I wrote this post flying from Washington, DC to Denver to attend a conference on Voluntourism. When I landed and got to my hotel, I read what I had written and thought I might send it. But it seemed more of a rant to me, so I didn't hit the "publish" button.
Next day at the conference during my presentation, I mentioned to the group what I had written. The subject was Program Review Sites.
I originally wrote that I hate them.
After the conference and listening to others in the room, I still hate them. But I hate them as they are, and I now embrace what they could become.
(And in my home, I always tell my children that "hate" is a very strong word.)
I originally wrote that I would expose some program reviews as bogus. In other words, pointing out reviews that are placed by people who never even traveled on the program they are reviewing, or reviews posted by program owners to bolster their ratings.
After the conference and listening to others in the room, I am going to encourge the owners of these review sites to police their sites better, and provide a platform where consumer (volunteer) and provider can learn. I want them to provide a space where volunteers can be educated in the realities of volunteering abroad and program providers can take constructive criticism and make their programs better.
I learned, by listening to some very wise people in the room, that program reviews can be more powerful than testimonials. That review sites can actually become a "community" of sorts.
Today I read a post by a young woman who wrote, "I rely on reviews, many reviews, to make a decision to buy. I want to know I'm joining a community of people who share my values, who paved the way before me, and give me lots of things to consider. I know there are the raving outliers who will rant about anything, so I pay no attention to those. I look for real reviews, written honestly, with the intent to inform and give personal opinion."
I listened to an author at the conference in Denver, who struggled with a very negative review of a well-known program and took the time to do some research and found another person who had a very positive view of the same program. The author then included both reviews to give balance.
So here I am on an airplane the next day, rewriting my original post. I have tossed 99% of what I originally wrote. I owe that decision to some great comments from a great group in Denver.
I now understand review sites are important. I understand they have the power to form a community. And I realize they are not going away.
The Top Five Things Review Site Owners Can Do To Be Responsible
1. Please remind reviewers before they start writing that what happens on the Internet, STAYS on the Internet. At the very minimum, you owe these people that much. Their comments will stay there FOREVER.
2. Make people come forward, not hide behind a fake name. Over on a leading abroad review site, anyone can sign in and use a made up name. SallyLampShade207. Why? Why would ANYONE take a review on that site seriously? All you need is a unique IP Address, an email address to get a verifying link from them (and this can be a one-time email address that is never used again), you set up a user name you can hide behind, and you can write a review and post it.
3. Share the responsibility. Provider, reviewer, review site owner. If program providers are held responsible for their programs, hold reviewers responsible for proving they were really a participant on the program they review. Let them know if something looks odd, you're going to come back to them. Let them know you are going to share their email address and name with the provider, so they can make things right. It will make the reviews more helpful to consumers. A reputation can go south overnight on the Internet. If you shirk your responsibility, you share in pushing that reputation over the edge.
4. REMOVE bogus reviews. REMOVE THEM. This idea of, "You may not remove your review, but you may add to it." That's cowardly. Get rid of them.
5. Post your motivation for providing reviews to the public:
- Is it to have a hyped up site to sell more Google ads?
- Is it to have more negative reviews, so you attract more traffic?
- Or are you truly committed to improving the industry, and to provide a community of fellow voluntourists who are now, after their experience, committed to the community too? If you are doing this for the right reasons, you'll become active and you'll attend conferences and you will contribute valuable information to providers, lessons all of us want to learn to be better.
The abroad review site I mentioned above violates every one of these 5 suggestions. I hate that site. (Look...I had to leave at least ONE thing from the original post.)
If you own such a site, get in touch. I'd love to chat with you. We're not perfect over here at GeoVisions. I've done this work 36 years and GeoVisions celebrated 10 years on February 11. So we're not in business to upset people or provide an inferior experience. We care deeply about our volunteers and teachers and we are grateful for them. We care about our programs and that they are safe. Provide me a platform where I can learn more (like I did this week in Denver) and I will embrace you. I can help drive even more traffic to your site.
Or better yet, attend a conference. I was just at one in Denver. There will be another in Barcelona, Spain in mid-September. And there will be others. Get involved in the community you want to review...and that will show your true motivation.
Right now, I know of one. GoOverseas.com. Those guys want to to it the right way. They are active in our industry. They provide remarkable content 7 days a week. They work with providers and they provide information to hopeful volunteers and teachers. They work with organizations to "get it right." They listen.
I like the BBB (Better Business Bureau). We display the BBB logo on our Home Page. It is actually a dynamic link to our BBB rating. Right now we are proud to be an A+ business. But if we fall, that is noted right on our Home Page.
