While any type of volunteer work can be meaningful, volunteering abroad gives students a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in a different culture while helping others. Volunteering in high school is worthwhile because individuals can explore their passions on a more independent level - much like college life allows. With luck, you will get a head start on discovering your passion and be able to jump right into joining clubs or organizations on your college campus.
Volunteering abroad has many benefits, but it can also be somewhat challenging. Many trips can be both physically and emotionally draining - but still worth it! Signing up because you’re interested in helping a cause - not just as an activity to add to a college application - will make the trip even more special. If you participate with the intention of contributing to a community in need, your energy and funds will be well spent.
Check out these tips to ensure that you’re mentally prepared for a truly memorable experience.
1. Research programs beforehand.
This may seem obvious, but explore all the possible options so you don’t limit yourself right away. Just like the process of picking a college, this decision shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research the trip like you would look into a possible schools; you’re looking for the perfect fit. Depending on what your interests are, there is a volunteer program for you - whether its environmentally focused or healthcare in impoverished areas. You just have to find it. The research process can seem over whelming, so here are some ideas to help narrow down the options.
- Check out reviews that past participants have left about their experiences volunteering abroad. This will help you find out more information about specific programs and what it's really like to volunteer abroad as a high school student. Consider programs like Rustic Pathways, Experiment in International Living, or Global Works.
- Ask friends and family members you know who have volunteered abroad about programs they participated in. Pick their brain as much as you can!
- Call the program’s office and ask if they can put you in contact with previous participants. Call them and ask them about their experiences.
2. Once you find a program, research some more.
Once you find your ideal trip, do not stop there. Trust me when I say it’s not a good idea to “wing” your interviews. Just like the process for picking a school, this decision shouldn’t be taken lightly. Looking into the finer details of the program - the schedule for work and downtime, the logistics - what you need to pack, and exactly what the location will be like - whether it’s a nice suburb or more of a poverty stricken area - could help you get more excited about your trip, while also increasing your chances of actually getting accepted into the program.
3. Learn about the culture.
Before you stuff the last item into your bag, it’s crucial to know as much information about the culture as possible. Whether you will be attending classes abroad or doing a summer program, you’ll have a great time exploring a culture that might be foreign at first, but will soon become familiar and welcoming. On this trip, you’ll have the opportunity to completely immerse yourself in a new culture, but it's important that you know what to expect before departing. Research any customs unique to the culture or area, learn about ethnic cuisines, and brush up on the etiquette of the local people. Not only will you be more prepared upon arrival, but this could also save you from a headache. For instance, if you're heading to Israel it's important to know if public transportation stops running during Sabbath. Or, if you have a gluten intolerance, strategize before leaving for Morocco so you know what types of local cuisine you'll be able to eat.
4. Visit the doctor.
Health information about the country you're visiting should be available on your program's website, but it's still important to visit the doctor before going abroad. Make sure that you're up to date on all of you shots, especially if you are traveling to an area where certain diseases are common. Get your yellow fever immunization shot - you’ll be thankful when you return home sans back pain or digestive complications. And while you're at it, fill any prescriptions so you will be totally covered abroad.
5. Keep a journal.
Keeping a journal is great for self-reflection and as a keepsake. If this suggestion sounds cheesy because you’re not into diaries, don’t treat it like one! This is simply a bound book for you to write down whatever will help you remember your trip later on. Don’t think of it as another essay you’re forced to write for class. Be as creative as you want and don’t force yourself to stick to a certain structure. You could make lists, write excruciatingly long summaries of the day (like I did), or maybe jot down a few sentences of your thoughts, ideas or what you learned that day. Months after the trip, when you can’t remember an event, you’ll be able to go back and read about it from the best possible source, yourself.
6. Consider your goal and expectations.
It’s important to know what you want to get out of the program so you can make the most of it. Writing down goals helps you keep track of whether you are getting everything out of the volunteer trip as you possibly can because chances are, you won’t have a second chance. So write down your ambitions in a journal or a loose sheet of paper and then set out to do everything you can to accomplish your goals.
