On Purpose

Reflecting on volunteering experiences


Constança Santos

In the second of ourUK Volunteers’ Weekseries of blogs, Constança Santos (October 2013) explores the importance of reflecting on a volunteering experience once it’s completed, and how doing so impacted her career.

The experience of volunteering abroad can be divided into three different stages — preparation before going, the experience you have in the other country, and being back on home ground. People tend to put a lot of time and effort in the first and second. However, being back is often neglected, even though it’s a crucial stage that can have a great impact on your personal development and, potentially, future career.

People experience their return in different ways and I would say that may depend on how intensively they embraced the culture they were submersed in and the work they were doing. This means some people will go through a reverse cultural shock where they will feel very confused. However, after a couple of months, life gets back to what it used to be: this is the critical moment, when there is a risk that your experience will become just a distant memory. So how can you ensure that doesn’t happen, and that you extract some long-term meaning from your experience?

I faced that very dilemma while volunteering for a Women and Childs’ rights NGO in Ghana for two and a half months, and took several steps to overcome it:

Before departing, I defined clear personal goals for the experience.

While in Ghana, I frequently checked on my goals to make sure I still had them in mind. I wrote about what I was learning almost daily, to force myself to reflect on my experiences.

Once back in Lisbon, I allowed myself about 2 months to settle back in. I then reflected on the main things I’d learnt in Ghana, and how they might impact my future career.

Constança Santos 2

My reflections took on a simple form, which might not necessarily work for everyone, but is worth considering: I started off by posing myself a set of questions — things like ‘When was I successful, and why?’ and ‘when did I fail, and why?’ I wrote a stream-of-consciousness style answer for each question, writing down my immediate reactions without worrying about how I structured things. Afterwards, I reread the whole thing and reached conclusions that I could carry forward into the rest of my life.

These reflections led to my development of two key learning points, which in turn influenced my career. Firstly, I confirmed my interest for understanding and interacting with different cultures — this shaped my decision to move to London one year later. Secondly, I started considering a career in the education sector. Later on, while doing the On Purpose programme, I worked with an executive coach who helped me to be sure that that was the right move — I’m now working for a London-based start up in the education sector.

Volunteering is about giving, but there is a lot you can get back from it too. If you don’t remain mindful of that, you could miss an incredible opportunity for personal and professional growth.