VISIONS contributed this article to TeenLife

There is really only one important thing to keep in mind for teenagers embarking on a summer or school break community service program in another country or culture: expect the unexpected.

The one reliable constant of working and living in another culture is that the experience won’t be anything like what you possibly could have imagined. The fewer concrete expectations you have going into the experience, the better.You should expect to see new sites, to do the service projects, adventure and other activities promised by the program. You should expect solid safety and health precautions during your trip, and that you will make new friends and learn new things.

You will prepare for your summer trip abroad by packing the required items on the list you receive of things to bring. You’ll need a passport, maybe a visa or vaccination if you’re traveling out of the country. Reading a bit about the place you’re traveling to definitely is a good idea.

The ultimate preparation for a community service trip, the way to guarantee maximum return, is to go with as much curiosity as you can muster. Be curious and stay curious. Let go of expectations. Try to let your curiosity lead you. If you do, you are guaranteed a life-changing experience.

You will see strange, sometimes startling contradictions. You will experience intoxicating sensations, tastes, smells, sounds, even new ways of seeing color–in the sky, the landscape, local foods, clothing and more. There will be pleasant surprises and crazy, unplanned occurrences all along the way. You may have sudden deep changes of heart or find your perceptions about things turned inside out and upside down on a dime.

You may discover that the family living in the two-room house who you felt sorry for when you first arrived are now inspiring, the parents among the wisest people you’ve ever met. It may strike you that the Mapuche Indian whose language you don’t speak who shows you how to weave together dried banana leaves to make a roof is the most patient, most effective teacher you’ve ever had.

You could find yourself sitting on a jam-packed bus squeezed next to an old woman holding a chicken on her lap; that the roasted beetle you stuck in your mouth on a dare actually tastes pretty good; or that the bucket shower you’re taking at the end of the work day is way more luxurious than the full-blast jet shower at home.

You could be puzzled by the new drive inside you from out of nowhere to dig the deepest hole, carry the most rocks, or make the perfect cut with the circular saw you learned how to use only days before.

On a late afternoon in the middle of your trip you might be sitting with friends playing dominoes or cards when you suddenly realize that you can’t remember feeling this happy hanging out with pals at home. And after your trip, you may recall how infinitely more excited you were about a walk to the tiny corner store down the street than you ever feel going to the mall.

How can you expect or be prepared for what it feels like to walk in another person’s shoes whose life is so different from yours, who has little compared to you in material things? Maybe you never can. But you might come close when you recall the day at the work site when you sat down for a break from building a two-room house for a grandmother. When you remember her six-year-old grandson sitting beside you, who watched your group work hard all morning, look up and say to you: “This is the most beautiful house I have ever seen. Thank you.”

Expect the unexpected. Be curious, and you will be well prepared for the experience of a lifetime on your summer volunteer adventure.

VISIONS in The New York Times