Have you ever dreamed of spending your summer vacation in a foreign land? Are you the type of person who is excited by a challenge? Do you enjoy helping others? If so, volunteering abroad may be the alternative school break you are looking for! No longer reserved for college students or graduates, high school students now too can participate in programs all over the world, volunteering in a variety of aspects. From the coastal towns of Costa Rica to the Sub-Saharan villages of Ghana, these programs are designed to provide a structured, safe and exciting adventure for teenagers. What better way to learn about yourself and the world while giving back!
Photo credit: francisco_osorio
The most popular destinations for high school volunteer abroad projects vary only slightly program to program. The primary reason for this is safety. These developing countries benefit from volunteer work and have had stable environments in recent years. Here are the top five destinations, in no particular order, and a few honorable mentions.
Dominican Republic: Part of the Caribbean region, the Dominican Republic was once a colony of Spain and the US. Independent since 1924, Spanish remains the national language. It's known for it's beautiful beaches, colorful carnivals and the merengue. Many of the projects here focus on environmental sustainability.
For those hailing from the US, this is one of the most popular destinations, in part due to its proximity. Another Spanish-speaking locale, it has incredible biodiversity from its beaches to the rainforest, and is recognized for some of the best coffee and bananas in the world. Another common Central American country is Guatemala and popular projects in both countries have an environmental sustainability theme.
This West African country speaks English as its national language, though there are 9 recognized languages with numerous dialects. Called the gold coast, it is a country known for its democracy, political stability and of course its love of soccer! Other popular destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa include Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. Popular projects throughout Africa work in schools and orphanages as well as community construction and development.
If you haven't tried Peruvian food, you are sorely missing out! With influences from the indigenous Inca people and immigrants, their cuisine is as exciting as their culture. Millions comes every year to hike Machu Picchu and learn about the history of this South American Empire. You are likely to participate in construction and community development projects.
The exotic beauty of Thailand has drawn travelers to its mystery for years – so much so that Bangkok is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Buddhist temples, pristine beaches, and incredible rice terraces, Thailand must be experienced, not read about! Bali is another popular spot for programs in Southeast Asia. Projects in Southeast Asia primarily focus on working in schools and with orphans as well as conservation.
Once you've decided that you want to spend your break from school volunteering, and perhaps where you want to go, there are a few more things to consider. You'll want to decide what kind of program you are most comfortable with, how many hours of volunteering you plan on accruing and what projects you are interested in participating in. There are plenty of options for volunteering abroad in your teens!
Group vs. Individual Programs
By far the most common type of program is the structured group service trips. These volunteer experiences are put on by numerous companies during the summer vacation and usually last from 2 weeks up to 2 months. Some companies also offer winter vacation or spring break trips, which last 7-10 days. Typically the airfare, accommodations, adventure trips are organized by the program and are included in the program fees.
There are a number of benefits to joining a group trip:
- Instant Friends: Whether you're on the trip for 10 days or 2 months, you're going to want to have people to share this experience with. By joining a group trip, you have a built-in group of friends who you will bond with quickly as you take in the foreign lands. In many cases, these fast acquaintances become long-time friends.
- Experienced, reliable and fun leaders: Chosen for their knowledge of the country and also their ability to relate to and inspire teenagers, leaders navigate through the country while your group in tow. They are trained to be flexible to deal with the unknown. They also act as mediators among the group and mentors and listeners to you as you reflect on your experience. Plus they are there to have fun!
- Pre-arranged trips: While you are traveling primarily to volunteer, you want to see the country too! The companies organize trips to tourist spots, some of which could be difficult to do on your own. Hiking to waterfalls, swimming in pristine oceans, riding elephants, even an African safari. A great way to round our your travels!
- Carefree Logistics: A portion of the fees you pay go toward arranging the logistics of the trip - meaning you don't have to! From airport transport and buses in-country to translators and local support staff, they've got you covered. No need to stress!
- 24/7 Support: To comfort both your parents and yourself, these companies have 24-hour assistance while you're traveling with them. Most assign at least two leaders to the group, with staff back at home coordinating and keeping informed.
