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Make Your Own Opportunities

A College Graduate’s Guide to Working and Volunteering Abroad

During my senior year of college I went to the art department’s barbecue, where a sculpture professor told me of his plan to study sculpture in Italy the following semester. He said that he had always wanted to go to Italy, so he had begun a sculpture study that included Italian influences in order to receive a research grant to travel. “You have to learn to make your own opportunities. Have a destination in mind, and just figure out a way to get there,” he advised me.

When I graduated from Notre Dame I had never traveled outside of the U.S. I wanted to experience a different culture, and I decided that I would make my first job search an international one. Notre Dame hosts numerous career fairs throughout the year, but the career placement opportunities were mainly domestic. I realized I was going to have to follow my professor’s advice and make my own opportunities. No recruiter was going to find me and offer me a ticket out of the country and a job placement. So, the fall semester of my senior year I began researching opportunities for employment and volunteerism abroad.

Although my professor had advised me to have a destination in mind before formulating a plan, my destination was very general: it was simply “abroad.” This was not a stumbling block, at least initially. In fact, numerous resources are available for those who are flexible in their international job search.

Internships in Teaching

One resource that I found especially helpful was Search Associates, the largest of the international school placement organizations. Every year Search Associates assists highly qualified and carefully screened administrators, teachers, and interns to find positions in international schools all over the world.

Search Associates differs from other international school placement organizations in that it offers an intern program designed especially for recent college graduates who have little or no teaching experience. Although teaching certification is not required, some schools prefer it. Interested candidates can find further information about this program at www.search-associates.com.

I registered with Search Associates during the fall of my senior year and was invited to attend their international job fair in Cambridge, Mass. that February. Over the past 12 months Search Associates has placed 61 teaching interns at American/International schools in more than 100 countries mostly through its recruitment fair. I interviewed for internship positions with International Schools in Europe, Asia, and Africa and was able to hone my interviewing skills as well as network with current and former interns and teachers.

I chose not to accept the job I was offered at the Cambridge fair, but meeting all of the recruiters was an invaluable experience in itself. I established contacts with whom I was able to correspond via email over the following months as new vacancies opened at the recruiters’ respective institutions. I also learned the importance of flexibility. Search Associates usually accepts only those candidates willing to consider several countries or regions of the world.

Locating Volunteer Opportunities

I would consider employment in all areas of the world, but could I be even more flexible? I decided that it was time to explore the option of volunteerism as well, and I began my search for full-time volunteer opportunities at Idealist, www.idealist.org, a project of Action Without Borders. Its site lists more than 49,000 nonprofits and community organizations in 165 countries, thousands of volunteer opportunities around the world, and a list of organizations that can help you volunteer abroad.

On any given day a user may find more than 200 international volunteering opportunities in Europe alone. I decided that it was time to follow my old professor’s advice: I was going to have to pick a specific destination and narrow down the field of opportunities that Idealist offered.

I chose to research volunteer jobs specifically in Ireland for two main reasons. First, I have Irish heritage, so I thought that it might be interesting to learn about my ancestors’ culture. Second, Ireland’s close proximity to mainland Europe would allow me to travel to many different countries during the year.

Searching for full-time volunteer opportunities in Ireland, I came across an even more relevant website:Friends of the Elderly, www.friendsoftheelderly.ie, where I accepted a 1-year voluntary placement.

Volunteer Work with the Elderly in Dublin

Every year FOE takes on three people who are willing to give up to a year to work with elderly friends in Dublin. Volunteers work under the supervision of FOE’s coordinator visiting the elderly and introducing other volunteers into the visitation program. As a full-time volunteer with FOE I am provided with a flat at the organization’s home in the middle of the city.

Working with Friends of the Elderly has allowed me not only to experience Irish culture but also to network with other Europeans involved in similar types of work. FOE is affiliated with similar organizations in the Fédération Internationale des Petits Frères des Pauvres (International Federation of Little Brothers of the Poor), headquartered in Rolle, Switzerland (www.petits-freres.org). I was able to network with delegates from the other European branches of Petits Frères during a conference in Dublin this fall.

My experience has taught me, above all, to be assertive and self-motivated. After months of research and many interviews (some failed, others successful), I was able to realize my dream of creating an opportunity to live abroad after college. The opportunities for employment or volunteerism abroad exist; it’s only a matter of finding them, being flexible, and refusing to give up.

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