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The Best Volunteer Abroad Programs You Should Try

Posted by Mary Ann Barge | Oct 11, 2015 12:30:00 PM

Extracurriculars

 

By now you probably know that one thing colleges want to learn about you is how you spend your free time. Did you spend high school sitting around playing video games? Or did you get out, actively involve yourself in an activity and your community, and make a difference?

One way of doing just that has become increasingly popular over the past several years: volunteering abroad.

Read on for more on why students volunteer abroad, tips for choosing a volunteer abroad program, and our pick of some of the best volunteer abroad programs out there.

 

Why Do Students Volunteer Abroad?

There are many reasons that high school students choose to volunteer abroad. Some are looking for a unique volunteering opportunity that they think they can’t get at home. Going abroad to volunteer serves a dual purpose for many students: it allows them to combine a vacation and a little world exploration with also bettering their resumes for college.

Students use volunteer abroad programs to see new cultures from the inside – or at least, from a different perspective than they would normally have on vacation sitting in a hotel room. Many volunteer abroad programs allow students to interact with (and sometimes live with) people from another culture. Students feel that this helps them develop tolerance, widen their world views, and become more independent and adventurous.

Many students also like the idea that they're giving back while having fun. There are all sorts of programs out there to suit different interests: you could be working with animals, helping the environment, or teaching children how to read. It gives students a sense of accomplishment when they can actually see the difference they're making in someone else’s lives. Why not do that while also seeing a new part of the world?

 

The Reality About Volunteer Abroad Programs

Of course, many of the benefits of volunteer abroad programs can also be achieved by volunteering at home. You can still expose yourself to a new culture and learn how other people experience life. You can still make a difference that you can see every day. You’ll still be able to use your skills to make an impact in another person’s life and simultaneously build your college resume. And you can be more certain that you aren’t falling for a volunteer abroad scam that’s doing more harm than good.

In fact, many colleges will look more favorably on local volunteer work than volunteering abroad.

This is largely for all the reasons I stated above – colleges would rather see you volunteering because you are actually passionate about the work you are doing and the community you are helping, rather than trying to boost your resume while on vacation.

But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t volunteer abroad. It can still be an amazing experience. But when you do it, choose a program wisely.

 

So How Should I Choose a Program?

Considering the above, there are a few rules that you should follow when choosing a volunteer abroad program.

 

Rule 1: Be Honest with Yourself About Your Intentions

Why do you really want to do this program? Is it just so that you’ll have something cool to put on your college application? Is it because you want to travel but not feel like you're wasting your time?

Answering these questions honestly will keep you from wasting your money and someone else’s time.

The desire to travel and learn about another culture is fantastic in and of itself. So if this is your main aim, try doing something else, like a study abroad program. It will allow you to make the most of your travel time and budget, and will also ensure that the people who go abroad to volunteer are actually interested in making an impact in their chosen projects.

If you're just looking to bolster your resume, try volunteering at home. As explained above, colleges will look more highly on longer-term, local community service work, than they will on a brief project undertaken abroad.

In the meantime, you’ll be saving yourself a bundle of money as well.

 

Rule 2: Be Prepared for the Costs of the Program 

Volunteer abroad programs vary a lot in cost. They can range from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand. Make sure that if you do decide to spend the money on a volunteer abroad program, that it’s going to be a good use of your money.

Be sure to ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better off volunteering locally and saving the money for college.

Furthermore, it’s important to consider where the money is actually going in the project you're undertaking. Will most of the money be spent on transportation? On fun activities? On lining the pockets of the program coordinator? Or will it be going directly to helping a community?

Most companies will not advertise these numbers publicly because they know the numbers won’t impress people. Make sure that part of your research of your programs includes calling them up and asking for this information.

Once you know how much of your money will be going to the program, also ask yourself if the community would be better off if you just donated the full amount.

But money isn’t the only cost of these kinds of programs.

There can be large emotional tolls, as well. Are you prepared to immerse yourself in another culture? Can you adapt to extreme differences in living conditions and lifestyles? Are you a picky eater? Can you stand to be away from your family and friends for a long period of time? Can you handle interacting with people severely affected by poverty and illness?