Those who would prefer to set up their own volunteer program independently may find a few companies/organizations that will take students under 18 years. Because you are still a minor, there is more liability and these companies want to ensure your safety overseas. For this reason, it will be more difficult, though not impossible, to volunteer on your own in your teens.
The benefits of arranging your own volunteer trip include:
- Flexibility: Maybe you're interested in traveling around after you volunteer. Or perhaps you want to volunteer in multiple locations or for an extended period of time. Finding your own organization to volunteer with will allow you to decide when and where you want to work.
- Affordability: Group service trips can be quite expensive. If money is a concern, setting up your own trip will cut costs, as a part of fees pay for the convenience of a ready-made trip. However keep in mind that they also provide support and logistics, which you will need to work through yourself.
- Independence: If you're someone who doesn’t like to be tied to a group or you're looking for an independent experience before heading off to college, this scenario may be best for you. More independence, more freedom and more responsibility to make this experience truly amazing and tailored to you.
- More Options: There are a given number of countries that most of these programs take students to, due to the safety and needs of the countries. However if you have your heart set on another location or another project, it may be in your best interest to arrange your own trip.
Each program has specific projects that you will be assisting with during your trip. You may be continuing a project from the year before or it may be something entirely new based on the community's needs. Here are just a few possibilities:
- Construction: Whether it's painting the walls of the local school or building a new community center for the entire village, you can help create a structure enjoyed for years to come.
- Conservation: Many countries are struggling with conserving the environment with population growth, modernization and tourism. Help bring a safe, clean environment for the people and animals that inhabit these exotic destinations.
- Education: In many countries there is the opportunity to teach English to children and adults alike. In others where English is already widely spoken, like Ghana, you may help with other subjects like math. Assisting an arts and crafts requires little more than your enthusiasm.
- Community Development: You may be working with youths or creating programs that unite the community.
Planning Your Trip
Get Your Parents on Board
It goes without saying that your parents are worried for your safety. Shipping you across the globe for several months may understandably make them nervous, especially if this is your first time abroad. To ease their concerns, send them all the pertinent information on the programs you are interested in. Have them speak with program staff to help them your safety is a priority and concern of the company as well. Research the countries that interest you and know what kinds of safety concerns you need to be aware of.
They may also be wondering about the financial aspect, as some of these programs can be expensive. Work together to draw up a plan of how you’re going to pay for this trip. Plus take a look below at the tips on funding.
Most of all, explain to them what an incredible, life-changing experience this will be! Why wait until college to explore the world, learn about other cultures and help a community in need? And it may just inspire your college application essay, or help set you apart during the admissions process.
One of the main benefits of going through one of these programs is the ease. They take care of all the logistics for you! However, they need ample time to prepare visas, select air flights, and to coordinate with local team members. This means that you need to sign up and send payment far in advance. Some programs offer cheaper program fees to those who sign up 6 months to 1 year prior.
Booking in advance also gives you the opportunity to speak with previous volunteers and staff members to prepare yourself for the experience.
Financing Your Trip
Many programs offer scholarships for a select number of students each year, considering both need and merit. If it is not explicitly stated on the website, it may be worth getting in touch with the company to learn how students typically fund their trip and if they have any sort of financial aid.
If this is not an option or you are looking for other forms of financial assistance, here are some tips to raise funds for your travels. Also consider looking into scholarships, such as ones granted within your community.
Speak with your school to see if your hours of community service can count towards graduation. Some high schools have a required number of service hours while others may allow you to substitute your unique summer vacation for class credit.
Why wait until you're in college to travel and experience another country? Numerous programs that take high school students on trips over school break, where you can explore, give back and meet new friends. From conservation to education, there's a project for everyone and popular locations in the Caribbean, Central & South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Plus a service trip in a unique addition to your college application!
Contributed by Lindsay Denny
High School Volunteer Abroad Programs
The Experiment in International Living
The Experiment in International Living offers a variety of need-based and merit-based scholarships to worthy high school students looking to...
YFU Financial Aid Fund
If you're an active member of your high school's key club, this scholarship is for you! Youth for Understanding (YFU) offers over 200 full and partial...
Where There Be Dragons Financial Aid & 529 Funds
Where There Be Dragons offers need-based financial aid to students that demonstrate reasonable financial need and are excited to engage with...