7 Best Places to Study Abroad & Make a Difference

by Published

Where to volunteer AND study abroad

When most people think about studying abroad, they think about learning to fend for yourself in a foreign country, exploring the sights and sounds of a totally new culture, and all the unforgettable adventures that go along with delving into the unfamiliar and going where your curiosity will take you. But, did you know that you could also be using your study abroad time to make the world a better place?

What presents itself as an opportunity for you to gain new knowledge, skills, and qualifications to add to your resume, could also be a chance to improve the wellbeing of the global environment or the support offered to previously disadvantaged communities, if you choose the service learning route.

The added bonus of study abroad service-learning programs is that most of this fieldwork is conducted in the open air, or, even better, in the open water. Doing hands-on work in the field and interacting one-on-one with locals every day is also great for learning what living in another country is truly like, an understanding which most students hope to gain by studying abroad.

Coastline in South Africa

Whether you have always had a favorite country you’ve dreamt about traveling to or are looking for some destination inspiration, take a look at some of the best places and study abroad volunteer programs programs if you want to truly make a difference abroad. Most are beautiful tropical areas that stay warm and sunny all year round, feature wide expanses of beaches untouched by commercial tourism, and have the type of exchange rates that mean the cost of living, and spending, is incredibly inexpensive for students funding their own study abroad trip and have tuition to pay in dollars, euros, or pounds.

So, let’s get started! Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the best places for study abroad volunteer programs, where you can study abroad and make a meaningful impact while you’re at it (and some actual recommended programs to check out first!). Volunteer and study abroad, baby!

1. Chiang Mai, Thailand

Student studying an elephant in Thailand

Who hasn’t heard that a friend or relative is visiting Thailand and turned green as a Jade Buddha with envy when you inevitably stalk their trip via Instagram? The flood of sun-drenched, clear-watered beaches, brightly colored fruit, and huge, gilded temples is enough to drive anyone crazy with wanderlust. So, imagine if you could journey to the mystical forests around Chiang Mai to learn how to care for Asian elephants in a protected natural area! Pretty freakin’ rad, yes? We thought so.

Recommended Program:

GVI’s Collaboration and Conflict in Saving Thailand's Elephants study abroad program is located in Huay Pakoot, a community conservation village, which is several hundred meters from Chiang Mai. Here, you’ll work with an international educator to investigate how the involvement of local communities can affect biodiversity in these areas. Not only will you learn about current issues in conservation, as well as potential solutions, but you’ll also be directly involved in helping to increase the global population of Asian elephants. As if all this wasn’t awesome enough, this program is also good for three credits!

Find more study abroad programs in Thailand 

2. Cape Town, South Africa

Street view in Cape Town, South Africa

Have you always wanted to the Southernmost tip of Africa to stand on the edge of Table Mountain, basking in the pink glow of the sun setting over the twinkling lights of the city bay, while the scent of sea mist intermingles with the perfume of the endemic species of succulents found in the UNESCO protected gardens surrounding foothills of the mountain? Are you also passionate about closing the global gender gap? Then surprisingly, Cape Town has everything you've been looking for, and more.

Recommended Programs:

With GVI, you can see all that Cape Town has to offer while working on reforming the social structures that keep women from realizing their own potential, and you can earn three credits in the process. Enroll in GVI’s Inequality, Education, and Gender in South Africa’s Townships course and you’ll get the chance to learn about the historical context and current realities that impact women who call this country’s informal settlements home. You’ll also get to experience first-hand the challenges discussed in your readings, by participating in personal and professional development workshops with both women and girls from the local community.

If you are completing a degree in business administration and management, marketing, human resources, or accounting, you could also choose to join GVI’s business internship program to work with tenacious entrepreneurs succeeding in emerging markets.

Find more study abroad programs in South Africa

3. Jalova, Costa Rica

Parrot in Costa Rica

Imagine quietly rowing down a wide expanse of tranquil water, as cyan-hued butterflies flit through the dense leafy canopies above and tiny, brightly colored frogs jump from root to vine along the river banks. You strain your eyes in an attempt to spot the red wing of a scarlet macaw — only to be startled the distant roar of an agitated howler monkey, or was that the mating scream of a three-toed sloth? Now don’t just picture it, draw it. Your art could not only help to create awareness about biodiversity loss, you could also earn three credits that might count toward a degree in fine art, graphic design, biology, environmental science, or sustainability. Sound too good to be true? It's not!

Recommended Program:

GVI’s Art and Science of Saving Species program will allow you to learn from wildlife veterinarian and conservation educator, Dr. Lucy Spelman, in the magnificent Tortuguero National Park, where you’ll explore the cultural factors affecting species loss. This course will challenge you to allow the sights, sounds, and smells of the rainforest to inspire you to create art that could affect societal changes that might help in protecting environments as well as species. 

