When you hear the term “studying abroad,” you probably conjure up images in your mind of picturesque scenes of canal cruising in Amsterdam, club hopping in Barcelona, riding high on a red double-decker bus through London, or exuberant hiking through the lush, mountainous terrain of the El Yunque in Puerto Rico.
While these experiences are enriching and highly recommended, there’s still an important potential component to study abroad that is often overlooked: volunteering. Unfortunately, global awareness is something the United States is often accused of lacking. However, finding study abroad volunteer programs can help in this arena — as typical study abroad students often hang out with other classmates from their home country rather than getting chin-deep in a foreign culture.
Your desire to volunteer while studying abroad does not have to detract you from participating in a traditional study abroad program. Instead, it takes that typical program to the next level — offering incredible chances to better discern and learn from your surroundings.
Here’s everything you need to know to find study abroad volunteer programs (and why they come with the GoAbroad stamp of approval!):
Can I Volunteer While I Study Abroad?
That head-scratcher question of “Can I volunteer while I study abroad?” might be keeping you up at night, but we’re here to tell you — Absolutely! Study abroad programs highly encourage students to find ways to give back to and better integrate with the community.
If you choose to sign up for a regular study abroad program, talk to your program coordinators, study abroad advisors, and professors right away to see if there’s any local volunteer opportunities available within your program. Otherwise, enroll specifically in study abroad volunteer programs from the gitgo. You can also find short-term volunteer opportunities to take advantage of during your academic breaks as well if you don’t think you’ll have time when your classes are in session.
Here’s Why It’s the Best Idea You’ve Had All Year
If you’re still not sure if you want to juggle academic and service responsibilities, here are six solid benefits to push you past the “convinced” line:
1. You’ll Connect with Locals Abroad on a Deeper Level
Adding a volunteer component to your study abroad program helps prepare you to live and work in our deeply interconnected world while allowing a greater understanding for both yourself and your worldwide neighbors. Plus, you’ll come to appreciate the way of life in the country by living it yourself through volunteering. You’ll have a unique experience serving a local community and having a cultural immersion experience, rather than hitting up the nightlife that mostly Westerners can only afford.
2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
You’re in another country for a short amount of time — this may be the only time in your life that you’re there! If you’re filling your days with just classes, studying, and hanging out with classmates because you’re scared to get out of your comfort zone, then you’re not broadening your horizons enough. Volunteering teaches you more than you’ll know; you’ll learn more about life in this culture, bond with locals in a meaningful way, and gain new perspectives. Not to mention you can pat yourself on the back for helping others!
3. Improve Your Chances of Getting Hired
When you’re out in the field volunteering, you’ll have sincere and genuine conversations with staff members and other volunteers. You never know when one of these conversations could lead you to the right person who has a job opening, either abroad or at home. Forget about trivial awkward networking events, you’re making connections in an alternative, better way with your service abroad.
Why not also increase the chances of your resume standing out to employers with volunteer experience? When companies see that you took time to help out others in need during your free time while studying abroad, they will be doubly impressed! You’ve also more than likely picked up skills abroad that you couldn’t at home, such as intercultural communication skills or foreign language (they’re like bling bling for CV’s). By volunteering in a way that relates to your major, you’ll have a better understanding of what it entails and its global trends, which will make for an excellent conversation starter and impress employers in interviewers.
Psst: You might also like this article on the three steps to adding “study abroad” to your resume too.
4. Work Toward a Cause You Believe in
Whether your major is in business, liberal arts, or STEM, you’re taking classes that interests you, right? Maybe you chose the subject based on future income, but more than likely, you chose your major because you want to make a difference somehow. You’re learning about these subjects via textbooks and lectures, so why not APPLY that knowledge in a way that will make a difference? To answer, “How can I volunteer while I study abroad?” You can start by researching programs and organizations in need of your help right where you’re studying (Huzzah to saving on airfare!).
From childcare to animal welfare to environmental work, your service will have positive ripple effects for the country you study abroad in. If you’re studying earth science in Nepal, you can apply your skills and support Himalayan mountain conservation. On the other hand, if you’re exploring environmental science in Australia, you could spend your free time promoting conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. Maybe you’ve decided to study community development and social justice in South Africa, well then, it would make sense to fill your free time by volunteering with disadvantaged children right? Even STEM students studying abroad in China can find time to help with infrastructure development in some way.
Volunteering while studying abroad will help you see your major in a new light and motivate you even more to work in the field.
5. Participate in an Unforgettable Experience
When you decide to volunteer while studying abroad, you’ll discover the true beauty of the country with its peoples, languages, and landscapes. Not to mention you’ll get a break from your studies! Anyway, even if other students don’t want to join you, you’ll make long-lasting friendships in the community and learn about cultural differences. The challenges you’ll overcome along the way may feel like a roller coaster, as you adapt to a new language and the gritty reality of some situations, but it’ll be worth it.
The best part? You could have an adventure, all for a good cause. You could be exploring the Amazon Forest in Brazil, diving in the depths of the Great Barrier Reef, or excavating for ancient ruins in Italy. While not all of the volunteer work will be glamorous, and granted, some will be grueling, difficult work, you’ll be able to share an incredible story and spread awareness to your friends, family, classmates, professors, employers, your dog, and anyone else who will listen.
6. Complement Your Studies in a Meaningful Way
Rachel Halder, a study abroad student, spent a semester in Peru, where women’s studies was her minor. She became acquainted with women in a brothel in an area of 90 percent employment. By working with another group of women who made traditional hand-woven bracelets, she came to realize that the ladies at the brothel could learn this craft and earn an income doing it. The group of women and herself set up a “cooperative,” and Rachel sold their bracelets in the United States and mailed the income back to the creators.
Rachel experienced first-hand more pressing issues being faced by women around the world while in Peru. She said she learned more about transnational feminism and the global women’s rights movement from her volunteering experiences there than she ever could have from books.
This experience was transformative in numerous, multi-faceted ways. Though I ‘helped’ these women, I received far more than I felt I was offering. The kindness, laughter, generosity, and pure acceptance that these women showed me was profound.” – Rachel Halder
Studying and volunteering abroad — a winning combo!
You can quote us: Studying abroad is the yin to volunteer abroad for college student’s yang; they’re like BFF’s or Gilmore Girls. One is more focused on theory and the other is more focused on real life. With study abroad volunteer programs, you’re not only experiencing the surface culture of a country by doing all the touristy things. Instead, you’ll be immersing yourself in a deeper level of the culture that will make your time abroad that much more meaningful. You’ll come out of the experience as a much stronger, resilient, knowledgeable, humble, and well-rounded global citizen. Booyah!