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Volunteer Abroad — How to Choose the “Right” Overseas Program

Volunteer with students in Guyana
WorldTeach volunteer with students in Guyana. Photo courtesy of Worldteach.

Why volunteer to teach overseas when you can get paid to do so? The first benefit of volunteering is that most volunteer programs provide training and coordinate logistics and paperwork for you, from finding a school to arranging visas. In addition, volunteer programs frequently offer more challenging and more rewarding assignments. As a volunteer, you are more likely to teach low-income children in rural areas, adolescents in youth programs, or adults in grassroots organizations. Paid teachers often work for businesspeople or their children.

All volunteer programs are not equal, however. There are vast differences in expenses, training provided, types of placements, and quality of services. Before you compare programs, take time to explore your own needs and interests. How long can you volunteer? Where do you want to go? How much can you spend? Who do you want to teach?

The following evaluations of four of the most popular volunteer programs are the results of four years of research in over two dozen countries. Our book, How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, which contains more extensive evaluations, is based on interviews with hundreds of volunteers. Be aware, however, that program quality varies from year to year and from country to country. Your best strategy is to contact recently returned volunteers from the program you are considering.

Peace Corps
The most common Peace Corps assignments are teaching (including English), business skills, and environmental education. The main advantage—and disadvantage—of the Peace Corps is that it is part of the U.S. government. You usually receive a modest salary, end-of-service payment (about $8,000), excellent health services, good language training, substantial length of service (two years plus three months), and evacuation in the case of political instability—or really bad weather. On the negative side, the Peace Corps only accepts U.S. citizens, does not give volunteers a choice of country, and provides poor technical instruction. Volunteers cannot be “political”; for example, they can’t be members of groups such as Amnesty International and can’t even tell people how they vote. Some volunteers resent being “a happy face sticker on the often disruptive U.S. foreign policy,” in the words of one volunteer. Twenty to 30 percent of volunteers do not complete two years of service because of problems such as illness or a mismatch between volunteers and their placements.

WorldTeach appears to do a better job than the Peace Corps in helping volunteers find appropriate placements. In several countries, including Ecuador and South Africa, it forms partnerships with environmental organizations; volunteers teach local residents to become environmentally sensitive tour guides with ecotourism projects. The program thus helps promote local economic development through environmental conservation and education. Volunteers report a high level of satisfaction with their placements and WorldTeach support services. The main drawback of WorldTeach is its price tag of $1,750 to $6,000 (summer and year-long prices differ, so see website), but the organization does provide assistance with fundraising and volunteers earn a salary while overseas.

Cross-Cultural Solutions
Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) offers the opportunity to volunteer with local community organizations such as a school for children with disabilities in India, a women’s group in Ghana, or a health clinic in Peru. Emphasis is usually more on culturally sensitive support for local development efforts than on intensive teaching. The careful matching process, top-notch local staff, and comfortable but modest group living quarters create a positive ex-perience for most CCS volunteers. We recommend CCS for people who want to learn about local people’s efforts to promote development in their own communities.

VIA/Volunteers in Asia
VIA, formerly known as Volunteers in Asia, places volunteers in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos, mostly as teachers at colleges and universities or workers with nongovernmental organizations. Some summer volunschools. All training takes place in the San Francisco Bay area and includes cultural issues. Applicants must have prior teaching experience or take classes in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Participants in VIA programs generally report a high level of satisfaction, praising the “tight-knit” organization for its training, support, and alumni program.

Other Opportunities

Dozens of additional volunteer placement programs offer teaching assignments. We investigated and profiled 80 organizations, more than half with teaching opportunities. In addition, we met dozens of volunteers who had independently created their own volunteer teaching positions. Regardless of your country of interest, timeline, and budget, you are bound to find at least one organization that’s right for you, providing a teaching opportunity that won’t put much money in your pocket but will certainly enrich your life. Next time we will explain how to create your own volunteer teaching positions, without the support of a volunteer program.

COLLINS, De ZEREGA, and HECKSCHER are co-authors of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas. See Zahara Heckscher's bio for more information about her work and follow-up book on volunteering.

Related Topics
Volunteer Work Abroad
More articles by Zahara Heckscher
Choosing a Volunteer Placement Organization
Volunteering Overseas: What It Takes to Be a Highly Effective Volunteer
Combine Volunteering with Language Study Abroad
Why Volunteer Overseas?
Coming Home After Volunteering Abroad

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