There were many incredible things about my time in Chile, including traveling, my host family, and improving my Spanish, to name a few. However, what might have been the highlight of my semester was the time I spent volunteering. During my semester, I volunteered every Monday for about six hours at an incredible organization called Fundación de Menores Domingo Savio. This organization was an after-school program for children in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the city. It provides them with lunch and then structured time to work on their homework and/or learning skills, as well as time to play and run around, and ends with cooking a meal or a snack with them.
Early in the semester our Resident Director asked us all if we were interested in volunteering during the course of our time there. They followed that up with a survey asking those of us who had expressed interest what specifically we would be interested in doing. About a month later they connected me with the organization and I was able to get a tour of the place and see what an average day looked like before deciding if I wanted to volunteer there. Domingo Savio was super excited to take me on as a volunteer and I loved what they were doing, so I decided that afternoon that I wanted to spend the rest of the semester volunteering there.
Based on my experience, these are the four reasons why you should volunteer during your semester abroad, regardless of whether or not you get credit for it!
The most obvious benefit for me of volunteering at Domingo Savio, outside of the satisfaction of helping the kids, was how good it was for my Spanish! If you’re like me and are going abroad to improve your skills in a language, volunteering is a fantastic way to do that. Once a week I had to speak and think exclusively in Spanish for six hours straight which was fantastic practice. I definitely noticed this improvement with my mastery of giving commands in Spanish. Working with kids is a lot of directing them where to go, telling them what to do, and especially telling them what not to do. My first couple of times there I had to really think about how to conjugate the commands I was giving, but by the end I became so much more fluid in my ability to speak in that tense. Kids are also great people to practice your Spanish with because they have simpler vocabulary and aren’t afraid to correct you when you mess up.
#2 Experience real life of your city
A second benefit of volunteering is that it will expose you to what real life in the city you are living in is like. During your semester abroad, it’s easy to stay in an almost tourist like mode, sticking to the nice areas and the main attractions. With volunteering you can be exposed to a different side of the city in a controlled setting, allowing you to better understand where you are living. I know that I would have never been to the area where I volunteered, but I appreciated seeing how a large portion of the city lives and felt that it gave me a much more complete understanding of Santiago.
Volunteering also helped me form a bunch of really great relationships with the kids, the employees, and the other volunteers. Working with the kids over the course of the semester I formed some great bonds. There were certain kids who would always be very excited to see me and who gave me little notes on my last day thanking me, which definitely reinforced how worth it volunteering there was. I also got close with the staff who worked there, who were all fantastic people. On my last day they threw me a little party and gave me a bag with the organization’s name on it to take back with me. Getting to know some Chileans and hear from them about their lives and opinions about the country was really interesting. I also formed some great friendships with the other volunteers: one from England, one from Germany and another American from my IFSA program. For me, volunteering was a great way to get to know some people from outside of my program. These relationships didn’t stop with volunteering. After meeting through volunteering, the other IFSA student and I spent time with the friends we had made a number of times.
#4 Gain new perspectives about your country
Volunteering can be a great way to gain new perspectives about your country! I was in Chile during an election year and was able to discuss and listen to the people who worked at Domingo Savio and hear their opinions about the upcoming election. Hearing firsthand opinions about the election and a variety of other issues was super interesting and gave me information and perspective on Chile that I never would have had otherwise. As someone who is very interested in politics, it was really cool hearing their take on how the policies of the different candidates would affect the people living in the poor neighborhood where the organization was located.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of the benefits of volunteering while abroad, but I hope it gave you a glimpse into why volunteering during your semester abroad can be such a great part of your experience!
Grant Koehl is a student at Davidson College and studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Program in Santiago, Chile in the fall of 2017.