespectful exit will be remembered, and it might be negatively associated with your own culture. Furthermore, even though the arrangement didn’t work as planned, leaving without a proper goodbye can be offensive to the local community, and, as the visitors, we owe them respect in their own home.
Leaving any position is tricky; not just a volunteer teacher one. And it can be an especially difficult process to navigate across international borders. By being open and honest about your feelings and respectful of the local culture, volunteer teachers and volunteers in general can collaborate with nonprofit workers and community members to reach a decision that works well for all parties involved.
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