Find more study abroad programs in Costa Rica

4. Quepos, Costa Rica

Costa Rican children running on the beach

On the other side of Costa Rica, situated along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find Manuel Antonio National Park, known as one of the smallest, but most popular and biologically diverse, parks in Latin America. Next to the park, you’ll find the small town of Quepos, that serves as its gateway. As such, the town sits at the intersection between the domains of community development and environmental conservation, making it ideal for impactful study abroad programs.

Recommended Program:

GVI’s Impacts of Community Development on Costa Rica’s Environment three-credit course was designed to allow students to investigate how local communities and the natural environments they inhabit interact. During this study abroad program, students learn how global issues, like environmental pollution, unsustainable agricultural practices, and habitat destruction caused by natural disasters, that result from climate change affect the people of Quepos as well as the protected flora and fauna in the area. In the process, students also take part in waste management and environmental education workshops.

In addition to being the best location from which to access Manuel Antonio, Quepos is also one of the best locations to experience the easygoing pura vida lifestyle which is one of Costa Rica’s main attractions. Stroll the quiet streets scouting for the very best coffee beans to take home and buy a refreshing cinnamon-spiced sorbet before cooling your heels at a secluded spot on the beach. This is what a study abroad program in Quepos that makes a difference looks like.

Find more study abroad programs in Quepos, Costa Rica

5. Cap Ternay, Seychelles

Sunset in Mahe, Seychelles

Ever hankered for the freedom of the open water while holed up in the back corner of the library at 3 a.m. in the morning during midterms? We thought so. Next time you’re downing instant coffee to help you pull that all-nighter, remember you could surrendering to the underwater sensation of weightlessness while coasting alongside famously massive, yet incredibly graceful, whale sharks and dodging swarms of tiny fish clustered around outcrops of rocky corals.

Recommended Program:

Join GVI’s Marine Internship in the Seychelles islands, where you’ll learn to become a professional, PADI certified diver and complete a biological surveying course at the same time. All data you collect on your research dives will be passed on to the Seychelles National Parks Authority and will be used to inform policies designed to protect underwater areas throughout the region (talk about making an impact!). Since the El Niño coral bleaching event of 2016, one the main topics in this area has been what can be done in terms of reef rehabilitation. This internship will give you the chance to become part of the innovative work being carried out to counter damage to the local coral reefs. In fact, GVI’s remote research base, Cap Ternay, is located in Baie Ternay Marine National Park, which is popular among tourists due to the amazing diversity of sea life found among its corals. 

We're sure you'll enjoy calling Mahe, the largest of Seychelles 115 islands, home during this three month internship too. The tropical island is known for its mountainous terrain covered in dense forests featuring a variety of vegetation unique to the area; how does that not sound intriguing?

Find more study abroad programs in Africa

6. Luang Prabang, Laos

Monk in Laos

Next time you’re pulling your hair out stressing about that assignment you know was due yesterday, transport your mind to the verdant hills of Laos, where locals row peacefully along the tranquil Mekong river and buzzcut-sporting Buddhist monks robed in tangerine collect alms stare silently at the first sight of dawn along the city’s main drag.

Recommended Program:

You could experience the serenity this unique country has to offer while growing more confidence as an educator by completing a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) internship with GVI. And if you do, your home base for three months will be Luang Prabang, the traditional capital of Laos, which features meticulously detailed and carefully maintained temples. The temples in Luang Prabang are in a unique architectural style that developed through the influence of French colonialism on the regional Theravada Buddhist style, so they are unique to say the least. AS you complete your TEFL program alongside your teaching internship, your responsibilities will increase along with your developing pedagogical competencies. First, you’ll help teachers prepare classes for young novice monks and adult learners and later, depending on your level of self-reliance, you’ll work up to teaching classes unsupported by other instructors.

Find more study abroad programs in Laos

7. Lima, Peru

Church in Lima, Peru

Envisage a vibrant, buzzing city perched on sandy cliffs running along the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. Now see the city dotted with sprawling ruins left by some of the most ancient civilizations in South America’s history and grand colonial plazas and edifices. Zoom down to street level and you’ll smell the roasted, smoked scent of frying potatoes and sweetcorn in a range of colors from white and yellow to orange, and even, purple. This city your looking at is Lima, Peru’s illustrious capital.

Recommended Program:

As a community development intern with GVI, you’ll get the chance to work with organizations developing the pueblos jóvenes, which are informal towns on the city’s outskirts. Daily activities might include assisting teachers at schools and after school education centers with conducting classes or working with gender equality groups to plan and carry out women’s rights workshops. GVI's internship is not only a great opportunity for students studying international development to see what a career in the field might really be like, but it also provides students with a truly immerse Spanish language experience.

Find more for-credit internships in Peru

Now it’s time to volunteer AND study abroad!

There you have it -- our selection of the sunniest study abroad program destinations with the most reliable promise of adventure, and where your contribution is likely to make a lasting impact. If this is all you're looking for in a study abroad program, then you've come to the right place.

Find the perfect way to make a difference while studying abroad now!

This article as sponsored by GVI, an award-winning organization that has been providing exceptional international programs for over 20 years. With an incredible track record and over 25,000 participants under their belt, GVI offers some of the best international programs in the world.