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Should You Study, Intern, Volunteer, Work, or Take a Gap Year Abroad?

Guy On Mountain

The world outside your door is calling... but its exact directions are a little muffled. It’s an exciting time to be a young person with dreams of seeing the world, as there are now more ways to get abroad than ever before. But more opportunities = tougher choices.

Here at Go Overseas we’re all about travel with a purpose, but which method of getting abroad is best for you? As someone who has done a little bit of everything, I know what an exciting and difficult decision this can be, so let me help you choose your adventure!

First, take our quiz to get a general idea of what might be best for you. Then read on to learn more about your options.

QUIZ: WHICH ADVENTURE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?

  • How long would you ideally like to spend abroad?
    1. 1 year
    2. 1-3 months
    3. 4-6 months
    4. Less than 1 month
    5. I don’t care
    6. As long as possible
  • How well do you know the language of your chosen destination?
    1. Fluent, or close to it
    2. Fairly proficient, but room for improvement
    3. Some, but I want to learn more
    4. Not much, but enough to get by
    5. Just enough to say “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “How much?”
    6. I have to pick just one?
  • What are you most interested in getting out of your time abroad?
    1. Making money and living the expat life
    2. Really immersing yourself in the culture while gaining practical experience
    3. Learning about the language and culture while having enough downtime to have fun and explore
    4. Making a difference in another part of the world
    5. Seeing all the amazing places you’ve always dreamed about visiting
    6. I can’t pick just one, there are a lot of different things I want to accomplish.
  • What does your budget look like?
    1. Umm… negative?
    2. It’s flexible, but I’m not rolling in dough.
    3. Not crazy tight, but some scholarships would help.
    4. I can afford flights and a little bit of spending money.
    5. Not bad, and I know I stretch it!
    6. The sky’s the limit!
  • Which best describes you?
    1. Determined, risk taker, always ready to face a new challenge
    2. Motivated, hardworking, goal-oriented, a (wo)man with a plan
    3. Fun-loving, inquisitive, maybe a bit traditional
    4. Compassionate, kind, low-maintenance
    5. Spontaneous, intrepid, adaptable
    6. Ambitious, resourceful, trailblazer and out-of-the-box thinker
So... Which adventure is right for you?
Quiz
  • Mostly a’s = Work abroad
  • Mostly b’s = Intern abroad
  • Mostly c’s = Study abroad
  • Mostly d’s = Volunteer abroad
  • Mostly e’s = Travel/Gap Year abroad
  • Mostly f’s = Amalgam!

Awesome! Got your adventure? Next, consider these factors...

While your results should help guide you, there are a few other thoughts you might want to take into consideration, especially if you find you scored high on multiple options.

Where are you in your life journey?

That might sound hippy dippy, but the place you are in your life will likely affect your choice. Are you in school? Studying abroad or interning abroad will probably make the most sense, as you can earn credit and gain great experience, and perhaps even receive some scholarship assistance for your endeavor.

If you’ve recently graduated from school, interning or working abroad might be your best bet. Those settled into a job at home or taking a mid-career break will likely find volunteering or simple travel abroad to be the easiest -- and may best be able to afford those options, though they can certainly be done at any time.

Your perceived “budget”
Budget Travelers

Generally speaking, certain experiences cost more than others. If you’re on an incredibly tight budget, working abroad and being able to make some money just makes more sense. Volunteering or interning abroad can really run the gamut, but depending on the opportunity you stumble on, you may be able to at least get free housing and get by with only paying for the cost of your flight and extra spending money. Studying abroad can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be; there are plenty of ways to study abroad for free. Traveling and gap years can also be a huge money-suck, but like with study abroad, you can find ways to really stretch the money you have on those as well.

All that being said, none of it is necessarily always true. If you find one type of international experience fits you better than the others, money can be found no matter what your budget. Scholarships and fellowships are available for study abroad, volunteering abroad, interning abroad, and even working abroad -- for everyone from high school and college students to young and mid-career professionals. Leaning toward a trip instead? Try fundraising, perhaps through a site like FundMyTravel or Fund and Seek.

That whole time thing

There are two sides of the coin to this one. First, sometimes people really don’t think they have as much time as they do, because they aren’t aware of their options (or perhaps they’re nervous about spending a lot of time abroad). You may think, “I can’t take a year out of my career to go abroad,” when in reality, you could be the perfect candidate for a year-long professional fellowship that will further your career much more than a year at your regular job at home would. Or you may think your major -- or your budget -- won’t allow you to spend a year (or even a full semester) abroad, but you may be surprised at your options. Perhaps you can pair an internship or au pair gig with your semester of study abroad, or apply for a scholarship to fund that extra time.