You won’t be of much use to anyone if being outside of your comfort zone is going to massively affect your productivity. So be honest with yourself before you sign up to try something as potentially challenging as one of these programs.

 

Rule 3: Choose a Program That Will Benefit the Community 

This is the other side of the cost breakdown mentioned above.

It’s important to understand how the money you're spending is going to help the community you will be involved in. It’s also important to understand if you're actually going to be doing work that will make a difference, or if you'll be doing work that makes you feel good but has little other real benefit.

Do research and read reviews on the different programs to make sure they're legitimate and are actually helping out communities in need. Beware of volunteer abroad programs that are vacation in disguise, and those that are harmful scams.

 

Rule 4: Choose a Program You Are Passionately Interested in

If you choose a program that you're actually passionately interested in, it will usually be something that is reflected in your other interests, as well.

You should try to pick a program that relates to interests that you already have, and ideally, that you have expressed elsewhere in your extracurricular activities at home.

For example, say you love growing vegetables in your garden, and you're becoming increasingly interested in organic farming. A volunteer abroad program that allows you to explore your specific interest would be a good choice for you.

 

Rule 5: Choose a Cause You Can Continue Working With 

Also, try to pick a program with a cause you can continue working for once you return home. Colleges want to see significant and sustained commitment to a certain area. So if you choose a volunteer abroad program that helps out endangered wildlife, follow it up by working at a local animal shelter once you get back, or become an advocate for local wildlife.

 

Rule 6: Choose a Program That Will Challenge You

Though you don’t want to aim for emotional burnout, at the same time you should choose a program that will expose you to new things, immerse you in a foreign culture, and force you to think about the world in a different way.

For example, I knew several people in high school who went on youth group trips to build houses in Central America. The programs allowed them to interact almost exclusively with their friends the entire time, and exposed them very little to the local culture. At the end of the day, they had little understanding of why they were building houses, whom the houses were going to benefit, and if the work they had done had taken away potential jobs from the local community.

If, in researching, the program seems to add little value to the local community and won’t allow you to get a good understanding of the problems and culture of the country you're visiting, there isn't much point in going.

Instead, choose a program that will allow you to have a unique understanding of another culture, or will develop an interest in international relations or social justice.

 

Now that you know what’s important in choosing a volunteer abroad program, here is a roundup of some of our favorites. These all cover a wide range of interests that many high school students have. They all have good programs for developing those interests, and would allow you to pursue similar volunteer work once you are back home.

 

The Best Volunteer Abroad Programs for High School Students

 

For students interested in sustainable living and organic farming…

Program Name: WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

What is it? Students live with host families around the world while learning about organic lifestyles. You’ll be expected to help out in farming activities such as sowing seed, gardening, cutting wood, harvesting, wine making and cheese making for 4 – 6 hours per day in exchange for accommodation and food.

Who is it for? Students who are 17 and older who are interested in organic farming and sustainable lifestyles, and also want to work and be part of a local community.

Where is it? The program is worldwide! Countries throughout Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia participate.

How long is the program? The length is negotiated directly with your host family. Stays can be as short as two weeks but can also last for several months.

How much does it cost? Membership in WWOOF costs up to $72, plus the costs of traveling to your host’s location.

Why do we like it? Students get complete cultural immersion through living with a host family and involving themselves in the local economy. They learn practical sustainable farming skills that they can continue to use when they're back home.

How can you continue it back home? Organic farms are popping up throughout the country, and WWOOF also operates throughout the United States, which would give you ample opportunities to continue to pursue this interest once you get back.

 

For students interested in language immersion and/or teaching English… 

 

Program Name: SPI Abroad’s Costa Rica Immersion Program

What is it? A chance to live in Costa Rica like a local, while getting an intensive immersion experience. You will live with a local family. Monday through Friday, students will attend level-appropriate intensive Spanish classes at a local language institute. They will also spend time 3 days per week volunteering in the local communities. Some examples of volunteer work include home repair, public works projects, working with youth, and nature preservation.

