Volunteering While Studying Abroad
Studying abroad is hardly ever about taking courses and attending lectures. It is mostly about the many experiences you will gain as you discover new places and meet new people. And I am not talking only about the endless road trips, parties and nightlife. Finding extracurricular activities within the local community helps you immerse into the culture by giving you the opportunity to practice the language and see the way the locals actually live. And the best way to achieve this is through volunteering. Working with the locals will definitely get you under the skin of the place you’re studying at. People volunteer abroad to help improve the world and if you want to be one of them, consider the option of taking a volunteer opportunity while studying at the same time. In this article, I will talk about the benefits that volunteering offers and everything you need to know on how to choose the right volunteer program for you.
Let’s begin with the benefits that you will get if you decide to volunteer while studying abroad. Specifically:
You develop a deeper connection with the locals. There’s no better way to get under the skin of a place than living and working at that place. You get to know the way the locals live and work in a way that is possible only through working with them. Moreover, you appreciate the way these people live and you obtain the unique feeling of serving a local community. Being able to give back to the local community you’re staying in is an experience that not only helps you engage yourself, but also gives you a sense of purpose.
You make friends. When you are in a foreign country, you can find yourself feeling lonely. And this is completely normal. By volunteering, you get the opportunity to make new friends that come from different cultural backgrounds. You meet people with similar interests, since choosing to volunteer at the same program means that you have things in common. In volunteer programs there is a huge sense of teamwork and support between the volunteers that are promising of friendships that can even last for a lifetime!
You get out of your comfort zone. Volunteering teaches you more than you might expect. You get the opportunity to explore cultures, places, ideas, and in general, more of this world. Volunteering is the only way to truly experience the culture of the place you’re staying at. You meet the culture at its ‘natural habitat’. You become ready for new challenges and issues that you’ve never dealt with before. Trust me, you will be surprised at the way you try to solve these issues and the way you perceive things in general. Volunteering truly broadens your horizons.
You practice the language. While studying abroad, many students enter language learning programs in order to learn either English or the language that is being spoken at the place you’re staying. However, volunteering is the only way to learn the language in context. The right context makes learning a language easier and more efficient. This happens due to the fact that when you’re volunteering you HAVE to learn the language; you don’t really have a choice.
You learn new skills. This is one of the most enriching things you can do while studying abroad. Through volunteering, you are given the opportunity to learn a skill that most probably nobody taught you at school or college. There is a variety of skills that you can learn, including practical skills, like cooking, cleaning, building etc. to more theoretical, such as learning a language.
You increase your chances of getting hired. Volunteering is a great booster for your resume. Hiring managers are mostly looking for people with problem-solving skills and awareness for noble causes or with intercultural communication skills. Volunteering is sometimes considered as international work experience and gives an advantage over other applicants that obtain only a degree. Also, it is possible that you meet people who could help you with a job opening abroad. You never know!
What Kind of Volunteer Programs are there?
There are several volunteer opportunities, most of which include:
Teaching English or any other language/subject to children or adults, depending on your background and interests,
Helping people with disabilities,
Promoting healthcare in rural villages,
Cleaning up a city or an area,
Building or renovating schools, castles, monasteries or other infrastructures,
Assisting refugees or people in need by giving them food or setting up camps in particular locations,
Taking care of animals that have been injured or were at risk in the wild,
Planting trees and many more.
How Can I Find Volunteer Programs?
Here are some of the most popular ways to get informed about the volunteer opportunities that are available at the area you are studying:
Through your university. You can find many volunteer opportunities through your university. Make sure that you attend your school’s club and activities fair, if they have one, and you can find programs related to your studies. If not, visit the students’ resources office and they might have volunteer opportunities for local and exchange students as well.
Through the local community. You can always get involved locally at the place you’re staying. Seek out opportunities online or talk to people you meet and they will definitely lead you to the right place or people.
NonGovernmental Organizations (NGOs) or Major Organizations. This is the most popular way to find a volunteer program. There are many organizations that offer volunteer opportunities, either through specialized programs or by matching potential volunteers with organizations.
Here are a few volunteer sites to get you started:
How to Choose the Right Volunteer Program for you
As you research and find programs and organizations that interest you, you should consider a few things before making the final decision. Make sure that you prepare a list of criteria that have the most importance to you personally, as a volunteer. Here are some examples of criteria that could help you decide which program or organization is better for you:
Does It Interest You?
This is the most important factor to consider, for obvious reasons. Volunteering is not going to be an easy work, so it has to be something that intrigues you and lets you learn as much as possible. You should be genuinely interested in what you’ll be doing.
The Volunteer Organization’s Aims.
It is very important to be aware of the goals of the organization you’re going to get involved with. Make sure that its projects do not damage the environment or affect negatively the community. If you need any specification about the organization, do not hesitate to contact with them.
Does the Program Require any Specific Qualifications?