On that site you can write a review or file a complaint. And yes, you have to use your real name. You can no longer use SallyLampShade207. You can also see the other complaints and how we rectified them. We like the BBB because they insist on two-way communication. You wrote this. The company wrote that. And here is how it all ended. Right there for everyone to see. Use it. It's on our Home Page for cryin' out loud.
Isn't that what this is all about? You just gave a ton of hours, a lot of money and you want to see something improved? The BBB site requires that. You can't just write a review and move on. You have to interact with the company. That way, things get better. 100% of the time.
If you have comments about this post, we encourage them here. Yeah, you have to leave your real email address and name. But we are eager to know what you think. Get that? We are eager to know what YOU think. SallyLampShade207? I have no interest.
If you have ever wanted to volunteer in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, you can now apply for a scholarship to help out with your volunteer expenses.
America's Unofficial Ambassadors is offering scholarships to GeoVisions' volunteers in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. Scholarships up to $5000 can be used to cover program fees and/or travel. Applications for the scholarship are being taken through August 31, 2011. The funds can be used for 2011 or 2012 program dates.
In Jordan, you can use this scholarship for:Conversation Corps-JordanConversation Partner-JordanMentoring in AqabaFeynan Ecolodge
In Lebanon, the scholarship can be used forConversation Corps-LebanonConversation Partner-Lebanon
In Turkey, the scholarship is available forConversation Corps-TurkeyConversation Partner-Turkey
You can read about the Mosaic Scholarship
and then there are links to the rules and regulations, and the application.
The underlying premise of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) is that private American citizens have to do more to improve America’s relationship with the Muslim World. Read more about AUA
By December of 2012, AUA plans to have 1000 Americans commit to at least 1 week of service in the Muslim World. We are very proud to be an approved organization of AUA, and our programs in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey rank high enough to qualify for the scholarship.
Contact us if you have questions. You should work your application
with GeoVisons along with the application for the scholarship.
We welcome any comments about the programs or the scholarship.
Now you're headed to France as a volunteer with GeoVisions and you are wondering what to pack. You want to "blend in," right? You've told yourself that you can't possibly stick out the entire time and look like a tourist. And you really do want your host family to take you places, so the last thing you want to do is embarrass them. I get it. This Blog post is directed straight at you. It will help you a lot.
The first advice I'd give is to look at the photos of your host family. What are they wearing? This would be a really great clue on what types of clothes to pack.
The next thing you could do is check the host family out on Facebook. Hey! They've checked you out, so return the favor. I'm going to write an entire Blog post about the numbers of tutors we've lost this year thanks to their Facebook photos. Oh do I have stories to share with you about what host families find on Facebook pages. So this is a HINT to go clean up your Facebook page. While you're doing that, see if you can find your new host family on Facebook too. Get some ideas about where they like to go, what they like to do and how they dress.
The last thing you can try is simply ASK THEM! You have their email address and phone number. Just ask. Hey…they're taking you in, housing you, feeding you and trusting you to teach them some English. So just fire off that big question: "Hi! This is Sally! I want to pack the appropriate clothes and I was wondering if you could email me back with some ideas that would fit your family." When I ask for help, I always receive it. But results may vary.
Here are some other suggestions you can try:
1. Eat Like The French
The French LOVE McDonads. Do NOT sit in a cafe and enjoy your meal allowing time for it to digest. The French don't enjoy wine either, so buy one of those Giant SuperSize Me cups of Pepsi with your Mickey D. And then be sure to run around all the tourist spots in Paris eating the burger and fries. You'll get some nasty looks, but they are only jealous of your Big Mac.
2. Wear Expensive Sneakers
When you put on those white socks and expensive running shoes, you'll feel right at home in France. The French love those things. The only thing they love more are your Teva sandals. They covet them and might actually knock you over and take them right off your feet. Be careful. And if your running shoes are big and chunky enough, you'll be taller than all French people and they will admire that.
3. Flaunt Yourself
I'm suggesting any T-shirt with a cute saying, or a shirt with all the cities of the tour from your best band listed down the back, or a color photo of someone you admire. I take that back. Wear the one that says, "I Heart Paris." The French will love you. Baseball caps that read, "USA" go over real well.
4. Day Travel Accessories
While over-stuffed backpacks are the rage in France, the one thing all the French wear is a fanny pack. You will find these under the most expensive business suits and on people sitting at the outside cafes. They especially like designer fanny packs or anything brightly colored. Just be sure to wear it on your front, so you are not a target for pick pockets and thieves.
5. Dress Like The French
The first thing you have to do is buy a real French beret. Then, never take it off when you're in France. All the French people wear them. And if it starts to rain, pull out that large umbrella with the drawing of the Eiffel Tower on it. But careful now, someone may actually think you're French and start asking you for directions.