Who is it for? High school students who are specifically looking for a language intensive experience.

Where is it? Costa Rica

How long is the program? 2 weeks or one month

How much does it cost? $3,695 - $6,995

Why do we like it? Students get total cultural immersion through living with a host family. They also get the chance to further understand the culture by studying the local language. The volunteer projects are varied and can be tailored to suit students’ individual interests.

How can you continue it back home? You can continue volunteering while using your Spanish skills. Many non-profits needs volunteers with language skills so that they can reach out to different underrepresented communities. Depending on the specific volunteer work you do, you may want to volunteer with youth programs or an environmental program.

 

Program Name: Global Works France Language Immersion and Service Adventure

What is it? Volunteers spend their time working with local French teens on volunteer projects, such as restoring the grounds of an 11th-century castle, helping maintain migration routes, and teaching English at summer camps. Students will have the opportunity for a 10-day homestay with a French family to complete the immersion experience. There are also many opportunities to learn about French culture.

Who is it for? Students grades 9 – 12 who want a French immersion experience.

Where is it? France

How long is the program? 4 weeks

How much does it cost? $6,995

Why do we like it? Students get to mingle with local teens, which is one of the most effective ways of getting to understand a new culture. They can further the cultural immersion through homestays with family. The volunteer projects are undertaken in collaboration with like-minded local students.

How can you continue it back home? You can continue volunteering while using your French skills. Many non-profits need volunteers with language skills so that they can reach out to different underrepresented communities. You can volunteer locally to help preserve local cultural artifacts. You can also consider tutoring French.

 

Program Name: Broad Reach West Indies French Immersion

What is it? An intensive language immersion program on an island where English isn't spoken. You will take French classes in a language school, have a homestay with a local family, and do community service such as cultural exchange with local students, working in the local youth group “Ka zot ka fe”, and helping teach key English phrases to local workers.

Who is it for? Grades 9 – 11 with at least one year of high school level French.

Where is it? Several islands in the French West Indies

How long is the program? 3 weeks

How much does it cost? $5,980

Why do we like it? Students get opportunities for cultural and language immersion through classes and a homestay. Students help open up new business opportunities for local business owners by helping them to learn business English.

How can you continue it back home? You can continue volunteering while using your French skills. Many non-profits need volunteers with language skills so that they can reach out to different underrepresented communities. You should also consider tutoring French and working in a local youth group.

 

For students interested in sports…

Program Name: UVolunteer Teaching Sports in Thailand

What is it? Many schools in Thailand can’t afford to have PE programs. You’ll be working in elementary  schools and high schools in Trat as a PE coach. If you're interested in a certain sport, you can teach that, or you can teach general PE classes to help kids learn about teamwork and physical fitness.

Who is it for? Teens aged 17 and older.

Where is it? Thailand

How long is the program? 2 weeks or more

How much does it cost? $685 +

Why do we like it? Students live in a small dorm in the middle of a Thai community out of the way of tourist areas. Students report being able to spend extensive time getting to know the groups of local families that surround them, which leads to great cultural immersion. Students get to interact daily with teachers and students, so they can experience first-hand the educational system of another country.

How can you continue it back home? Continue volunteering in sports by coaching a youth sports team in your community or at your old grade school.

 

For students interested in wildlife conservation…

Program Name: Go Eco

What is it? GoEco was founded by experienced volunteers to give students opportunities to volunteer worldwide to help the environment and wildlife. Some trips include working in an elephant village in Thailand, working for Great White Shark conservation in South Africa, and an African wildlife rehabilitation center in Zimbabwe.

Who is it for? Teens and others interested in working to help the environment.

Where is it? Worldwide.

How long is the program? Programs range from 2 to 12 weeks.

How much does it cost? Programs start at $550.

Why do we like it? Many of the programs start with a language-learning program, which allows volunteers to get more fully immersed with the local culture once the program begins. Many of the programs partner with local conservation groups so that students are working alongside locals to help fulfill their goals.

How can you continue it back home? There are a lot of opportunities to get involved cleaning up your communities, raising awareness about eco-friendly practices, or working to help local animals at shelters.

