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How to Use Your Volunteer Experience to Find Paid Work Abroad

Volunteer as a teaching assistant in a classroom with small children.
A volunteer assisting local teachers of children. Such learning experiences are important to the students at the time and will likely be to both you and the students in the future. Photo courtesy of GVI.

Is this you?

  • You fell in love with another country, culture, or language as a volunteer, and can’t wait to go back. But you can’t afford to volunteer again.

  • Or you are volunteering overseas now, and can’t bear the thought of going home at the end of your service.

  • Or you are planning to volunteer but your long term goal is to launch an international career.

Whether you are a past, current, or future volunteer, you can leverage your experience into paid employment overseas.

My top tips:

  • Think deeply about what kind of job you want. Many people say “I’ll take any paid work in country X.” That might be true, but why not start by seeking a job that will be meaningful to you. For example, I’d love to get paid to go back to Zanzibar. But not as an employee of Coca-Cola or a big development agency that would require me to live in an air conditioned expat bubble. I would want to work there with an ecotourism organization or socially responsible business. Your search will be more targeted and successful if you are clear about what type of work you want — and what type you want to avoid.
  • Don’t rely on announced jobs. About 70% of jobs in the US are not announced publically. Overseas, even fewer job openings are announced. You’ll never find them on job oriented websites. For example, a recent search of turned up only seven jobs in South Africa; in reality there are probably hundreds of jobs in South Africa that international workers would be eligible for. You should look at Idealist, Monster, and Career Builder to get an idea of what is out there, but do not get discouraged by the slim pickings (or by a plethora of jobs that are above your experience level). Which brings us to the next point…
  • Let all your friends know about your dreams and goals. Since most jobs are not announced publically, it follows that the only way to find out about them is to know people who know about openings. I understand that most folks do not like networking, but if you think if it as “friend-building,” it’s not so bad. Make sure you reach out in a principled manner – think of ways you can help your friends as well as ways that they might help you. Start by telling everyone you know about your dreams, and see if they know anyone you could connect with to learn about potential opportunities. I have included two sample email letters in the sidebar to show you how to start reaching out. Be sure to include everyone you know from your volunteer experience, from co-workers to fellow volunteers to the staff of the volunteer sending organization. Remember the Four F’s: Friends, Family, Faculty (your old professors want to hear from you and often know folks in other countries), and Faith community (or clubs).
  • Reach out of your comfort zone to connect with new people. Once you have told those closest to you, reach out a step further. You goal should be to conduct ten informational interviews with people who are knowledgeable about work in the country where you want to find employment. Follow up on leads from your friends from your volunteer work. Reach out to organizations you learned about while volunteering to see if they have openings. Find organizations in your community for immigrants from the country where you want to work. Get on email lists for universities in your area that have international studies programs, then attend lectures and stay afterwards to talk with speakers and attendees. Cold call professors who have worked in the country you want to go to. Know that most of these connections will not land you a job, but if you reach out to ten new people, you are likely to hear of at least one opportunity that might be a fit for you. I acknowledge that it might be hard but I know from past experience that those who reach out to new contacts are the ones that land the jobs.
  • Work on your language skills. No matter what job you seek, strong language skills will be a huge asset. Find a tutor, take a class at a community college, join a discussion group, or post on Craig’s list to find a language exchange.

If you are a past volunteer seeking to get back to the country of your dreams (or another international destination), here are some tips to help you find an overseas job:

  • Reconnect with your friends overseas. Include the staff of the organization you volunteered with, friends, language teachers, and host families. Friend them on Facebook, dig up their emails, even be old fashioned and call them. Let them know that you are seeking a job in country and see if they have other friends you should connect with.

  • Connect with your alumni. Most volunteer sending organizations have a wonderful network of alumni. Call the program staff to find out if any alumni are working in the country where you volunteered. While you are at it, call your college alumni office and see if they will do a search to connect you with alum working in your country of choice.

