Taking that leap of faith

Volunteering overseas opens so many doors and teaches you so much about yourself.

When I was growing up I was lucky enough to holiday all over the world with my parents. I went on safari in Kenya, visited the Taj Mahal in India, toured the Grand Canyon in the USA and visited famous cities across the globe.

My early twenties saw me with a bad case of the travel bug. I revelled in beach holidays in the Mediterranean; backpacked Australia's east coast and took whirlwind trips to New York City and Amsterdam.

But the one thing I'd never experienced was actually living and working in another culture.

Then when I was 25 I took the plunge and signed up for a two month volunteer program teaching English to primary school students in Costa Rica. I found myself living with a family of four in a tiny village with no internet access, a 30-minute bus ride to the nearest café and no other English speakers for miles about. My high school Spanish and miming ability was soon put to the test.

Although Costa Rica is one of the friendliest, most peaceful and beautiful developing countries I've ever visited, I still found the culture shock overwhelming. I missed my family and friends and never quite adjusted to the lifestyle or the relative poverty. Everything was different. I seemed to be required to eat beans at every meal, I couldn't travel around after dark on my own, everyone seemed to know everyone else (including who I was) yet I knew no one. And to top it all off I'd never taught kids before, let alone taught them English in beginners Spanish. What was I thinking?

It was one of the most testing yet amazing experiences of my life. My Spanish improved dramatically almost overnight. I gained a greater appreciation for the issues affecting the Central American region. I made heaps of friends. I watched turtles hatch eggs. I shared buses with chickens. I peered into the top of a volcano.

Costa Rica gave me the confidence to move to Australia just six months later and forge a new life for myself here.

Volunteering overseas opens so many doors and teaches you so much about yourself. It's an experience I'd recommend to anyone as would the Sydney TAFE students who travel to India and Samoa volunteering each year.

Jared Costa, who volunteered in India in 2012, said the most valuable element of his experience was "being to some extent thrown into the deep end. It was a great learning experience". Fellow volunteer Haydn Yates said the experience had helped "to trust myself and my own ideas… definitely do it. On all levels you will learn an incredible amount."

Admittedly it's not for the faint hearted, but taking that leap of faith in yourself and your ability to adapt will reward you in so many ways. So if you like to help people in need, combine that next big trip with a volunteer program and really immerse yourself in a different culture.