 

Program Name: GVI Greece Marine Conservation Awareness

What is it? Join a group of international volunteers as they work to conserve endangered loggerhead turtles that live in the sands of Greek beaches. You’ll get to do various conservation projects, such as recording nesting activity, protecting hatchlings, and raising awareness.

Who is it for? This program is specifically aimed at students aged 15 – 17.

Where is it? Greece.

How long is the program? 2 – 4 weeks

How much does it cost? From $3,390.

Why do we like it? Volunteers report a rigorous schedule of science lectures and conservation activities, from which they are able to see immediate and large results. Though working with an international group, volunteers also get to visit small local towns to interact with locals and get cultural immersion.

How can you continue it back home? There are a lot of opportunities to get involved cleaning up your communities, raising awareness about eco-friendly practices, or working to help local animals at shelters.

 

For students interested in art…

Program Name: Art Relief International

What is it? Art Relief International works with struggling people in Chiang Mai, Thailand, by offering them the means to express themselves through art. Volunteers from a range of backgrounds help out with constructing new art projects, writing to donors, and working with the local community on art projects.

Who is it for? People of all ages who are interested in art, art therapy, music, writing, teaching, graphic design, and fundraising.

Where is it? Thailand

How long is the program? You should plan to spend at least three weeks.

How much does it cost? From $1,799.

Why do we like it? Volunteers work closely with local community partners to create workshops and learn to communicate while lacking a common language. The focus is on doing work that benefits local non-profit organizations and collaborating with them to make long-term programs that they can continue using once the volunteers have left.

How can you continue it back home? Take this as an opportunity to develop your artistic and leadership skills, and then bring that back to your home community. See if you can worked with disadvantaged groups or local youth groups to help people express themselves through art or music.

 

For students interested in law and business… 

Program Name: Law & Business in China for Teens

What is it? You will be given an overview of the Chinese legal system, and then spend your time visiting law firms and legal departments. Help research case studies, proofread documents, and increase cultural understanding.

Who is it for? Teens aged 16 – 19 with an interest in law

Where is it? Chengdu, China

How long is the program? 2 weeks

How much does it cost? $3,270

Why do we like it? Students get to work alongside local professionals, which allows for great cultural exchange. The work students do is directly applicable to careers they can pursue in the future.

How can you continue it back home? Volunteer with a non-profit’s legal team to see how law can be used to make a positive impact in your own community.

 

Program Name: Human Rights in South Africa for Teens

What is it? Spend two weeks in South Africa living with a host family and working with locals in townships, while learning about how their lives are affected by poverty, crime, and racism. Work with local civil rights activists to learn about how they have solved problems in the past and discuss how to address continuing social justice issues.

Who is it for? Students ages 16 – 19 who are considering a career in human rights

Where is it? Cape Town, South Africa

How long is the program? 2 weeks

How much does it cost? $3,445

Why do we like it? Students get to work alongside local professionals, which allows for great cultural exchange. The work students do is directly applicable to careers they can pursue in the future.

How can you continue it back home? Volunteer with a local non-profit that is committed to solving community problems like racism and poverty.

 

For students interested in public health and medicine…

Program Name: Broad Reach Belize Wilderness Emergency Medicine

What is it? Students will be trained and receive certification as a Wilderness First Responder and also get CPR certification. The courses will count towards 3 college credits in health science. Afterwards, you will work with La Loma Luz Hospital and the local communities on educational campaigns and other work such as assisting with medical paperwork, taking blood pressure and other vitals, and creating a week-long health campaign.

Who is it for? Students grades 10 – 12 with an interest in medicine. Students must be over the age of 16.

Where is it? Belize

How long is the program? 22 days

How much does it cost? $5,480

Why do we like it? Students get to work alongside local professionals, which allows for great cultural exchange. The work students do is directly applicable to careers they can pursue in the future, and the skills learned are easily transferred to volunteer projects back home.

How can you continue it back home? Consider volunteering in a local hospital or a free health clinic to continue to provide necessary services to people who can least afford them.

