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Top 10 Reasons Why High School Teens Should Volunteer Abroad

"Travel becomes transformative when it is about sharing experiences and integrating with the people, culture, and environment of the place." Amy E. Robertson

When you travel, how can you share experiences with locals, and learn about their culture? One excellent way of doing so is to volunteer. There are zillions of opportunities, from working with wildlife to teaching to music to building projects. There are also zillions of communities that need your help.

But WHY should you spend time and money to volunteer abroad?

Why high school teens, as this teen chose, should volunteer abroad.
Photo Flickr/Creative Commons VISIONS Service Adventures and adapted by Transitions Abroad.

Here, in the words of teen volunteers and volunteer experts, are ten reasons why teens should volunteer abroad.

1. Volunteering as a Teen is a Life-Changing Experience

Ask any volunteer, and stories will pour out of them — volunteering will change your life. How can it not? You’re exploring a new place, culture, people — and working with them to affect change.

Jamie J. Woodall shares the personal impact of teen travel:

"What better time for a pilgrimage than when everything is being questioned, relationships are shifting, and one’s place in the world is so difficult to define? It’s my firm conviction that providing adolescents with the chance to simply look inward is the greatest tool we can offer them. Given the opportunity of an emotionally safe and supportive environment, they will generally seek challenge, strive to develop meaningful relationships with others, explore the purpose of their daily lives, test their own belief systems, and realize the impact they have on the world around them."

Volunteer Marissa Sutera gives her best volunteer tip:

"Don’t let something new scare you out of a potentially life-changing experience. New is certainly challenging, but it will make for a much more rewarding and memorable experience in the end."
Children in Zambia dancing.
Enthusiatic young students in Zambia — rich in curiosity and life despite their material poverty. Photo by Marissa Sutera.

And global citizen Hannah Miller had an epiphany in Guatemala:

"I’d come to learn, and learn I had. My life, I realized, is a treasure. All the material items I’ve collected are a gift, not a right. You could call it an “aha” moment. I knew then that, just like the little girl, I had to share my gifts. As a world traveler, I come across people in need on a daily basis. As a human being and a world citizen, I feel that I have a responsibility to do what I can to make a change in those lives. The experience at the highland school in Guatemala was a turning point in my life. I went home, started a fundraiser for CoEd Guatemala, and began working to make a change."
Volunteer with children in Guatemala in the classroom.
Students in Guatemala. Photo by EAdventureGirl.

2. Volunteering as a Teen Enhances Your Academic Experience

Any kind of learning is enhanced by real-life experiences. This goes doubly so for volunteering. Why? Well, you’re gaining real-life examples of what you are learning in school — or want to learn in college.

Volunteer Mette Rousseau says that her volunteer experience completely changed her studies:

"If it weren’t for this experience, my university studies would have been drastically different. I attended Seattle Pacific University and, greatly influenced by my trip to Guatemala in 2009, I decided to study abroad for a quarter in Guatemala studying Spanish, traveling to every corner of the country I could reach and embracing the culture I was living in. My university degree is in Global Development Studies, Spanish and Geopolitics."
Teens volunteering in Guatemala.
Loading up to ride into rural Guatemala. Photo © Mette Rousseau.

3. Teen Volunteering Helps Your Career Decisions

When you volunteer, you’re gaining first-hand knowledge in a field you probably want to work in. Does this field fit you? Do you love what you’re doing every day, or do you find yourself interested in something else you see while you’re volunteering?

Caitlyn Bodine, a student who volunteered with music therapy at a hospital for mentally handicapped people, said it best:

"While many students choose to participate in internships while abroad, I feel that service learning is a great opportunity for students in non business-related disciplines to step out to their comfort zones and participate in a professional context of a different kind. Due to this incredible experience, I am pursuing music therapy as a career."

4. Teen Volunteering Builds Your Research Skills

Unfortunately, there are some less-than-honest programs out there in the volunteering world. If an organization is asking for a lot of money, ask what you will be getting — and how much of it goes to the people you will be helping. You will be building your research skills when you search for a program that fits you — and is a reliable, genuine place to volunteer.

Start here — we have a great list of organizations that we’ve worked with — and can recommend.

When you do your research, here are five criteria and questions to ask — important advice from a volunteer author and expert.

Voluntourism in the Galapagos saving the tortoise.
Volunteer to help animals, such as this Galapagos tortoise, with a reputable organization. Photo © Amy E. Robertson.

5. Volunteering is a Fantastic Way to Build Meaningful Connections

Nora Dunn, a travel expert, shares her volunteering experiences — and how friendships grew:

"After my first week of volunteering, I had made an amazing number of new friends. Despite my initial reservations about being culturally isolated on the program, there was in fact no other way I could have met so many different Spaniards from all over the country and had a chance to have meaningful conversations with them. These people don’t work in hospitality or tourism, or in any other way that I as a traveler could meet them. In getting to know all these “regular” people, I learned so much more about life in Spain than I could have imagined was possible.

So strong were some of the friendships forged with Spaniards that I stayed with one woman and her family following my first volunteer week, and after my second week of volunteering I stayed with another family for a few days. In addition, I have a small list of people to stay with around the country when I return to Spain. (And I will)."

6. Volunteering as a Teen is an Excellent Way to Grow

Experiencing new things, such as you will by volunteering abroad, will, as Jawaharlal Nehru, former Prime Minister of India said, “the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”

Marissa Sutera, who volunteered abroad in Zambia, notes:

"It’s one thing to volunteer in your own community for perhaps a few hours, or a full day, and then go back to your comfortable home with reliable Wi-Fi and electricity. However, it’s an entirely different experience to volunteer abroad in an unfamiliar country and be completely out of your element."

