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Volunteer Work Abroad

Breaking Down the Four Primary Types of International Volunteerism

Volunteering abroad is an exciting opportunity to experience the ins and outs of a new culture in an intimate way. Studying abroad is exciting, but when one goes as a student, one is a student 24/7 — there are always tests coming up, homework to be done, etc. Tourists rarely have a chance to look deeply into the cultures of the countries they visit. They speak with hotel staff and bus drivers. They may see a lot, but only a very superficial portion of their host countries. Volunteering abroad allows a volunteer to truly experience their host country complete with personal interactions, and view the social, cultural and economic realities that make each country distinct.

There are literally thousands of programs to send volunteers around the world. Opportunities include teaching English in Thailand, counting frogs in Ecuador, or working in a hospital in India.

The volunteer organizations that run these programs fall into four categories:

  1. Nonprofit (Cross Cultural Solutions; www.crossculturalsolutions.org, Amigos; www.amigoslink.org, IVPA; www.volunteerinternational.org),
  2. Governmental (Peace Corps; www.peacecorps.gov),
  3. For-profit (often programs affiliated with an international study abroad company),
  4. Religious (missionaries, etc.).

Choosing a program can be difficult, however. Before beginning your research there are several questions to help you narrow down the search.

  • Where do you want to go? Are you interested in work in the developing world or the developed world? Are you looking for profession-related work? Do you have language abilities or interest in learning a new language?
  • How much time do you have? Are you interested in something you can do on a week's vacation or taking a year off your work/study? There are programs lasting from two weeks to one year. How much time can you afford?
  • Costs vary from program to program, but they may include airfare, food and lodging, training, adventure travel, visas, and health and travel insurance. Financial aid, fundraising suggestions, and scholarships may be available.
  • Do you need academic credit? Some schools give credit for opportunities such as volunteering. In many cases, volunteers will have to do the legwork to find out how this process works.
  • How much structure do you need? Do you need pre-departure meetings, language training, cultural training, in-country support?
  • Once you begin your research, note what the program requirements are: Does the organization have language requirements? Religious requirements? Academic requirements? Health requirements? Do they provide insurance? Visas?

Once you've found the program for you, there are several things you should know before leaving. Check out websites with packing advice, meet with your program coordinator and alumni for suggestions on what to bring. Make sure you have health insurance appropriate for your destination company. Be aware of cultural sensitivity and the ethics of service. Read books on the host culture and the handbook from your volunteer program. Be aware of international events. Emergency information should be provided by your host agency. Make sure they give you information about whom and how to contact en route to your destination and while you're in the country. The names and/or contact information for local authorities and the embassy located in your host country are also useful.

REBECCA JEWELL writes from San Francisco, CA.