Volunteer Abroad

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A Guide to Volunteering Abroad

Do you ever get the feeling that you have a higher calling? A purpose that thrives outside the limits of 9 to 5 or the commercially driven promises of the American dream? Like a homing device lodged deep within your chest, your heart might just be trying to tell you that it’s time to volunteer abroad. Human beings have an innate desire to help one another, but this goes far, far beyond the warm fuzzies you get when you help someone out. This purpose not only manifests, but flourishes when you are serving others. Sign up for volunteer trips today!

Step 1: Find a Program

Volunteering abroad is way more profound than just a vacation or excuse to snag a Toblerone from the airport and escape the “real world.” Volunteering abroad is diving headfirst into the real world. It’s a meaningful experience that provides you with important things to do, places to go, and people to see, while giving you with something much more significant than passport stamps and Instagram likes (it is volunteer traveling, after all!). 

Now, time to get down to business. Choosing a volunteer program abroad is an exciting, yet daunting, task. You can search for volunteer overseas programs based on a specific destination, field of work, length of stay, or a general region. If you are all over the map (literally and figuratively), GoAbroad’s Online Advisors are here to ease the burden of choice and offer a short list of suggested volunteer programs that match what you’re looking for.

Get the wheels turning:

  • Bucket list. Pull out that bucket list and give it the once over. Pick out those big dreams and see what might line up with a volunteer program abroad. Those goals aren’t going to achieve themselves!
  • What do you want to be when you grow up? Back before this question gave you hot flashes and was still cute, what was your answer? Those big career goals you had in elementary school probably got lost in the shuffle of adulting, but they never disappear and they might be more insightful than you think.
  • Do real research. Consult the GoAbroad Online Advisor, read articles about volunteering abroad, compare program reviews, and dig in to interviews with program alumni and staff. Poke and prod the Internet with purpose.

What you want to do? What tugs at your heartstrings? What news stories make you want to hulk out of your shirt, throw on a cape, and fly off into the sunset to save the world? There’s a multitude of worthy causes you can choose to support and the best way to sort through them without being overwhelmed is to simply ask yourself what you really want. Let your altruistic self be a little selfish here. That seemingly random set of skills, abilities, passions, and compassions you carry around like a bag of trail mix are unique to you and you alone. Embrace these when choosing a volunteer program abroad. You do you. 

Where you want to be? If you already pulled out that bucket list of yours and saw a list of places you dream of traveling, then you’re in the right starting gate. There are placements in nearly every inch of the globe, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one in just about any destination. 

How much time do you have? It’s important to consider how much time you can offer to a placement. The duration of volunteer programs abroad can vary from days to months or even longer. Many like-minded humanitarians opt to volunteer abroad in the summer months because it is a great way to fill that cherished time off and end up with more than an awesome tan by fall.

Final Tip: Smart travelers are sure to read volunteer abroad reviews before making any program selections.

Step 2: Figure Out How to Fund Your Experience

If you’ve ever Googled “how to volunteer abroad for free” then welcome, you’re among friends. Those first few search results always lure you in with ambitious, but fleeting promises that never seem to really be free. So what’s the skinny on how to volunteer abroad without your bank account laughing in your face? Stay tuned!

Potential fundraising sources for volunteer traveling:

  • Bank of Mom and Dad. Go in there with your power outfit and best Shark Tank pitch and let them know you have an “opportunity” for them. Assure them that instead of partying around the world, hopping from one touristic city to another, you will be doing meaningful work, and they have the chance to invest in something world changing.
  • Scholarships. Volunteer abroad scholarships are real! Apply early and often to any scholarships, fellowships, or grants you can find to score that golden ticket abroad.
  • Crowdfunding. Ride that gravy train. Websites like FundMyTravel are a great platform to bring friends, family, and others (hopefully with deeper pockets) in on the action. Basically any like-minded do-gooder that thinks you’re a cool humanoid with a rad plan can donate!
  • Get a job. A part-time gig for minimum wage might not seem like much, but if you stick to a budget and turn your beer money jar into a volunteer abroad jar it can add up quickly. At the end of the day, saving your money just makes the most cents…

What’s included in program fees? Volunteer abroad programs typically charge volunteers a set amount in fees. What’s included will vary from program to program, but most will cover accommodation, meals, insurance, any training, and a sense of purpose. On some volunteer projects abroad, your fees are spent more on giving you a quality experience through things like food, housing, and staff support, while some are more focused on giving money to the projects. Make sure you’re asking these questions early on to find out where your money goes.

While any international escapade can easily cost you an arm and a leg (and maybe a non-vital organ), it does not have to be financially impossible. Even if there’s no free lunch, there are still ways to significantly cut costs. But once you start to comprehend how volunteer programs fees are distributed, you start to recognize why you should pay to volunteer abroad. The reason to pay to volunteer abroad becomes not only obvious, but you can start to work out what you actually want to pay for. Remember to look at your upcoming volunteering voyage as an investment in your future and keep in mind that no one can put a dollar amount on this kind of experience!