Here are top tips for those who are current and future volunteers:

  • Be the best volunteer you can be. The best volunteer isn’t the one who does the most. It’s usually the one who listens the most carefully, takes time to observe, and treats volunteering as an opportunity to learn from others rather than to teach. (See my book, How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, for other tips on being an effective volunteer.)
  • Learn about your strengths, weaknesses and passions. The time you spend volunteering is an external exploration. But it can also be a time of internal exploration as well. Take time to keep a reflective journal or blog to process your experience. Ask yourself hard questions. Maybe you’ll find that you love Mexico but hate working with kids. That’s OK. Or that your language acquisition skills are poor and you’d be better off working in a country where English is dominant. You may discover that you love rural Africa but dislike the city. Or visa versa. All that information is priceless when it comes to focusing on and seeking your dream job.
  • Take on a “secondary project.” The Peace Corps requires volunteers to do a small project in addition to their regular volunteer job. If your volunteer experience allows you any free time, consider adding an additional project in your field of interest — such as helping kids practice their conversational English in a local school, serving as an assistant in a local clinic, helping a small business with their website.
  • Learn about laws and practices for foreign workers. Talk to as many expat workers as you can. How did they arrange work visas? How long did the process take? Did they need a job before they got the visa? How did they find the job? Would you as a volunteer have to leave the country and return to get a work visa?
  • Join in country service clubs in country. Rotary, Toastmasters, Kiwanas are not just for stodgy old men. They are vibrant, positive, supportive environments and wonderful places to meet interesting people who might have tips about finding local employment.

No matter where you want to work overseas, I suggest you start by writing a detailed, professional sounding letter to friends about your dreams. Writing the letter will also help you focus your goals and reflect on your skills. Think about including something nice you can offer to your friends. Below I have offered a couple of sample letters.

Send letters like these two below (with a personal note at top) as an email to friends and family, former professors, fellow volunteers, connections from your current and past jobs, faith groups, and clubs.

Subject: Seeking job in South Africa; thought you might have some friends who could advise

Dear Friends,

As most of you know, last year I volunteered to teach young children in South Africa. Now I seek to go back there (or another country in southern Africa), and I’d love your help in finding an opportunity. Specifically, do you know anyone I could contact who:

  • Works for an international development organization such as World Learning or Care.
  • Lives or has lived in southern Africa; or
  • Was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

My ideal job in South Africa would be:

  • Working with kids
  • Earning enough to cover simple room and board

My skills

  • Experience as a tutor and camp counselor (4 summers)
  • Worked with kids with disabilities in Ubuntu School in Jo’berg
  • Proposal writing. I am willing to do fundraising for a youth organization if I also get the opportunity to work directly with the kids
  • Coaching Lacrosse

Let me know if you know anyone who I could talk to and gain some ideas about getting a job in South Africa.

And if you find yourself near Cleveland, please consider coming for a visit. I’d love to host you here and show you around town.


Andi Johnson

Subject: Seeking job with solar company in China—your thoughts and connections?

Dear Friends,

I am seeking a job in China in the solar industry. I would greatly appreciate your suggestions of people I could contact who:

  • Work in the solar industry; or
  • Work for a company with operations in China; or
  • Live or have lived in China.

I volunteered in China last summer, teaching English at a technical college.

Now I have completed my BA in economics. I took three engineering classes including one on solar engineering. I did a marketing internship with Bosdorf, Winkle and Guzman.

I can carry on a simple conversation in Mandarin, and have introductory familiarity with Chinese characters.

I look forward to your suggestions. I think I’d be an asset to any company particularly any Chinese companies seeking joint US or European ventures.

Feel free to forward this email.

Any if you are interested in international volunteering, I’m happy to share stories from my summer experience with Asia Volunteers.


Bobby Jones

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The Networking Guide for International Work
How to Write an Effective International Resume
Building an International Employment Profile

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