Students Abroad: Volunteering Abroad

Children experiencing their first hammock from Grace's Children's Home in Haiti, by Andrew McCraw.
Children experiencing their first hammock from Grace’s Children’s Home in Haiti, by Andrew McCraw.

By Grace Richards

Have you ever dreamt of teaching children to read or helping preserve the habitat of an endangered species? You may be able to make those dreams come true. While traveling and studying in a new city can be an amazing experience in itself, some students want to give back to the communities who are hosting them and make a difference in their own way while they’re abroad. For these students, programs that help them volunteer can be the perfect blend of travel and service, offering a chance to learn, grow, and have life-changing experiences.

There are numerous opportunities for students looking to volunteer abroad, encompassing a wide range of countries, types of work, and lengths of stay that can meet the needs of nearly any charity-minded student. Yet even those who want to give back may not know where to start looking for programs, how to finance a trip, or may just be intimidated by the idea of traveling and working in another country without a steady income.

In the second of our three-part series on students abroad (see the first part here and the third part here), we’ll focus on educating students about these types of programs, addressing the biggest trends in volunteering abroad, the options students have, and provide resources, and advice on making volunteering abroad a part of your college experience.

Volunteering Abroad Trends

Wondering what other students are doing when they head abroad to take on volunteer work? While each experience will be unique, a study by Planterra, GAP adventures, and International Ecotourism Society revealed some major trends in where volunteers travel, who volunteers, and what kind of work is done while volunteers are overseas.

According to this data, the majority of volunteers are between 20 and 29 years of age and 16% of them are students, though many others may be recent grads with the vast majority (two-thirds) holding an undergraduate or graduate degree. For students who are nervous about traveling alone, this built-in peer group may help make the adjustment to life in a new country a bit easier, especially as the survey also revealed that most in volunteer programs were well-traveled and have a lot of experience living abroad (one third of those surveyed had traveled internationally at least five times in the past five years).

While volunteering programs exist all over the world, the most popular destination among those surveyed was South America, which 71% said they wanted to visit. Closely following South America were Central America (63%), Africa (60%), and Asia (59%). The survey also revealed that the destinations volunteers find most appealed are heavily influenced by their own country of origin, with Americans much more likely to choose multiple locations. On a country by country basis, the most requested destinations for travel are Peru, Costa Rica, Australia, and South Africa, according to research by Lasso Communications.

It’s not just the destination that many volunteers have a preference for but also the type of work they’ll do once they arrive. Volunteers expressed the greatest interest in taking on environmental projects though community tourism and develop were almost as popular. In practice, the most requested projects for those taking on volunteer work abroad are teaching, building projects, community development, and conservation.

Perhaps the most interesting trend with regard to volunteering abroad is how willing most volunteers are to recommend the experience or to do it again. More than three quarters reported that they would recommend volunteering abroad to a friend and 87% said they were interested in embarking on another volunteer trip. This highly positive response may help students feel more confident that they own experiences overseas will be good ones.

Peace Corps volunteer, Will Lindsey, in the Andes of Peru.
Peace Corps volunteer, Will Lindsey, in the Andes of Peru.

Should You Volunteer Abroad?

While volunteering abroad is a noble endeavor, not all students may be well-suited to the challenges it poses. Others may simply find that it doesn’t work well within their plans for college and will need to wait until they’ve graduated to explore these kinds of opportunities. While there’s no foolproof way to know if you’re ready to volunteer abroad, here are some questions to ask yourself before signing on for any program.

  • Can you respect other cultures even when they differ from your own? Depending on where you travel, you may encounter cultural beliefs that are very different from your own and may even make you uncomfortable. Being able to live among people you may not always agree with and be respectful of their beliefs even if you don’t share them may be a critical part of your experience abroad.
  • Are you flexible? As a volunteer, you’ll have to go along with whatever tasks your program needs you to assist with. This may mean letting go of grandiose plans for changing the world to focus on everyday, basic tasks. Volunteering abroad will also require flexibility from you in a range of other areas, from where you’ll live to how you spend your free time.
  • How do you cope with being outside of your comfort zone? Most places that are in dire need of volunteers are going to push you outside of your comfort zone in one way another, either in terms of comfort, culture, or in the leadership they require of you. How have you coped with being pushed out of your comfort zone in the past? While new, sometimes uncomfortable experiences can help you grow, for some living and working this far outside of what they know will be more stressful than productive.
  • Does volunteering fit into your goals? Before signing up for a program, it’s important to think about what you expect to get out of a program and to assess how it will fit into your long term goals for school and your career. If you need to focus on internships or taking classes over your breaks, volunteering may not be the best option for you. For others, it might be a nice change of pace from a tough academic schedule.
  • What are your expectations? It’s also critical to think about what your expectations for an volunteering program are as well. If you’re used to living in luxury housing, you may need to think about how you’ll cope with a lack of indoor plumbing or primitive housing. Even if you’re sure you want to volunteer, you need to think seriously about where you want to go and what kind of experience you want to have, as this will play a big role in determining whether or not you enjoy volunteering or are overwhelmed by it.
  • Why do you want to volunteer abroad? This is perhaps one of the most important questions to ask yourself before signing up to volunteer abroad. Do you simply want to bolster your resume? Do you want to make a difference? Are you passionate about a cause? Knowing why you want to volunteer can help you determine where you should go, what you should do, and even how long you should stay.

If you’re unsure about your answers to these questions or find elements of them troubling, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to rule out volunteering abroad. Take your time carefully considering your options, talking to others who’ve been through the experience, and ensuring you’re taking on the project at the right time for your educational career.

