Our guest blogger today is none other than Melissa – Our Director of Volunteer Travel. We are thrilled that she has decided to share her thoughts about volunteering abroad. While she will be moving on to a new career opportunity soon, we are thankful and excited to hear that she will continue to stay connected to the responsible volunteering space!

After over two years working with Unearth the World, it is bittersweet to be moving on to my next career adventure. As I reflect on my time with this great organization, there is one thing I know for sure: even though I am professionally leaving the world of international volunteering, I will personally continue to participate in this kind of travel and exchange.

When I first met Kathryn and Mike Pisco in early 2015 I knew very little about international service-learning and volunteering. In fact, most of what I had heard had been on the negative side: the classic example of travelers painting a wall in a developing country over and over again with the goal of bringing ‘voluntourists’ into the community instead of a focus on impact. Since then I have learned so much—about the industry, about how to operate responsibly within it, and about the importance of forming reciprocal international partnerships. I have also personally experienced the benefits of participating in responsible service work abroad. And I’m hooked.

I often reflect on the two very different travel experiences I’ve had in Guatemala. The first time I traveled there I did the typical tourist trip. I visited the beach; went to beautiful Lake Atitlan; and spent days strolling around the charming colonial town of Antigua. I stayed at nice, locally run hotels, and ate dinner at restaurants that almost always had menus printed in English. I had a great time and thought I had a good idea about what Guatemala is like. However, last year I went back to Guatemala to visit UTW’s Coffee Farming partner and let me say: I saw immediately how much I had missed out on during my first visit to the country. This time I stayed in a small village called San Miguel Escobar (just outside of Antigua) with a local farmer and his family. I helped in the coffee fields, took the chicken buses by myself, shared meals with my host family, and learned about their lives and experiences. I realized that while I enjoyed my first trip, I hadn’t learned very much about the Guatemalan people and their culture.

That second trip truly opened my eyes to how immersive an international service work experience can be. Since studying abroad as an undergraduate I have wanted to find a way to deeply engage with another culture again. Through participating in service work I found this opportunity. I wasn’t just a tourist skimming the surface. I was working alongside locals, learning about their culture, customs, joys and concerns. I got to be a part of a community. I had conversations with local Guatemalan people about their lives and the issues facing their communities. I was invited into homes and shared meals. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and made to confront my own beliefs and assumptions. I was able see that though we may be in very disparate situations, we are all more alike than we are different. Not only did I feel this in Guatemala, I felt this when I visited UTW’s partners in Nicaragua and Peru as well. It was through these opportunities that I was able to really learn about a new culture on a deeper level. And, learn about myself.

I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to experience both kinds of travel. And while I certainly do not discount traditional tourism when done responsibly—I like to read on the beach as much as the next person! —I know I will continue to seek out opportunities to participate in international service and engage with communities abroad.

As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”