Backpacktivism: Combining Adventurous Travel And Volunteering

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Taking time out to travel and volunteer is often lionized – even satirized – as a richly poetic journey where young 20-somethings go out into the wider world to make a difference, explore new cultures and lands, and discover the unvisited corners of themselves.

Yes, it has become almost too cliché and yet, the allure remains. I myself am one such breed of traveler and, try as some might, that feeling of wanderlust and desire to give back is something that can never quite escape me.

After all, as activist and historian Miriam Beard once said, “travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

But as I’ve written about before, travel is not synonymous with “vacation” and, though often glamorous on the surface, traveling entails a hardship that has more in common with work than many may think. Throw into the mix a volunteering gig and that’s double the hardship and learning.

Operation Groundswell (OG) is a non-profit organization well versed in this style of travel. Dedicated to “backpacking with a purpose,” OG offers backpacking and volunteering opportunities to various parts of the world taking students out of the classrooms (or young adults out of their cubicles) and into the real world for hands-on learning.

I sat down with OG’s Programs Director Jo Sorrentino to learn more about the organization and deconstruct the role of travel and volunteerism in shaping one’s career.

Why backpacking?

Jo: Backpacking is a way of life. We talk a lot about being a “backpacktivist” and that means a number of things. Socially, being a backpacker means really delving into all the places you’re going. You don’t have a lot of stuff with you so you’re going to have to eat local food and live on a budget while seeing and doing as much as you can.

Environmentally, it means reducing your carbon footprint as much as possible. We see it as a way to see the world and it’s also the most fun! I mean, you can ride around in a tour bus and see things out of the window or you can get down and dirty and walk it, hike it, bike it, motorcycle it, raft it, climb it…

What are the career benefits of traveling and volunteering?

Jo: Everything! It’s such a huge challenge. Whether you’re negotiating for fruit or a taxi ride, or dealing with other cultures and other languages…there’s just so much you’re going to learn. And depending on what kind of volunteering task you take on, you’re definitely going to learn new skills. For instance, some community projects we’ve worked on have included building water filtration systems, assisting in disaster relief projects, and planning the construction of a community center…all of which build and apply practical skills.

More than that, employers want to see somebody who is able to handle different kinds of environments and traveling will teach you that in a way that nothing else can.

How have OG travelers leveraged their experience to start their own careers?

Jo: There are a million of them! On a very intra-OG level, pretty much everybody who has led our trips was once a participant before. We hire many of our alumni to become trip leaders. But even outside of that…I’ve personally written recommendation letters for participants who participated in our West Africa Global Health program and are now in medical school. Others have taken their career paths in an entirely different direction from what they had originally planned. For instance, I just got an email today from one of our participants who had every intention of becoming a businessman, but after his experience with OG, has spent the last five or so years teaching in China.

Then there are those who have taken their volunteer experience to a whole new level, establishing social enterprises and non-profit organizations of their own. Kelly Hadfield, for instance, started Ghana Medical Help, a non-profit that distributes medical supplies to hospitals in and around Sandema, a town in the Upper East Region of Ghana. She was inspired during her trip with us when her trip leader organized fundraising to bring an ultrasound machine to a hospital in the region. That initiative has just been growing ever since and it’s really helping to change the maternal mortality rate in that region, but Kelly will be the first person to say that it’s really the medical staff in that region who are the real heroes behind getting that equipment to the right place.

So what can someone expect from a trip with OG?

Jo: A lot of fun! Like I said, you can expect a lot of challenges. Anything you’ve seen on the news or anything you think you know – even from what you’ve learned in your international development classes – is going to be totally blown away and changed. You’re going to see how people actually live on the ground. You’re going to be physically challenged too. You’re going to climb some sweet mountains, raft through the Nile, and go sandboarding in a desert!

But it’s hard for us to explain what exactly to expect because each trip is different. And the reason for that is because our volunteer projects are community requested…every trip, year to year, the communities we’re partnered up with have different needs. Plus, we really empower our trip leaders and participants to take control and ownership of their trip…because in the end, it really is what you make of the experience.

Think you’re up for the challenges that volunteering and travel have to offer? Join Operation Groundswell for their six-week Amazon adventure in Peru. Applications are due by August 1st.

How has your overseas volunteer experience helped you in your career? Share your story with us in the comments below!

Photo credit: Operation Groundswell
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About the author

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications professional by day and a freelance writer by night. Graduating from the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science and Sociology, her heart lies in the development sector where she has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You can easily lure her in with talk of international development, human rights, emerging technologies, travel, and yes, Mad Men. Or a slice of cheesecake. Read her blog here or follow her on Twitter @justineabigail.