Why I think everyone should volunteer abroad

Picture of entrance to Lions

“Trust me; it will do more harm than good.” I had heard this phrase a few times from my friends and colleagues as I told them about my volunteer trip to India. They had sent me multiple online articles highlighting how short-term volunteering can negatively impact a community. And while this may be true in some instances, it should definitely not deter people from wanting to help make a difference, explore, learn, and ensure that justice transcends beyond borders. Never have I been gladder to disregard someone’s advice. In 2012 and 2016, I volunteered at the Andh Kanya Vidhyalaya Lions Blind Girls School in India, and I can undoubtedly say that it was one of the most impactful and life-changing experiences I have had.

Despite what the name suggests, the Blind Girls School is not simply a school – it is a facility where visually impaired and blind girls actually reside. The facility consists of bedrooms, washrooms, a kitchen, and two classrooms wherein the girls are taught. As a volunteer, I had the privilege to get to know these girls on a personal basis and develop a bond with them over the span of five weeks. My main role was to provide support in conducting daily activities – cooking and transportation, and then also had the chance to help design lesson plans for English, teach Bollywood dance, and contact potential sponsors. In the process, I spent quite a bit of time with each student and was able to listen to their stories about their family, background, and circumstances that had brought them to the facility. Here, I realized that simply listening or offering support is enough to empower and give people hope.

Daily morning exercise for the girls at Lions

Daily morning exercise for the girls at Lions.

As the school is located in an underdeveloped area in Gujarat, India, I witnessed social inequalities and socioeconomic disparities of health and lifestyle. Despite these struggles and their disability, the girls had an overpowering drive to be self-sufficient. I was incredibly inspired. Many of the girls were employed for sewing and cooking and were keen to become fluent English-speakers to move up the work scale. I realized that if these girls can continue to persevere, then I really had no reason to quit at any point in my life. As cliché as it may sound, volunteering abroad really allowed me to return to my own life in Canada with a new appreciation for every day. Whenever I am stressed or upset about receiving a bad grade, it helps to stop for a second and put things into perspective. I often find myself thinking back to India, and how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to attain post-secondary education. I had heard the phrase, “appreciate what you have” countless times by my parents, but only after volunteering abroad did I start to realize the struggles of people around the globe, and how blessed I am.  

Volunteering abroad also allowed me to become part of a community in a way I never have in the Western world. With our busy, overpopulated Western cities, it becomes difficult to even keep track of who your neighbors are. However, in Gujarat, the small, struggling community is actually very close-knit, and in two weeks, I knew the majority of the people in our locality on a personal basis, as they would drop by occasionally to meet me or drop off home-cooked food.  

Most of all, being in a new environment really forced me to step out of my comfort zone and take initiative to learn and develop myself. Due to my volunteer role in education, I realized my passion for helping further others in their educational journey. I learned how being motivated to succeed can make all the difference when obstacles come into view. Although the trip was only a few weeks long, I took home with me a new mindset and a multitude of lifelong lessons.

Nishwa ShahNishwa is a hardworking individual passionate about extending her interest in education to others. She is the founder of Financial Acceleration for Canadian Students (FACT), which aims to provide high school students with appropriate resources to enhance their financial literacy. Nishwa has also traveled across borders to make a difference, as she worked with visually impaired girls in India and helped teach English. She is constantly on the lookout for new things to learn, and is eager to meet new individuals. In her spare time, Nishwa enjoys playing badminton, watching TedTalks, and conducting scientific research. She is an aspiring physician, and hopes to merge her interests in healthcare, education, and leadership.