 

Program Name: Public Health in Tanzania for Teens

What is it? Learn about public healthcare in a developing country. You will spend your time doing medical outreach work alongside local doctors and nurses, such as educating children in orphanages about the importance of washing their hands. You will also be able to assist doctors where possible. 

Who is it for? Teens ages 16 - 19

Where is it? Arusha, Tanzania

How long is the program? 2 weeks

How much does it cost? $2,970

Why do we like it? Students get to work alongside local professionals, which allows for great cultural exchange. The work students do is directly applicable to careers they can pursue in the future, and the skills learned are easily transferred to volunteer projects back home.

How can you continue it back home? Consider volunteering in a local hospital or a free health clinic to continue to provide necessary services to people who can least afford them.

 

For students interested in journalism… 

Program Name: GLA Photography and Journalism Program

What is it? GLA (Global Leadership Adventures) is developing a program for students who dream of one day working for National Geographic or a similar publication and who want to get real experience in how journalism can shape international perceptions. GLA operates their programs in non-tourist areas of developing countries.

Who is it for? High school students interested in journalism

Where is it? Worldwide

How long is the program? The programs usually range between one and six weeks.

How much does it cost? Programs start around $3,400

Why do we like it? Though the program is still in development, GLA has a strong reputation for placing students in non-touristy villages where they get large exposure to local culture and are able to work closely with staff members from their host country. GLA also has a unique leadership mentoring program, which pushes students to reflect on how they can use the skills they have learned to continue making a difference once they return home.

How can you continue it back home? Get involved in your school or community newspaper.

 

For students interested in archaeology…

Program Name: Archaeology in Romania for Teens

What is it? Work at a classical archaeological site in Brasov, Romania. You’ll spend time doing excavations, analyzing findings, attending workshops, and conducting presentations.

Who is it for? Teens 16 – 19 years old who have an interest in Eastern Europe, classical civilizations, and history.

Where is it? Romania

How long is the program? 2 weeks

How much does it cost? $3,445

Why do we like it? Projects Abroad allows volunteers to stay with host families for cultural immersion while learning practical excavation, analysis and reporting skills that they can use in future jobs. The money paid for the project goes towards making sustainable long-term conservation and community service projects around the world.

How can you continue it back home? Consider volunteering with a museum if you're interested in history and learning about past civilizations. You can also start showing interest in your studies (such as taking Latin classes).

 

Program Name: Inca Projects and Archaeology in Peru for Teens

What is it? Work outdoors on archaeological activities in the Inca’s Sacred Valley of Peru. You’ll be working with local archaeological experts to help uncover Incan ruins, and will also help run community projects with the other volunteers.

Who is it for? Teens aged 16 – 19.

Where is it? Peru

How long is the program? 2 weeks

How much does it cost? $2,970

Why do we like it? Projects Abroad allows volunteers to stay with host families for cultural immersion while learning practical excavation, analysis and reporting skills that they can use in future jobs. The money paid for the project goes towards making sustainable long-term conservation and community service projects around the world.

How can you continue it back home? Consider volunteering in a museum. Depending on where you live, some museums may have volunteer positions that will allow you to continue studying Native American cultures.

 

Review: How to Find the Right Program for You

Don’t see something on this list that speaks to your interests? Try searching online for programs that relate to something you're passionate about. There are hundreds of volunteer abroad programs, and chances are good that there will be one that will allow you to develop one of your passions.

Remember the key things to look out for when you're choosing a program:

  • Understand where the money will be going and how you will be benefiting the local community
  • Choose something that will allow you to pursue a passion or academic interest
  • Find a program that will let you work in an area that you can continue working in back home
  • Try something that will challenge you to learn and grow

A bit of research and review reading should let you know if you've found a volunteer abroad program that’s worth pursuing.

 

What’s Next?

Not sure if volunteering abroad is for you? Check out our article on the benefits of volunteering abroad.

If you’re interested in something more local, check out the 9 best places to do community service.

Already volunteered? Read this guide to how to get a good community service letter.

 

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Mary Ann Barge
About the Author

Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.



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