There are organizations that welcome volunteers with no specific skills, but some others might require specific skills, such as engineering, law, teaching, and so on. It is also possible that they have prerequisites such as age limits, religious beliefs, previous work or volunteer experience etc. Organizations often pick volunteers who are able to speak and understand the basics of the native language where you’ll be working at. Make sure that you meet up these requirements before applying for a program.
Is There a Job Description Available?
You should clearly know beforehand what kind of work you will undertake and how many hours you will work. Providing the potential volunteers with a detailed job description also shows that the organization is taking seriously the work you will be doing.
Can You Afford It?
Don’t feel bad if affordability affects your decision on a volunteer program. Studying and paying for volunteering at the same time, can be too much for you, and it is totally logical. We will talk about payments and costs later on.
What about Accommodation and Other Facilities?
Find out where volunteers are going to be staying and if you have any health issues that should be taken into consideration.
How is it going to help you in the Future?
If you see volunteering as a way to boost your resume, then you should definitely think about how this experience will help your career.
Do I have to Pay to Volunteer?
The majority of the volunteer programs are not for free and technically it is impossible to volunteer for free. You will have some sort of cost that can be the administrative fees, accommodation, airline tickets and so on. Volunteers need food, housing, and other living expenses that the organization cannot cover when people come to volunteer. However, there are other organizations that raise funding through donations and grants and can pay for some of your living expenses.
If you’re asking me, yes it is worth paying to volunteer. It is a fulfilling experience that will be worth the money you will pay. If the financial cost is high, the organization is required to show how their money is used. The fraudulently-run organizations exist, so make sure that they’re organized with a clear social mission.
Can I Work as a Paid Volunteer?
While in most volunteer programs you have to pay in order to work, there are a few others that provide some kind of compensation. If an organization is going to pay a volunteer, it’s going to expect more than just showing up and playing games with kids for a few weeks. These kind of volunteer programs usually require a high-level or specialized set of skills in a certain field and are competitive compared to other programs. Such opportunities are often limited to volunteers with professional experience, rather than students or recent graduates. The major volunteer abroad programs that provide compensation of some kind are:
The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) is a United Nations organization that contributes to peace and development worldwide. In order to volunteer with the UN you should meet the minimum requirements:
1) Older than 25 years old,
2) University degree or higher technical diploma,
3) At least two years of relevant work experience in a professional background,
4) Good working knowledge of English, Spanish or French,
5) Commitment to the values and principles of volunteerism,
6) Ability to work in a multicultural environment and willingness to work with people and local organizations,
7) Ability to adjust in difficult living conditions and sometimes remote locations,
8) Strong interpersonal and organizational skills and,
9) Prior volunteering and/or working experience in a developing country is an asset.
Unlike most placement organizations, you will be chosen only if there is a vacancy available for which you are qualified. This means that you have to apply and probably wait several months to receive a placement. UN Volunteers have all their expenses covered (airfare, insurance, room and board) and receive a modest stipend for their work. The UN volunteer projects generally run for six to 12 months, with the possibility of extending for one to two years.
The International Executive Service Corps (IESC) works for the improvement of living conditions around the world and helps communities’ economies and small businesses grow. Just like UN Volunteers, you submit your application and if any assignment matches your skills, the organization will contact you. IESC pays a stipend for meals and other expenses and covers the costs of visas, airfare, insurances, and more.
The Peace Corps is a volunteer service that promotes world peace by working in a field that interests you. You can choose between the following sectors:
3) Community Economic Development
6) Youth in Development
It is one of the most popular ways for people in the United States to volunteer abroad. Unlike the previous paid volunteer organizations, the Peace Cops also includes volunteers who have limited job experience. Volunteers receive a small stipend each month.
What Makes a Good Volunteer?
Here are some of the qualities that a volunteer should have:
Energy & Passion. When you are energetic and passionate about a cause, the results will be even better. Your positive spirit can motivate others to take actions toward the cause as well.
Flexibility. Organizations often recruit volunteers for roles of all kind. Your willingness to help in different tasks will look great on your resume! Be flexible to any changes that might happen to plans along the way.
Resiliency. Don’t expect the working or living conditions to be ideal; the volunteering hours can be long, the accommodation not qualitative and so on.
Creativity. Imagination and creativity are important traits for you in order to make a difference in a fun volunteer opportunity.
Team Player. Being able to work in a team is essential to volunteering. It’s all about the collective efforts of a group and not an individual so it is important that you have all the qualities that make for good team work, such as patience, listening skills, knowing when to hold back and being able to cooperate.
Selflessness. A volunteer should be altruistic and care about others. After all, that’s what volunteering is all about. Working and spending time on something you believe in, in order to help others and make the world a better place.
The Bottom Line
Volunteering is undoubtedly a rewarding and unforgettable experience for anyone who tries it. If you feel that it is something that you would passionately do, do not hesitate to seek out any volunteer opportunities at the area you’re studying. Be careful before choosing the right program for you and get ready for an amazing adventure!
Edited by Eleni Gkovedarou
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