Every single one of these options are flexible, even though they may fall into general lengths.

On the flip side, don’t discount an option because you think it will take too much (or too little) time. Every single one of these options are flexible, even though they may fall into general lengths. Some people volunteer for one week, some for six months. Some people intern for a month, some for a year. And travel can last days or years! The point is, don’t box yourself into a category. Be flexible and open yourself up to different opportunities.

What you want to get out of your experience

If there are particular things you really want to get out of your experience, the truth is then you will be able to get it out of ANY adventure you choose (if you put in the effort!). If you really want to become fluent in the language, you can do it whether you’re interning at a local company with native speakers, taking a language course, or just traveling. There are so many ways to learn a language abroad!

The same goes for meeting the locals, learning about the culture, making a difference, and all of that. You can generally accomplish any of your goals no matter what the situation. But certain options will make it easier, or force you to accomplish said goals. And if you’re really looking to achieve a lot of different things and make the most of your time abroad, you might just need to go with the “Amalgam” option. (See below!)

Choose Your Adventure!

Jumping

Now that you’ve had the chance to think about your results and how they fit with your circumstances and goals, let’s dive in to the adventures at hand!.

Work Abroad

Working abroad is such an awesome experience. In a way, you get the best of everything. You get a unique insight into the culture that many people never have the chance to experience, as most likely you’ll be working with locals and participating in their work culture. Hands down, you’re going to learn a LOT. You’ll also be making money, so if you’re on a tight budget this is a great way to spend some significant time abroad. (And afford you the chance to travel and see a bit of your host country!)

The other great thing about working abroad is it shows initiative and makes you more marketable to future employers -- you didn’t just go abroad and mess around, you went and DID something. Whether you taught English abroad, participated in a working holiday, or found a job in another field, you were working, gosh darnit! You gained useful experiences and skills (even if they don’t seem to directly pertain to your chosen field), and you surmounted challenges you wouldn't have otherwise encountered with your job back home. Way to go, you!

Speaking of challenges, working abroad isn’t easy. At the least, you are going to have to do things the other options might not require -- open a bank account, get a visa, find a place to live, pay taxes, and more. If you are working abroad on a fellowship or a transfer within your own company, you might receive some help in these areas. If you aren’t -- well that’s one more challenge you’ll have to face... Finding a job! Either way, the challenge is so, so worth it in the end.

Suggested Work Abroad Programs
Intern Abroad

Personally, I think interning abroad is one of the most underrated and underutilized international experiences. Sure, it may require a lot more effort than studying abroad, but it will also make you stand out more! And chances are, you won’t be fetching coffee and making faxes! The experience you gain from an internship abroad is pretty much unbeatable. You will likely be gaining practical experience in your field -- always a plus! -- but you’ll also be gaining invaluable skills for our increasingly global workplace.

Like Work Abroad, you will likely be spending most of your day interacting with locals, not fellow students/expats.

Another great thing about interning abroad is that it can be a great budget option. You can potentially find your own internship, and there’s even a chance you could get paid (and/or get free/subsidized housing and meals). There are also a number of organizations and even fellowships that can help match you with an internship for free or a very low cost.

Oh, but wait! The perks just keep on coming. Interning abroad also allows you more independence and cultural immersion than some of the other options. Like Work Abroad, you will likely be spending most of your day interacting with locals, not fellow students/expats. And in my own (very unscientific observations), those who intern abroad seem to be the most likely to return to their host country -- whether it’s to go to graduate school, teach or work -- than almost any other option. So if that’s something that interests you... I’m just sayin’.

Suggested Intern Abroad Programs
Study Abroad

There’s a reason study abroad is one of the most popular adventures. Studying abroad is a perfect mix of all the things you’d want in an international experience, especially if it’s one of your first tastes of going abroad.

It’s (generally) not too easy, not too hard -- it’s that “juuuust right” porridge. You get to spend a significant amount of time abroad, but it’s justified. You’re getting something out of it. You’re getting credit, most likely. You’re learning. You’re experiencing the culture and meeting some locals at least. You still have enough free time to have fun and really explore your host city and country, and perhaps beyond. Generally speaking, you’ve got a lot of independence but you also probably have some support to lend a hand and help you out if you need it -- you know, just in case you were still wondering why you should study abroad.