So there you have it. How to not stick out as a tourist in France.
I mean, are you going trust me? Or are you going to trust your host family?In all seriousness, do you have other ideas for everyone headed to France? Serious ideas, that is? Please add them to our comments section below.
Months ago, I wrote a Blog post about the 5 things you should never put in a host family letter. That post has received 4000 views so far and it is still the number 1 post on the GeoVisions Blog. I went back to that post and what I wrote still rings true today, so I haven't changed it.
Recently we learned about some of our volunteers and teachers packing the oddest stuff. We all have our personal lists of items to take with us on a trip, but some of these have set the bar to a new level.
Here are three items you don't want to pack, when traveling abroad. Never. Ever.
Pantene is so good, I need bags of it, since the rest of the world probably won't have it.
The United States is known for God, Mother, Apple Pie, The Boston Red Sox and Pantene. Yes, you can buy Pantene at Walgreens, CVS, your local supermarket and even Walmart. And I am very well aware that Pantene shampoo will make your hair look healthy, the conditioner will give your hair body, and the styling products will make you look sexy.
But do this for me:
When you click on the link above for Pantene (and I hope you will) look in the far right corner of their website. Up where it says COUNTRY/LANGUAGE please press on that, will ya? 'Nough said. You don't need to take an entire bag of Pantene products with you on your trip. Take a little extra money and BUY IT THERE.
One of our tutors ended up paying extra baggage fees only to discover Pantene is available anywhere items are sold, anywhere there is a store in 51 countries. I know. It's hard to imagine.
I admit I'm biased on this Pantene thing. I'm bald.
Music Sharing Software On Your Laptop
I thought we were all done with illegal music sharing. I have Apple TV and we share our tunes all over the house. We don't necessarily like each other's music in my household, but we can share it legally. All of us have iPods, iPads, iPhones and Macs and we just share the music in our little home network. But I guess you can still do this illegally as well. Apple has done a great job of keeping me in my little, safe bubble I think.
If you are going to take your laptop or tablet, DON'T SHARE MUSIC IN OTHER COUNTRIES. We have a case pending now in Europe with one of our volunteers who used a piece of music sharing software downloaded in the U.S. She took that software on her laptop to Europe and started downloading and sharing music. SHE GOT CAUGHT. She may have to pay a €900 fine with lots of other penalties.
When in Rome, do as the Romans. Don't illegally share music and be careful of the websites you browse. The U.S. Embassy cannot help you, and that also means GeoVisions can't help you either.
In my case, no one likes my music. I'm safe no matter where I travel. I can't pay people to listen to my music...never mind sharing it. But you? If there is a little black rain cloud, look up. 99% of the time it is hovering over you.
Last but certainly not least, we actually had a volunteer pack bathroom scales in her bag. I couldn't and I wouldn't make that up.
If this photo is you, don't travel abroad. Go straight to the Biggest Loser Ranch or your therapist. If you have to travel abroad with bathroom scales, you have issues. And I can assure you that we're not going to be able to help you solve those issues on any volunteer project we have available.
You're going to gain weight on your trip. Whole milk. Cheese. Bread, bread, bread. SUGAR in the form of deserts and ice cream. Enjoy the food, the culture based around it. Embrace the food.
A few months ago I returned from a week in the Middle East. Someone here at the office asked why all of my photos were of food. Well, food in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon is really good and it's pretty. It makes for great photos. But it is based all around the culture. You can't have one without the other. And if you're traveling with your bathroom scales to make sure you don't gain weight, you're missing out on a lot of culture. The more calories, the more culture. I know, it doesn't make sense but trust me on this. I'm right.
So what are the oddest things you've packed or seen people pack? Can you share them here? You could probably help us come up with the definitive list to share. Legally, of course.
Playing For Change is 150 volunteer musicians in 25 countries, putting together 47 videos. None of them have ever met.
Since 2007, the Playing For Change Foundation has helped promote peace across borders by bringing music education programs and instruments to children in communities around the globe.
The newest in the series of videos is the one below. Singing "Gimme Shelter", this group of musicians hails from Sierra Leone, Japan, Italy, USA, Jamaica, India, Brazil, Mali and Senegal. And yeah, they've never met. But with the power of editing, it sounds exactly like they all got into the studio at the same time and laid down this track.
It's easy to get involved with the Playing For Change Foundation, and we hope you will check out their website.
For now, enjoy the video. We thought this would be a great way to usher in the weekend! (If your system supports HD, manually change the slider to 720i and turn up those speakers!)