Similar to goals, writing down expectations will hold you accountable for making sure you take control and have a fulfilling experience. This list could also help target any concerns or reservations you might have and then think of ways to be proactive. Ahh, the perks of thinking ahead.
Whether you will be attending classes abroad or doing a summer program, you’ll have a great time exploring a culture that might be foreign at first, but will soon become familiar and welcoming. On this trip, you’ll have the opportunity to completely immerse yourself in a new culture.
7. Positivity and an open mind are key.
I’m sure you know that every single moment on the trip will not be perfect. It feels good to let go of those impossible standards, right? It’s ok that the trip might not go exactly as you had imagined; prepare to adapt and enjoy yourself. Learning how to adjust to different situations is all part of volunteering abroad, but maintaining an upbeat attitude is crucial for a positive experience.
While the volunteer work may get overwhelming at times, avoid letting yourself lose sight of the impact you’re making. Remembering why you’re there and why volunteer work matters makes it easier to remain positive and puts the trip into perspective.
8. Don’t worry about not making friends.
The great thing about volunteer trips is that you are guaranteed to have at least one thing in common with the other participants. You will all have chosen this trip (hopefully) because you want to make a difference. You may come from various backgrounds, but bonding shouldn’t be an issue when you’re surrounded by people with similar interests and passions.
Worried because you chose a shorter trip? A short adventure of only a couple weeks doesn’t mean you won’t be able to form close bonds. Shorter trips allow for more activities and volunteering hours in a brief period, so chances are, you will be spending close to eight hours with your group a day. That is plenty of time to form friendships with someone who also believes in the importance of giving back and not sitting idly by. Another bonus? You’ll be working with people from all over the world, so use this opportunity to make international friends and expand your global network. Who knows? Maybe you’ll hit it off with someone and decide to participate in more volunteer abroad trips together.
9. Know how to divide work and play.
Depending on the program you choose, you may not have structured free time with the rest of your group on a daily basis. If you pick a program that allows for more independent time off, you’ll need a few ideas on how to relax once you’re done volunteering. If you’re an incoming junior or senior in high school, knowing how to relax will come in handy once you return to high school and the workload really starts to pick up. During your free time, find ways to further bond with your group. Go sightseeing together, dine out, or try to make friends with some locals. For some solo relaxation, take an hour to write in you journal or take a walk around the area.
10. Keep future opportunities in mind.
Volunteering abroad in high school could be a great gateway to future experiences abroad. If you enjoyed your experience, look at ways to continue your studies abroad in college. Traveling out of the country in high school is a good way to get excited about spending more time abroad - whether you want to study, intern or volunteer. Once you experience the travel bug, it’s likely you’ll be bit by it again. One upside to traveling by yourself in high school is that you’ll have an idea of what to expect when you go abroad in college for a longer period of time.
11. Consider upcoming college applications.
Let’s face it. Now is the time to start thinking about what activities will set your college application apart from the thousands of other applicants. Good news: volunteering abroad is one of those unique experiences that will make you stand out. Earning good grades and playing a sport throughout high school is admirable, but also somewhat expected. Showing you have a global perspective and an interest in volunteer work could give you an edge over the competition. Not everyone will get the chance to travel abroad and volunteer, so use this as a way to highlight your independence and show your unique worldly perspective.
It’s important to know what you want to get out of the program so you can make the most of it. Writing down goals helps you keep track of whether you are getting everything out of the volunteer trip as you possibly can because chances are, you won’t have a second chance.
For many of you, this might be the first time you are miles from home without your parents. This is a great opportunity for you to get to know yourself better while getting a feel for how it will be once you’re away at college. Plan ahead and keep your sense of purpose and you’ll have an unforgettable and exciting volunteer trip abroad.
Photo Credits: GVN.