Any new experience can help you grow — but being open to that growth is important. Grant Florian, who volunteered abroad in Nepal, described the impact his travel and volunteer experience has had on his life:

"Upon returning to the U.S. my outlook on things had changed somewhat. I had learned what it was like in country totally different from my own, and I was more confident about doing things independently. I knew that I wanted to visit more countries, learn other languages, and lead an adventurous life.

That's exactly what I'm doing. Now I'm living in Spain and learning Spanish and later plan to travel to Morocco, then around parts of Europe. I’ll be starting college next fall, but first I'm taking some time off to learn about the world in the best way possible — through direct experience."

7. Volunteering Provides a Lesson from Abroad — for All Participants

Not only do you change lives by volunteering abroad, but you, too, learn valuable lessons from the community you are helping. As a former volunteer with Amigos de las Americas in San Pedro, Paraguay says:

"The amount of interest and respect that my partners and I showed for the people and the culture of our community allowed us to have the fullest possible AMIGOS experience. I believe we had a lasting impact on our community, though nothing could possibly equal the positive impact our community had on us. I learned the value of planning and preparation, but most importantly, the value of patience and the power of human bonds."

8. Volunteering Provides Hands-on Education

Whether you are volunteering for an archaeological dig, helping just-hatched turtles reach the sea, or helping in a classroom, you will gain hands on experience in a new field — or additional experience in a field you’re passionate about. Josiah Ramsay Johnston explains his hands-on volunteer experience:

"Besides receiving a free, hands-on education in archaeological fieldwork, I came to know and love the Cretan culture I was immersed in while not in the trenches. The friendships I formed there remain fast, and the lessons I learned about the breadth of history and the variety of cultural perspective continue to inform my own perception of the world. And all I had to do was show up."
Summer archeological dig in Greece.
During a summer volunteer archeological dig in Greece. Photo by Josiah Ramsay Johnston.

9. Volunteering as a Teen Can Help You Learn a Language

If you’re volunteering abroad, you probably will be working in a place where a different language is spoken. By interacting with locals, you’ll have a chance to work on your language skills. You can also enroll in language classes, while you’re overseas. Either way, practice your new language as much as possible. You’re not only showing the locals that you care about communicating with them in their language, but you’re gaining valuable in-person experience with the language.

We all know that textbook language learning is quite different from real life! And, that immersive language learning while a teen is important for both real life interactions and future professional opportunities.

10. Volunteering Changes the World — One Bit at a Time

Are your efforts worth it? Many teens (and parents) will raise this question — a good one to think about. As Zahara Heckscher, the co-author of the classics How to Live your Dream of Volunteering Overseas and Learning Service, reminds us:

"It’s important to be modest in your volunteering goals. Remind yourself that you’re not going to save the world. In fact, you probably won’t save any babies, prevent a village from starving, or rescue an endangered species from the brink of extinction. You may find that many groups that accept volunteers are disorganized, understaffed, and rough around the edges. However, if you are persistent, patient, flexible, and reliable, you may help make a difference as part of a group of people working for positive change.

No matter what type of volunteering you do, you’ll probably find that volunteering will dramatically improve your language ability and develop your intercultural understanding. Finally, volunteering can give you a renewed commitment to international exchange and new skills to contribute to creating a better world."

Volunteer Abroad Programs for Teens

There are a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for teens, which can be found and are described in our dedicated section on Volunteering Abroad for Teens.

  • Most options for teens are short-term volunteer programs, run by private organizations too numerous to cite here but listed in the teen volunteering section, and take place during the summer when students are finished with their regular school year. Some are for-profit while others are non-profit. Many organizations provide the necessary amenities, logistics, and orientation — including insurance, food, arrangements for shelter/accommodations, and associated trips. Smaller organizations can less costly up front, but there are greater requirements on the part of parents and/or students to handle arrangements and logistics on the back end, which can be difficult in some locations in the world, and could be a greater concern for those who seek a sense of assurance and safety in certain locations.

  • Many work camps are low in cost, such as Volunteers For Peace, and generally last at least 2-4 weeks in exchange for the services of teens. I participated in such volunteer programs in France and Italy while in high school, and the experience proved of great importance for my development, while the hard physical work I performed helping to restore ancient watermills and castles as they were built, and interacting with people from the country and from around the world in multiple languages — even sharing cooking duties — was educational for all.

  • Gap year volunteer programs exist for a longer-term experience that often combines volunteer service, learning, cultural immersion, and adventure. As in all volunteer situations, there is as at least as much learning that will last a lifetime as there is the actual help and care a teen can provide to locals.

  • Recently, there has been a rise in high school volunteer programs organized in-house by schools themselves or in partnership with organizations abroad during "breaks" in the school year. Any student will likely be made aware of such opportunities, sometimes offered at a discount to those in financial need. Often the money poured into the local community from visiting students can be extremely important to the locals over the long term, hopefully minimizing any possible harm to the local environment and social traditions, which in our view is always a key element in a good volunteer program.

  • Family volunteering is a unique option offered by many organizations, where parents and teens participate together in projects worldwide. Here are some from the growing list such organized programs.

Clearly, if a teen wishes to volunteer there are many great options for programs around the world, all are educational in some way, and some are quite affordable — with the plane ticket being the primary cost. Through organized programs, teens can help change the world one bit at a time, and what is learned will help in many of the important intellectual and practical facets of their own later life, including future volunteering at home and abroad with the knowledge and skills gained. — Gregory Hubbs, Editor-in-Chief

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High School Teen Study and Travel Abroad
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