How to Research and Select an Overseas Program or Organization
Shaking out the Many Good from the Few Bad Apples
Whether you are going to study, volunteer or intern, going abroad is always an excellent decision. However, choosing to travel abroad for any of these purposes is the easiest of your decisions. There are thousands of opportunities in hundreds of countries. The selection process may seem like an impossible task at first, but once you start narrowing down your options, the decision becomes clearer.
Once you reach the point where you need to pick a program offered by an organization and write them a check, you may hit a major roadblock. A fundamental problem is that it is often hard to determine the quality of the program before you spend a few thousand dollars and stay a few months actually trying it out. You may have heard horror stories about students being abandoned by their overseas program after having already sent them money, or not receiving anything promised by the organization. However, you also will often hear past participants talk about how their selected program provided the best experience of their life.
Until you experience it for yourself, it will be impossible to predict exactly how things will go. Fortunately, there are a few ways to properly research your prospective programs or organizations before you make that commitment.
- Keep in mind that many programs are simply middlemen. Many of the most popular programs with destinations all over the world are middlemen. They take a cut of your program fee, and then send the rest off to a third-party organization in another country to do all actual the leg work. One could almost consider such of companies to be the parallel of “travel agents”. There are ways to find out if you are going through a “travel agent” company, and we will discuss them in the “Probe on the Phone” section later in this article.
I am not saying that you should never go through a “travel agent” company; I just think they should be giving you the full disclosure. When I went to volunteer in Costa Rica, I was confused for the first day or so since the program center in Costa Rica had an entirely different name than the company I signed up with. I checked to see what the program fees would have been if I had gone directly through the Costa Rican based company, and found that it would have been substantially cheaper. However, I would no doubt have hesitated to send my money off to some unknown little program in Costa Rica, hoping that everything would work out.
- Do not take what the website has to say as fact. Nobody really monitors what the programs say on their website, so do not assume everything is true. Furthermore, do not even waste your time reading their testimonials. It is the program’s own site—they can put whatever they want on there. Do you think they are going to post anything bad about themselves? Of course not! You might start reading the testimonials and get excited, thinking you will be getting a life-changing experience, when in reality, those testimonials may be completely made up!
- Google the program. One primary concern that many people have about a program is that it might just be a scam, and your money will disappear. While this is a valid concern (I am sure it has happened before), it should be at the bottom of your list of worries. Simply Google your program’s name to see what sort of online presence it has. Make sure you have some unique keywords in your search, or use quotes around the program name to ensure that you are only going to find related pages. If nothing is really coming up, consider looking into a more popular program. If you get a lot of results, read through them to find more about the company.
- Get some unbiased feedback. Testimonials on the program’s site are not a good place to start. You want to see how participants truly felt about the program. Here are some places to get some real feedback:
- Search Facebook. Use the search feature on Facebook to look for are any groups related to your program. Chances are that you will find a few students who traveled abroad with this program. Post a message on the group asking for feedback, or message some of the members asking if they would recommend the program, and ask about their experiences. Make sure to get more than just one response since everybody’s experiences may vary.
- Check review sites or Google “your program + reviews”. Some reviews might be biased, but you can use your judgment to decide how to interpret the feedback. Poke around the site to see if it is actual participant feedback or if it is more an advertisement for the program. AbroadReviews.com is an example of a review site.
- Search blogs for mentions of your program. Quite often, people will create a blog to share their adventures and mention their program at least once. When you find one, try contacting the blogger to get some more insight. Good places to search for blogs are: www.google.com/blogsearch or technorati.com.
- Probe on the phone. Once you have really narrowed it down, get on the phone with one of the program’s coordinators. Try and get a feel for the company, and make sure to ask about the following items.
- How long have they been in business? Usually the longer, the better. Follow up by asking if they have done business under any other names. I have heard of a few programs that changed their name since they had been getting so much bad rep. Also see if they have been taken over or merged with any other programs.
- How many people work for their organization? If it is only a few, that might send up a red flag.
- Which countries do they have offices in? Compare their answers to the countries they list on their program website. If they don’t match up, ask them why. Make sure they clarify if the offices are theirs, or if they are run by third party organizations.
- Will someone from their company be at your destination at all times? This will help you judge the level of field support you will receive once you arrive at your destination. Again, make sure they clarify if the person will be an employee of their company or if a third party company will be providing the support.
- Are there any other organizations involved in your travel? You might have essentially asked this question by now, but it is good to double-check. Do not call it quits if they are a “travel agent.” Ask for the name of the other companies and do your own independent research on them as well.
- How long they have been doing programs in the country in which you have chosen to volunteer, travel, study a language, teach, etc.? You would prefer not to be one of the first groups this company has ever sent to this location.
- Get as specific as you can! Keep asking detailed questions about your program placement, onsite staff, living arrangements, support and accommodations. Get as detailed as you can so you can get a sense for the program’s organization.
- Keep your research organized. Create an Excel spreadsheet, Word document or notebook, and record everything you find out about the programs you have selected. No company is going to have a perfect score, so you want to have a clear record of what you found out when it comes time to make a decision.
Do not let the bad experiences some people may have had scare you away from traveling abroad. Just be smart and thorough. Remember to stay optimistic and share your experiences so that you can help others also pick the best program.