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A Little Goes a Long Way

Volunteer Service in Zambia as a Student

Article and photos by Marissa Sutera

Volunteer service with children in Zambia
Enthusiatic young students in Zambia — rich in curiosity and life despite their material poverty.

Just two weeks in, I struggled to say goodbye to my classroom full of energetic, bubbly Zambian kids. I had grown attached to the kids, even though I was only volunteering for a short period. Studying abroad opened up my eyes to the world, but volunteering in Zambia demonstrated to me that there is more to a place and its people than meets the eye.  

The Road to Zambia

As an undergraduate at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my study abroad program in the United Kingdom sparked an ongoing love for travel. If there is any regret, it is that I wish I had studied abroad earlier. When I began my graduate program at Eastern Illinois University, I sought out any opportunity to feed my craving for travel.

Early in my first semester, my former boss and current friend, Kelly Holland, introduced me to "Lessons From Abroad." This is a conference specifically for study abroad returnees, packed with a variety of speakers, exhibitors, and resources covering all kinds of topics relating to how students can return abroad during or after college. When I attended the conference in Chicago, October of 2013, little did I know that I would be on a flight to Africa a few months later, thanks to what I learned!

I was barely at the conference for five minutes before I was standing at the Kaya Responsible Travel booth, brochure in hand, learning about how I could volunteer abroad... and that it wasn’t too late to apply for programs during winter break. I was thrilled to learn that it was not only possible, but also likely could travel abroad again in the near future.

Less than a month later, my application was submitted, and I was well on my way to being a community and teaching volunteer in Livingstone, Zambia, during the winter holiday season.

What is it Like to Volunteer Abroad?

Although it seemed short, it was, in reality, a long journey to get to Zambia, and upon arrival, it took a while for everything to sink in. It was December of 2013, I was on winter break from my MBA program, and it would be my first Christmas away from home. I stayed in a hostel with the other volunteers, and soon after arriving, we had an orientation.

Inside, I may have freaked out a little bit.

Wait, so I’m already going to be in the classrooms tomorrow? I have zero teaching experience!

I was already feeling overwhelmed, and I had not yet even started the program! Thankfully, there was a tight knit community of volunteers to help ease us into a teaching role.

That leads to my most important volunteer tip: Don’t let something new scare you out of a potentially life-changing experience. New is certainly challenging, but it will make for a much more rewarding and memorable experience in the end.

A typical day in my placement started with teaching a classroom of about 50-100 kids of all ages, ranging from very young kids to 14-year-olds. Thankfully, there were a few volunteers in each classroom to help manage such a large group of kids. Then we would return to the volunteer house for lunch. In the afternoon, we would alternate between various activities, such as spending time with the residents in the Maramba Old People’s Home, leading a reading club for kids, or teaching basic skills, such as public speaking or the English language, to adults to help make them more employable. Once the afternoon projects were over, we all had time to hang out with other volunteers, walk around town, go for a swim, or just relax.

Teaching children of all ages in Zambia
Teaching kids of all ages in a classroom in Zambia.

Is Volunteering Abroad Worth It?

Many people have expressed their own opinions to answer to this question, coming from all ends of the spectrum. My answer, obviously, is a resounding, “YES!”

It’s one thing to volunteer in your own community for perhaps a few hours, or a full day, and then go back to your comfortable home with reliable Wi-Fi and electricity. However, it’s an entirely different experience to volunteer abroad in an unfamiliar country and be completely out of your element.

As with any time spent internationally, it is inevitable that you will forever have a connection with each destination, and stepping out of your comfort zone during a volunteer program will cause that connection to grow even stronger.

Of course, volunteering abroad is not for everyone, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to give back, desires to build relationships with people and communities around the world, and is willing to take on additional challenges to overcome obstacles.

How To Choose a Volunteer Abroad Program

There are so many important factors to consider when selecting a volunteer abroad program that best fits your needs. Looking into yourself, your skills, and interests in order to decide what you find most important can help substantially to match you with the right company and program.

  • Location is a good place to start. If you are tied to a certain destination, such as Africa, you can choose to work with an organization such as African Impact (with whom I worked directly in Zambia), which specializes in projects in a variety of countries across the vast and varied continent.
  • Length of time and the time of year can also be very important in making a program choice. If you are looking to go for a short time period maybe during winter break, or when you have some time off from work in the summer, ensuring that the programs offered during such periods is a good starting point.
  • Language requirements are an important consideration, as well. You want to make sure the program you choose will be in a language you can speak and understand in order to make the greatest possible positive impact.
  • In some cases, a program that also includes transferrable work experience is highly beneficial to students. Depending on the specialty required, it can be fairly easy to find. For example, if you are studying education, there are plenty of volunteer teaching programs available. For those in science or environmental fields, an environmental sustainability program may interest you. There are plenty of options out there, and sometimes you just have to do some digging to find the type of program you are seeking.
  • What you will be doing abroad is important to consider, as well. Some projects will require a specific skill set, such as certain health and medical programs, while others, similar to the community and teaching program in which I participated, do not require any experience at all.
  • Finally, cost is almost always a factor. Keep in mind that sometimes it is more realistic financially to stick closer to home (i.e., a destination in Central America for those in the United States), rather than traveling to the other side of the globe due to the cost of air travel, insurance, or other factors perhaps not covered by the project.

Returning Home

I went to Zambia to teach kids in their own community. However, I came back home with the unexpected discovery that not only did I teach them, but they also taught me.

Many of us are concerned about having the newest car, the latest technology, or the biggest house. In reality, my experience has reinforced the view that none of these material things really matter beyond the superficial…certainly not by comparison with the depth of personal connections and relationships with others.

So many of the kids I taught were thrilled to color and draw. I realized that they were not used to having resources, such as pens, paper, crayons, and pencils readily at their disposal. It was heartbreaking to see how many of the kids were unbelievably talented writers and artists, and yet they had limited access to the tools that allowed them to use and develop their talents. However, it was encouraging and often moving to see the way they learned to make do with what they had, no matter how little.

The kids in Zambia provide a lesson from abroad, which is also applicable at home. Regardless of our situation in life, I think we can all find joy in life’s simple pleasures and take the time to give to others. Happiness can be found in the smallest of places — sometimes we just have to open our eyes.

Marissa holding a small child, eager to learn like so many other children, in a classroom in Zambia.

For More Information

Volunteering Abroad Programs

United Planet

African Impact

Kaya Responsible Travel

Peace Corps

Marissa Sutera is a 2014 MBA graduate of Eastern Illinois University, and a 2013 marketing graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Originally from Chicago, she now lives in Boulder, Colorado where she works in the field of education abroad. When she’s not traveling, she enjoys running, hiking, biking, and writing for her travel blog, It’s The Little Things.

Related Topics
Student Volunteer Service
Service Learning Abroad Programs
Volunteer in Africa

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