Taking time off to volunteer abroad is a great way to immerse yourself in a new culture while letting your inner altruist put your talents and goodwill to use. Being a volunteer in a community means you are more than just a transient traveler, and likewise, your host country/community will become more than just a place you visited. Embarking on a volunteer gap year truly is a whole other way to see the world, and with so many destinations and programs to choose from, you’re sure to find your perfect fit.
Understandably, you may be getting more out of your volunteer placement than the community you are helping. You are gaining valuable professional skills and experience in development. That is not to say you’re not helping your community, but if one of your goals of a volunteer gap year is to expand on or supplement your education, a service learning project, which combines classroom instruction with community service, may an ideal combination. Longer term educational travel programs in developing nations tend to combine education, travel, and community service into their programs, so it’s not a bad idea to start your search there.
Education and Youth Development
One of the most popular volunteer programs also happens to be a cornerstone of development: education. Depending on language requirements and your country of service, volunteers can expect to teach English, Science, Art, Sports Education, Math, IT Skills, and so much more. Education isn’t just limited to teaching children though, but if it is, any responsible program will require a background check from you.
Worldwide, there are countless volunteer positions to help with environmental conservation or education. Each country and region has its own environmental issues and therefore the specific work you will be doing is dependent on where you are placed. For example, you could help conserve turtle populations in Costa Rica, or orphaned elephants in Thailand. If you are interested in a specific aspect of environmental conservation, such as marine biology, start your search with the type of environmental conservation you hope to do, rather than a destination.
Volunteers with a background in health are highly sought out in volunteer abroad positions and bring an incredibly valuable set of skills to the field. However, even if you aren’t a qualified nurse or health practitioner, plenty of other volunteer positions in the health field, like promoting HIV/AID awareness or educating children on basic hygiene and nutrition, are open to interested volunteers with less of a background in medicine.
Both in developed and undeveloped nations, gender discrimination is significant issue for women and a hindrance to their professional advancement and personal rights. However, empowering women abroad and working for women's rights is especially significant in countries where the divide between women and men is strong. Help empower women abroad by providing education, health care, shelters, and giving them access to loans, finance, and vocational trainings.
Whether you have a background in farming and agriculture or not, a volunteer placement in agriculture may be for you. WWOOF, of course, is the most well known organization linking volunteers with organic farms in need of an extra hand, but many other organizations still need assistance in promoting sustainable agricultural practices.
Located on Africa’s “Gold Coast”, Ghana is known for it’s warm climate and even warmer people. However, despite recent advancements, its poverty level still sits at around 28.5%, and a host of development projects in health, education, and environmental conservation have popped up as a result. Volunteer here to help one of Africa’s most vivacious nations work towards development.
Thousands of visitors flock to Thailand’s idyllic beaches bustling capital each year. Understandably so, it’s a great place to visit but an equally welcoming place to volunteer. Volunteer projects here are fairly diverse, with options such as working with refugees, elephant conservation, education, health, and youth development. Warm weather and great food are a few other perks to a volunteer placement in Thailand.
India is a country like no other, and it’s hard not to walk away from this colorful, bustling nation of 1.2 billion without feeling affected by its lively personality. Of course, it isn’t all just bright colors and spicy street food. India still faces complex issues surrounding poverty and development, and volunteer placement here won’t just give you a chance to work towards helping India achieve its goals as an emerging nation but will give you first-hand insight on the social issues the nation faces.
Peru is a fascinating country with diverse and beautiful ecosystems, ancient history, and an enchanting contemporary culture that volunteers are bound to fall in love with. Unfortunately, its high level of poverty and less than ideal living conditions mean that volunteer projects and the dedicated people working on them are much needed. Some of the program's volunteers have to choose from programs in health, gender equality, youth development/education, community development, and environmental conservation.
In terms of both culture and environment, South Africa is an amazingly diverse nation with a rich and complex history. It stands out among African nations for the leaps and bounds it has taken in development. However, though it is one of the most economically advanced nations in Africa, it is still catching up to the West in terms of development and living standards. Better healthcare/health awareness, gender equality, education, and environmental awareness are all examples of areas South Africa is working on improving with the help of volunteers.
Also popular? Japan, Spain, Romania, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Nepal, and Argentina.
Planning Your Trip
Getting Your Family on Board
Volunteering abroad can be a taxing experience, both emotionally and physically, so it’s essential to have a support system back home. Especially when you’re having a particularly rough day, you want to be able to call your family and have them remind you that you made the right decision and not saying “I told you so.” Get your family on board by researching all safety, health, and financial concerns, making contingency plans, and sharing all of it with them. Don’t forget to discuss all the great benefits and experiences you’ll be getting out of your placement, either!
When To Take a Gap Year for Volunteer Travel
If you are planning a volunteer placement independently, when you go is totally dependent on you and the country you have chosen to volunteer in. Even program-run volunteer placements are generally flexible in their departure dates, especially shorter term placements that cater to voluntourists who may not have an infinite amount of time. However, if you are looking for a longer-term placement or working with a specific organization, they may replace volunteers only every 6 months to a year, depending on their program. Ideally, you should be flexible with either your placement or departure time.
Tips on Funding
If you are volunteering through a program, start with them to find financial assistance or scholarships. For a service-learning trip that gets you college credit, you may also qualify for some sweet study abroad scholarships. Otherwise, there are volunteer placements that don’t require volunteers to pay to volunteer -- although the trade-off is that they generally require a longer commitment or some sort of relevant professional experience. Search engines such as Relief Web are a good place to start your search for these.
Depending on the type of volunteer placement you sign up for, you may qualify for college credit. If you are volunteering through a program, they should clarify their website or program description about whether or not college credit is available. Some organizations will offer to help you turn your experience into credit as well. If it isn’t listed as a perk of your program/organization, talk to an advisor at your college to see if you can’t turn this time off into college credit. You’ll want to check whether the credit if issued from a different university, is transferable anyways, so why not go ahead and set up an appointment?
Most countries will allow volunteers from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and most European nations, to work on a tourist visa, available on arrival, for 30-90 days. However, this is something you must double-check on well in advance of your departure as some visas can take up to a month or more to process
Be aware that many nations also require yellow fever vaccinations and an up-to-date WHO card for you to enter. Also, take a look at the entry requirements for any country you are transiting en route to your destination, as they may not let you transit without the vaccination either.