Student to Student
At Home Abroad
Connecting Culturally Through Volunteer Work
I was studying in Florence during my junior year and I felt lost—not lost in a physical sense, but in the sense of not feeling part of a community. So I turned to something that I was comfortable with: volunteer work.
From past experience I know that by volunteering you make connections—both with the people you are helping and the people who are volunteering with you. In a foreign country volunteer work can be a particularly effective icebreaker. You can meet new people and explore sides of your temporary home that only locals know about.
My decision to volunteer led me to the Synagogue of Florence. There, I met Italian people of my own age and was invited to youth events, volunteer activities, and even to a Seder, a traditional dinner for the holiday of Passover. Volunteer work made me instantly feel like I was part of an actual community.
Going Where Others Won't
At 18 Talia Blivaiss volunteered as an aid at a hospital in Jerusalem, Israel, where curtains separated people filled with hatred. By putting herself in a hospital room with injured Arabs and Israelis she saw for herself the consequences of violence and gained an understanding of the animosities that she could have never have gotten by watching the news.
Kara Biland was 22 when she volunteered at an orphanage in the small town of Aladados, just outside Salvador, Brazil. During her 6-week planned trip she was offered the chance to volunteer for a day at a leper colony. Biland said the experience left her with memories of the strength of the human spirit in the face of death that made the entire trip worthwhile.
Finding a Volunteer Program
There are two paths to finding volunteer work in a foreign country. The first alternative, which I chose, is to go somewhere to volunteer that you would go if you were at home. The local church or synagogue is a likely place. You may also want to consider after-school programs or nursing homes. If language is not a barrier, these places will be more than happy to accept your help.
The other option is to go through an organization.
CIEE (www.ciee.org) has been a leader in cultural exchange since 1947. They offer study and teach abroad programs throughout the world.
BUNAC (www.bunac.org) offers many different work, volunteer, and summer camp programs to students and young people.
Cross Cultural Solutions (www.crossculturalsolutions.org) offers volunteer programs in ten different countries.
If cost concerns keep you away from an organized program, there are plenty of opportunities to create a trip on your own. College students may apply for grants to support individually planned, as well as organized, programs. See the international studies adviser on your campus for information. To search through the variety of government-offered grants, go to www.grants.gov.
You can help in making a difference. Through volunteerism you can impact communities all over the world. All you need is the determination to help and the need to find your own sense of community abroad.