Colby Nielsen visiting the humanitarian operation Wings of Hope in the DRC.
Colby Nielsen visiting the humanitarian operation Wings of Hope in the DRC.

Your Options for Volunteering Abroad

Opportunities for volunteering abroad have exploded. There are hundreds of private companies and non-profit programs offering the chance for students and anyone else to spend time living in and providing community service to an area in need. It’s impossible to cover the entire spectrum of programs in one article, so here are just a few common types of overseas experiences that may pique your interest and get you ready to take off on your own altruistic adventures.

One popular program for volunteering abroad is called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. Through a global network of organizations, students work on organic, sustainable farms and help teach these farming methods to local communities. There are over 30 countries with WWOOFing programs at present, ranging from Iceland to Kenya, so students can find work almost anywhere in the world. In return for labor on farms, participants in WWOOF programs are given food, lodging, and the opportunity to learn more about organic methods of cultivation. Those who enjoy hands-on, eco-focused experiences will love the opportunity to work outdoors and play a central role in local communities through the program.

For those who prefer to work directly with helping people, a program such as the New Futures Organization may be a more satisfying choice. NFO operates the rural schools in Takeo, Cambodia, offers English classes to the local community, and runs a home for orphaned or homeless children. Volunteers with the organization, many of them students, teach classes, build facilities and playgrounds, assist in food production, and help care for children. It’s an opportunity not only to experience another culture but also to make a difference in an incredibly impoverished and often neglected part of the country. Because NFO is a NGO, there are no fees to take part in volunteering as there may be with some commercial organizations. Volunteers only pay for their plane ticket over, registration fees, and a nominal amount each day for food and lodging (only about $5).

Students who enjoy the experience of volunteering abroad may want to consider longer, more intensive programs in their post-graduation years. One of the best known volunteer programs is the Peace Corps, a two-year government-run program that aims to foster cross-cultural understanding while providing assistance in education, nutrition, business, technology, agriculture, and the environment. With more than 210,000 volunteers to date and programs in 139 countries, it offers students a chance to get experience and leadership training in their post-college years while giving back to communities around the world and getting a broad cultural education.

The Student Perspective

Though it can be useful to learn more about the basics of volunteering abroad, most students simply want to know what the experience will really be like. While no two trips will be alike, it can be useful to hear from students who’ve been there and done it before to give students a better idea of what to expect and some of the pros and cons of volunteering and living abroad.

Eric Spioch, a student at McDaniel College, enrolled in a program called Amideast, which combines study abroad with cultural exchange and involvement in local communities. Through this program, he studied and volunteered in Egypt for four months. While many students might be nervous about heading to a country like Egypt, where both culture and language might be unfamiliar, Spioch says that this was actually the best part of his experience. “The best parts of going abroad were the ones that took me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I pride myself on being flexible and being able to adapt to anything, and my semester abroad really put those abilities to the test.”

Of course, adapting to life in a foreign country isn’t easy, and young people may find themselves intimated by many situations they encounter, but this isn’t also a bad thing. “The most specific instance of being intimidated was actually my volunteer work in the Children’s Cancer Hospital, which I did as part of a class that I was taking that focused on non-governmental agencies in Egypt,” explained Spioch. “With little experience in dealing with children, let alone those in such an unfortunate situation, I felt somewhat ill-prepared to function in the hospital, which ended up being where I spent the most continuous time speaking only Arabic. This initial hesitation (fear/panic/stress) ended up changing into an appreciation for the challenges that gave me the most direct contact with Egyptians from all walks of life, as well as hopefully improving my skills with children.

“My advice for anyone considering going abroad is to take the risk and go for it,” he said. “There are going to be moments or entire days when you just completely fail at even the most basic social interactions and just want to go back home even if it means trying to force a camel to swim across the Atlantic, but you have to just go back to where ever you live, drink a beer and say to yourself, ‘That was not my best day, but I am moving on from it.’ Learning to laugh at your mistakes can get you through whatever difficulties you run into, and you will never get anything out of the experience if you spend the whole semester hiding from anything new or different.”

Kally Huffty visiting an orphanage in Kisumu, Kenya and showing the kids a hammock for the first time!
Kally Huffty visiting an orphanage in Kisumu, Kenya and showing the kids a hammock for the first time!

Resources for Volunteering Abroad

Looking for some resources to get you started on finding the best volunteering program for you? Here you’ll find help with funding, finding programs, getting ready, and more.

  • The Best Volunteer Abroad Organizations: While it doesn’t include every great organization, this list from Goodnet is a great place to start looking for programs to volunteer abroad.
  • 10 Ways to Make Volunteering Abroad WorthwhileJournalism student Victoria Stunt shares some of the things she found made volunteering a richer, more significant experience.
  • Go Volunteer has a huge directory of volunteer opportunities organized by country, type, and duration.
  • Go Overseas Volunteer Database: Here you’ll find a great collection of programs for volunteering abroad, with reviews from participants, too.
  • Volunteer Overseas Resources: From preparing to volunteer to special tips for women, this site is full of resources that can help students get ready for an exciting volunteer program.
  • Idealist Volunteer Resources Center: Whether you’re volunteering at home or abroad, this resource center will help you understand everything you need to know about the experience.
  • Voluntourism Grants from TravelocityDon’t think you can afford to volunteer abroad? Consider applying for a grant through Travelocity to cut the costs.

Volunteering abroad can not only give you the chance to make a difference in the world but also in your own life through experiences that change your perspective, set you up for success, and make you a more culturally-aware, worldly individual. If you’re looking for foreign travel that goes outside of the standard vacation or study abroad experience, don’t hesitate to look into the amazing array of volunteer experiences you can take part in while you’re a student and beyond.

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