Not everyone has the opportunity to take part in mission trips or volunteer trips in their high school. Luckily my school offered an amazing trip to Nicaragua, a third world country in Central America, to help those in need through many different activities. Although this trip was not easy, required a lot of work and was even emotionally taxing, the life lessons that I have learned made it well worth it. According to Dr. Jessie Voigts, “volunteering will change your life. How can it not? You’re exploring a new place, culture, people — and working with them to affect change.” I agree with this statement based on the fact that not only are you doing good for a community that needs help, but you are educating yourself on a completely different culture that will expand your knowledge and cultural awareness. I strongly believe that high schools should offer more opportunities for volunteer programs abroad in order for a student to be exposed to hands on work experience, educational and cultural awareness, and connection building.
Volunteering is a way to dive deep into hands on education. Making a change in the world can start off with something as little as building one family a cement house so they don’t have to live in a house built of tarp. Many volunteers overlook the construction aspect of volunteering because they think they need experience in building or they might not be strong enough to handle the difficult parts of construction volunteering. This is not always the case. When I travelled to Nicaragua, My group was assigned to build a house for a family who had just gave birth to a baby boy. They were living in a house made of plastic bags and tarps, with beds made of wood and no mattress. I did not have any experience with construction, and neither did anyone else in my group. Construction workers from the city we were volunteering in helped all of us, teaching us how to mix cement and eventually mold it into a small home. This was not easy, especially in the heat, but we all did our share of work and it really made a difference.
You don’t need experience in the construction and building business to help these people, you just need to have an open mind and willingness to work your hardest. Not only did I get a chance to help people in need live more comfortably, but now I know how to mix cement, which is something I would have never learned if I didn’t go on this mission trip. There are many work sites that need more volunteers to help get more things done for these communities. If more students were offered the opportunities to do this, the more change there would be all around the world. Before my school informed me of volunteer abroad, I probably would have never looked into it simply because I didn’t think I was capable. No matter who you are or how much experience you have, you can always help in some way. The feeling you get when you finish a product you worked so hard on, and see the impact you made on a community, is indescribable. Hands on volunteering experience is something that can become useful as you go through life. It is a tool that can assist you day to day.
Not only does volunteering abroad help the people of the community you are visiting, but it can help you as the volunteer. One way volunteering can help you is academically. Volunteering in a foreign country can improve language development. I took Spanish at my high school, and when I went to Nicaragua my Spanish improved tremendously. Even just being there for a week, having to communicate with the people of Leon, Nicaragua helped me once I got back into the classroom and made me more interested in the class.
For many of my friends, Nicaragua impacted their career choices and studies in college. It helped them discover what they want to do in life and opened their eyes to learning things they never thought they would be interested in. My friend Betsy, who came on the Nicaragua mission trip, decided to double major in communications and Spanish because of the experiences she had communicating with the people of Leon. “Traveling to Nicaragua and communicating with the kids in Spanish, emphasized my true passion for the language and made me realize that I want to pursue a career in Spanish.” Not only did it help me in the classroom but it also helped me gain knowledge through real life experiences. Being away from home and in this place where children don’t even have beds to sleep on really made me think. It made me question things like why and how this country got to this point? What is the history behind it? It helped me to think outside of the classroom about things that I am really interested in, which improved my critical thinking. Critical thinking is a very important aspect in life and it is something many young people aren’t exposed to, especially in high school. As Bell Hook said in his “Critical Thinking” piece, “Critical thinking involves first discovering the who, what, when, where, and how of things-finding the answers to those eternal questions of the inquisitive child-and then utilizing that knowledge in a manner that enables you to determine what matters most.”(9) I agree with Hook that critical thinking is something that helps you discover what is truly important in life. Learning about the Nicaraguan culture and history really has helped me find myself and be more appreciative for what I have today. When you see little girls who cant stop taking pictures on your phone because they have never seen a reflection of themselves, it makes you thankful for things you didn’t even think was a privilege. After my mission trip, I try not to take things for granted, and when I’m having a bad day I think of what people in third world countries are going through. What moved me to look at life in a different and more joyful way was that even though the families had close to nothing, barely enough food, barely enough clothes, and no beds to sleep on, they always have a smile on their face and are thankful for the little things they do have. I was inspired and it changed my whole point of view in life, which is very important for a high schooler because we are often confused and uneducated on what life really is like outside of our comfort zone.
Building relationships with people around you is a skill that will help someone in all aspects of life. When volunteering abroad, you form special connections with teachers, fellow students, and the people of the community you helped. I was able to build very close relationships with my advisors and teachers on this trip. Because of this relationship that we built, teachers saw us as equal. We were learning from each other, helping each other, and no one person was above the other. Instead of the teacher acting as if they have all the knowledge and we have to listen and memorize, they communicated with us. I frequently found myself partaking in discussions with my teachers in which we were both learning something from each others insight. As Paulo Freire says “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.”(7) The process in which both the student and teacher grow is truly remarkable. What struck this relationship between the teacher and student is working together. Once we were working together on a job site, It struck the opportunity for communication and education based on life experience. Working together to communicate with the Nicaraguan people who did not speak english, brought us together as a team. Freire also states, “Yet only through communication can human life hold meaning.” Freire is right, communicating is a key factor in life today. Learning how to communicate with people and building relationships is a life skill you will need throughout life. It is a skill you will use when going on interviews for jobs, beginning a new life at a university, and in the work place when you have to cooperate with others.
The life skills that I gained from my experience volunteering in Nicaragua, are skills that I probably wouldn’t have today if I had not went. More high schools across the country should make their students more aware of the benefits this program can offer. Christine Williams supports my thesis with an article about volunteering abroad. In the article she states, “It’ll open your eyes to global inequalities, give you a greater appreciation for everything you have, and help you contribute to making the world a better place.” Students wont have the opportunity to contribute to all of these things if they are not educated of the importance of volunteering, and I don’t think students should miss out on the opportunity.