But one of the great things about study abroad, partly because it is so widespread, is that you really can tailor it to your personality and goals. You can study abroad for two weeks or two years. You can take all your classes in Spanish and learn about history and tango, or take all your classes in English while studying Italian art. You can live with other students from your university and go out on the town every night, or you can opt for a homestay and really immerse yourself in your host country’s language and culture. These days, there really is something for everyone.

Suggested Study Abroad Programs
Volunteer Abroad

I talk a lot about how your choices can benefit you, but what about what you can do for others while you’re abroad? Many times, spending time abroad will open your eyes to how lucky you are, and how many people in the world are less fortunate than you. And who can blame you for wanting to do something about that? Truthfully, volunteering abroad is one of the most rewarding international experiences you can pursue.

There are other benefits, of course. Volunteering abroad can be great for those on a budget, as sometimes you receive room and board in return for your work (and perhaps a small stipend). Of course, it can also be expensive, depending on the organization or provider you choose.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do a few “fun” things as well while you’re abroad, but overall your focus point will be the cause you’re supporting.

That said, there is a vast array of volunteer programs and organizations out there. So make sure you do your research to be sure you’ll be volunteering responsibly and making a positive difference, but also volunteering with a program that fits your budget, schedule, and goals. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do a few “fun” things as well while you’re abroad, and some of these providers provide those extras. Overall, your focus point will be the cause you’re supporting. You will have enriching interactions with the locals -- in some ways perhaps more so than in any other “adventure” option -- and perhaps unique experiences and opportunities, whether it’s with wildlife, habitats, or communities. In many ways, your volunteer abroad experience may leave you more changed than any other international experience.

Suggested Volunteer Abroad Programs
Travel/Gap Year Abroad
Travel

Sometimes you just want to wander! Gap years and traveling may have less structure, but for some people it just works better that way. Maybe you only have a week and travel is your only option, or maybe you have boundless time and you just want to see what happens (in which case you might find yourself truly more of an “Amalgam” -- traveling with other adventures, like language study or volunteer work, mixed in).

Travel is great because it’s so flexible. It can fit any length of time, any budget, any goals. You can get just as much cultural immersion by Couchsurfing or WWOOFing as a homestay while studying abroad. You could have never been anywhere in your life except some traveling in South America, and you could still learn about so much of the world just from meeting other international travelers while staying in hostels.

As long as you’re making an effort to get to know the places you’re visiting, and not just getting to know the inside of different bars in each city, travel is just as worthwhile an option as any other. It’s great to get to know one place inside out, but it’s also great to see a number of places and be able to see their similarities and differences, and learn many different things. And for those who might not be able to pursue any of the other options, it is certainly better to travel than to just stay at home!

Suggested Gap Year Abroad Programs
Amalgam!

I just love that word... and if you fall in this category, I bet you do, too! Why accept the status quo? Why should you only get to do one thing? Why not combine adventures? There are so many possibilities, and you will get so much out of your experience! When people study abroad, it’s not uncommon for them to do a lot of traveling. But why not volunteer or do an internship during or after your program? (If you flew halfway across the world to study abroad in Thailand, why not make the most of your time over there and do an internship in Australia after the semester is over? Why not volunteer at an elephant sanctuary on your spring break?)

Work, intern, study, volunteer, travel... they’re not exclusive. You could easily do a number of these at once while at home, so why not abroad? And why rush home right after you’ve completed one experience? Why not keep going? I know it may seem difficult to impossible sometimes. Just one “adventure” might seem overwhelming on it’s own. But it gets easier with time and experience, and you will definitely not regret doing more! Take it from someone who’s done them all, they are all worth doing!

You’re ready to embark!

Hopefully this has helped you decide which adventure is right for you. Or better yet, it’s helped you decide which adventures are right for you! Chances are, one won’t be enough. The life of a global citizen is addictive, and there are just so many different things you can get out of different experiences, why limit yourself? The important thing is to realize that all of these adventures are achievable -- it doesn’t matter your age, your financial situation, or your academic/professional field. There’s an adventure out there waiting for you, so go get it!

Photo Credits: © Mary Camomile - Fotolia.com, Kris Krug, Oh Barcelona, and Mariana Yazmin.
Disclaimer: We have paid relationships with some of the companies linked to within this article.
Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.