You're a good person. You enjoy helping others. You have always wanted to give back in a more substantial way. So you think to yourself, "I think it's time I start volunteering." But you don't just want to volunteer, you want to volunteer abroad! It gives you the opportunity to explore another culture and land while being involved in some kind of project to benefit the people who you are interested in learning about. The biggest question to ask yourself, before deciding on where to go or what to do, is when should I go? Because we all know how life can get in the way...
Once you’ve decided on when you want to go, you’ll want to research the different type of volunteer programs. Your time restraints and what you’re looking to away from the experience will define the sort of program you want to be looking into. The final step of your research is to read reviews from previous volunteers on the different organizations. These unbiased commentaries will help you get a realistic sense of what to expect.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here! Whether you're in high school or looking toward retirement, there's a perfect opportunity for you to take the plunge, get on the plane and join the thousands volunteering abroad every year. Here’s a list of the 6 best times in your life to volunteer abroad.
1. During High School
Think you're too young? Think again! Numerous programs set up service trips for students in high school. Most of the programs are designed to give students a safe, organized introduction to life in a different culture, while giving back. They are also meant to be fun! Programs often include trips like safaris, visits to elephant sanctuaries, beach days, etc. depending on your locale.
If you're looking to learn more about yourself or just want a more interesting summer vacation than last year, these service trips go to destinations like Costa Rica, Tanzania and Vietnam. Programs usually last 1-2 months and have focuses such as teaching English, construction and conservation. While it shouldn't be your primary reason for helping others, this experience is also something that can make you stand out from among your peers as you apply to college.
2. Before Starting College
Taking a gap year before entering college is becoming increasingly more common in recent years. While traveling the world is eye opening in itself, by volunteering during your gap year, you can have an even more meaningful experience. Some teens take the entire year to dedicate themselves to a specific location or organization. If this isn't what you're looking for, thinking about breaking up your gap year so that between traveling you take the opportunity to volunteer in one of the countries you visit. Depending on your flexibility and preference, you can get involved in either a long or short term program.
If you still want to start with your classmates, think about volunteering abroad during the summer between high school and college. This is a turning point, the time between the life you have always known and a new life on the way to adulthood. Get energized for college by seeing something completely foreign and experiencing another culture. The experience just might help you direct your studies. Plus you'll have some pretty cool things to talk about when on your first few days making new friends.
When you're in high school, the world is full of possibilities. You are young, filled with energy and a sense of optimism (hopefully!), knowing that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Why not put that abundant energy to good use and do something that's both meaningful and fun?
3. Summer Breaks from School
Counselors, parents, professors and recent grads will all tell you how crucial it is to productively spend your summers, how instrumental your experiences in those breaks will be in getting a job after graduation. Typically they are referring to internships or jobs in the field you want to pursue. But who says volunteering abroad can't give you a significant experience to get you where you want to go??
It is worth checking if you can get college credit for your experience abroad. This would encourage you to be more in depth with your time abroad as you will be required to complete some kind of deliverable in the form of a project or paper. Volunteering for credit typically also means you have an advisor, someone to help direct your focus and experience.
Also, check out alternative spring break programs for short-term volunteer opportunities abroad. Many are located close to home - in Mexico, the Caribbean or Latin America. Universities organize programs in various locations though private companies also offer
4. Post Graduation
Hooray! After four long years, you've finished your degree and are bestowed with a new title: Bachelor. But what will you do now? If you're not quite sure what career you want to jump into or aren't ready for graduate school, consider taking a month (Or three! Or six!!) to volunteer in another country.
For one thing, it will give you a newfound respect for the challenges of certain fields, like medicine or education, in a low-resource setting. Secondly, you are more likely to develop further independence and learn about yourself in an unfamiliar environment than you are back in the comforts of home – even if this means learning what you don't want to do with your life. Who knows what you will learn?
Traveling for travel's sake is awesome and fun, but someday you're going to look back and wish you had done something a little extra. Plus, when you get back home and start looking for a job, being able to show that you did something meaningful with your time will definitely help.
5. Mid-Career Break
Feeling burnt out on your career? Looking for a change of scenery? Whether you already have a new job on the horizon or are uncertain of the next step, taking a break to volunteer abroad is a great way to get reenergized and excited about your life. For those of you who are fulfilled by your careers, you may want to consider a sabbatical.
By taking a few months off to expose yourself to something entirely different from your life at home, you allow yourself to grow as a person and become more dynamic. Those factors plus giving yourself time to relax and take your mind off work will bring you back refreshed with a new perspective.
With the kids out of the house, the job coming to a close, and pension kicking in, it's time to make some decisions about what comes next. For many individuals and couples alike, it's the chance to take all those trips you've been discussing for years but never had the time or money to actually book.
You've got the world at your fingertips and finally time to enjoy it! Don't waste another second. As you research destinations, consider giving back as you travel. Older travelers are highly valued due to the experience they can bring to organizations. Think about the skills you have acquired throughout your career. If they are quite specialized, how could you go about utilizing those skills and who would be of the greatest benefit. Retirees may even consider teaching abroad, for pay or as a volunteer.
If you want to move away from your previous experiences and try something completely different, there are numerous ways you can get involved. Perhaps you'd like to try your hand at teaching as a volunteer in Kenya or join an environmental conservation project in Guatemala.
(*Pssst* we've got a great article on 7 great volunteer abroad programs for grown-ups if you need some ideas on a program fit for someone who has lived a little already!)
To be honest, there isn't really a bad time to volunteer abroad! So with this list in mind, think about when volunteering abroad may work out best for you. Once you've found the time, all you have to do it go out and do it -- bonne chance!Photo Credits: Global Volunteer Network.