Why Volunteering Abroad Should be Mandatory for Americans

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We sit in lecture halls packed with hundreds of students. We head to study sessions in hopes the TA is cute (and quickly learn we can ditch these without it affecting our grade). We stay up until 3 a.m. preparing for tomorrow’s written exam, but really we check Facebook and update our Twitter accounts every 15 minutes. We aren’t sure exactly what we want to major in, but we will keep taking classes that count towards SOMEthing.

We are college students. And, quite often, this is our reality.

Woman cutting honeycomb into strips

Whether it’s at an orphanage or with bee hives, volunteering gives you unrivaled hands-on experiences.

There is much to be said about educational experiences, like volunteering abroad, that don’t fit the status quo; the ones that take you out of the classroom, the science labs, the libraries, and put you out into the world. The benefits of experiential learning, where students actively engage with what they are doing, are becoming increasingly well-supported and praised. For good reason.

Volunteering abroad is about as experiential as experiential learning can get, and not only while you’re working at your project site. When you volunteer abroad, daily life becomes the classroom.  With this in mind, here are five concrete perks of volunteering abroad that highlight its importance as an essential part of our education:

1. Unrivaled Hands-On Learning 

Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand. - Confucius (450 BCE)

From a service learning program on an organic farm to volunteer placements in inner-city schools, students gain hands-on experience that they wouldn’t get in a standard theoretical or lecture-based class. You can read all you want about childhood poverty and its impact on social development, or about the political causes that lead to the spread of HIV, but step into an orphanage in an Indian slum or a health clinic in South Africa and you’ll gain more context than you probably even intended. 

This perspective allows you to answer questions for yourself, examine what you’ve been told, test your pre-existing expectations, and find new information and approaches to solve a problem that isn’t in your textbook. You can see what works and what doesn’t work in a real-life setting. You can ask questions that you could only possibly think to ask because of what your eyes see in front of you.

You walk away no longer having to rely solely on what a teacher has taught from a book, but what you learned from the experience itself. This type of learning is not only engaging and interactive, it’s memorable. What you learn from managing a community awareness campaign is going to stay with you a lot longer than the five-step process you read on a PowerPoint.

Group of school children in Afghanistan

Interacting with others builds our skills.

2. Unprecedented Skill Building

Now you might be thinking, “you don’t have to fly across the world to gain hands-on experience.” And yes, students learn from local internships, field placements, and volunteer projects, too. Volunteering abroad, however, is not only hands-on, it pushes you outside your ordinary boundaries and enables you to gain a unique set of skills. 

Students studying certain subjects, such as social work, political science, and human development can gain much insight and understanding by seeing how different societies and cultures work. A volunteer abroad doesn’t passively live in a different type of government with different laws, education systems, and social structures. Volunteers are actively working in new conditions and surroundings, and the work they do is directly impacted by the local way of life. Not only are they learning about the differences they are exposed to, they learn how these systems work and the skills needed to be effective within them.

International experience is also beneficial for nurses and aspiring doctors, when included projects might mean seeing and treating Chikungunya, a disease carried by mosquitos nesting in standing water; how’s that for classwork?! Treating conditions uncommon in their home country, students gain unique trainings and pathology understandings. Many times, due to geography alone, this type of learning wouldn’t be possible without a student’s ability to go abroad, making it a necessary integration into their coursework.

Bird conservation worker holding bird

Prepare for your future career with volunteering.

3. Actual Career Preparation

Want a job? Then volunteer abroad. – Dave Santulli, Founder and ED, United Planet

The educational benefits of volunteering abroad aren’t confined to certain fields of study. No matter if your interests are in business, science, the arts, or technology, every single student who participates in an international volunteer project will gain career building skills and insights.

Companies like IBM and Dow Corning, leaders in technology and consulting companies, acknowledge the benefits of international experiential learning by sending thousands of their employees to volunteer abroad. International volunteers learn invaluable soft skills in their placements abroad. They are able to build upon leadership skills, work effectively in teams, think critically and creatively to solve problems, and become proficient in a foreign language during a volunteership. Students become more marketable and ready for their profession, while positively impacting an urban or rural community.

Students are also able to narrow down their interests, or even find a new passion, based on insights born of travel and volunteering. They can say, “I really am not cut out to work with wild animals like I thought I was,” or “Wow, I never knew I could combine my love of conservation efforts with sports.” The organization and structure of their placements will also give them insight as to what they do and don’t like in a work environment.

African students in a classroom

Learn new mentalities and develop personally while volunteering abroad.

4. Unparalleled Personal Development 

The education system is responsible for a lot more than math and English. With the amount of time spent away from the home and inside a classroom with teachers and peers, social and life skills are a large component of what students (should) also learn. However, traditional classrooms have proven they aren’t necessarily the best place to prepare us for our future selves.

While volunteering abroad, personal development and soft skills mastery happens organically. Living and working away from family and everyday norms teaches independence. Uncomfortable, frustrating, and challenging situations teach resourcefulness. Giving and receiving support from fellow volunteers teaches interpersonal skills. Working alongside volunteers and staff of different backgrounds teaches cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Students begin to see a world that is not as black and white as we make it out to be. Volunteerships help students not just understand, but also practice empathy. They are put into unfamiliar situations with people from varying circumstances. Confronting your own privileges and prejudices (you didn’t know you had), and even experiencing the biases and stereotypes against you, combats the “white savior” complex and creates more self-aware, global citizens. 

5. Future Forward Thinking

In our interconnected world, you may live in California, but spend time working in both the Philippines and Canada. You might own a chicken wing restaurant in bustling Kigali. You might marry a Colombian woman like Al Bundy. Job opportunities, social responsibilities, and economic challenges are now shared across borders. While volunteering abroad, students gain this global understanding and learn how to work toward common goals amidst differences – an invaluable skill for the modern student. 

Two hikers in the mountains

Find inspiration in volunteer placements that can fuel future dreams.

International volunteers also gain new approaches and ideas that they can bring back to their home community. Time spent in Ecuador can spark a curiosity that turns into a research project and eventually a new scientific development. That first trip to Thailand can turn into a lasting relationship with an organization and a future international partnership.

The more students travel, the more they learn, and the more they have to offer their own society and the world at large.

Education is designed to foster and develop our human potential. While learning in a classroom increases this potential, the doing allows us to unleash it. Service learning and volunteering abroad both unleash our potential and make it ever-growing at the same time. Providing students with international volunteer experience opens their minds and ensures they are prepared not only for their own futures, but the future of our world.