Step 3: Apply & Prepare

Once you’ve set your sights on a volunteer traveling program and the butterflies are doing a happy dance in your stomach, it’s time to buckle down. Before you cue the ominous tones to set the scene for filling out all that fun paperwork, consider these tips to confidently and successfully applying to your volunteer program abroad:

  • Update your resume. Just a hunch, but “Proficient in Microsoft Word” probably isn’t doing you any good here. Tailor your resume by highlighting hard and soft skills that are actually relevant to the specific program. 
  • Write a rockin’ cover letter. Don’t get lazy here. Make sure it is hyper relevant to the position you are applying for. State your goals clearly and connect your desired experience abroad with your life back home or future career.
  • Slay those essays. Once you’ve hit the long-answer section of the application (dun, dun, duunnn) it’s time to let the real you shine through. Be honest, open, and vulnerable about why you want to volunteer abroad and you will be able to submit your application with confidence!

The organization handling the logistics of your volunteer program abroad will be able to provide you with valuable guidance and extensive advice to get the ball rolling on preparations. But it’s not a bad idea to be one step ahead of the game and get your ducks in a row early. Here are some planning tips to save future you a lot of stress and headaches: 

  • Travel Docs. Be sure you have a valid passport and visa for your destination. These things can take their sweet time so make sure you jump on this early. Your program advisor has your back if you have questions or need any help with this step.
  • Health. Some programs require proof of a yearly physical and give you a checklist of vaccines and immunizations you might need for your destination. Don’t put this off to the last minute!
  • Packing. If you suffer from packing paralysis, then start packing yesterday. Research your destination to make sure you are prepared to dress properly and respectably. Get a list of recommended packing items from your program advisor for a little guidance so you can travel light and be the light.
  • Language. Commit to learning sentences beyond those that include “beer” and “bathroom”. Apps and translators leave you with no excuses not to memorize basic words and phrases. And more importantly, don’t forget about nonverbal language!

Step 4: Make the Most of It

You are in the driver’s seat of your volunteer abroad experience. Choosing to be intentional in every situation and taking on trying circumstances with a “challenge accepted” attitude will have a profound impact on your experience. Making the most out of your volunteer program abroad is up to you.

Manage your expectations. Don’t have a starry-eyed view of what your volunteer program abroad will be like. Of course there will be plenty of time for adventures and shenanigans, but be patient with yourself as you combat culture shock, jetlag, and a new routine. Some days may run as smoothly as a porcupine petting zoo, but it is extremely important to be able to adapt to new roles and situations and treat each day as a new adventure. Adaptability, patience, and an open mind are often found to be the keys to unlocking a successful volunteer experience.

Be ready to work hard. Volunteering requires a lot of dedication, both physically and mentally. Getting dirty, sweaty, sore, and emotionally involved is something that’s not exactly exalted in Western culture. But doing the kind of soul-satisfying hard work that makes you hungry for lunch and ready for bed at the end of the day is boundlessly rewarding. When you remind yourself that you are working toward something greater, that nugget of wisdom will provide you with a new inner strength to keep on keepin’ on that you may have never known before.

Enjoy yourself. Don’t forget you’re supposed to have fun! A lot of it. Just how much fun can you have? The limit does not exist. Break out of your comfort zone, let your soul expand, have glorious adventures, make new friends! Most importantly, commit to being fully present in your destination. Not just your physical destination, but the destination of your soul as well. Being an international volunteer is a great time to try new things, push the limits, and get the most out of experiences.

Step 5: Return Home a New Person

Sorry to burst your bubble, but you will probably have to come home at some point. This is when the rubber meets the road. With an open heart and fresh perspectives, you are now commissioned into your newfound calling and responsible for influencing and impacting your communities. Before the inevitable homecoming happens, pause and consider a few re-entry tasks:

  • Decompress. Reverse culture shock is no joke. Transitioning home can be clunky and confusing, so take the time to unwind, talk it out, and recharge. Don’t neglect your emotional health.
  • Spiff up that resume. Volunteer abroad experience and winning resumes go together like rama lama lama ka dingity ding dong. Get that shiny gold star and fresh skills on your resume and land an awesome job!
  • Plan your next trip. Now that you’re radiating good vibes and ready to take on the world, keep feel-goods alive! GoAbroad is here for all your meaningful travel needs!

That higher calling or purpose of life you feel drawing near in is not to be happy, successful, or comfortable. It is to be helpful, compassionate, and to make a difference. You have the gifts, talents, and abilities to make the world a more hopeful, peaceful place and it’s your responsibility to act on it! An opportunity to change someone’s life for the better is a gift and volunteering abroad is the channel that allows you to do just that.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”  - Gandhi

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