A Beginner’s Guide to Volunteering Abroad

With more people giving their time and energy to causes they are passionate about, volunteering abroad has become a growing travel trend. Teaching English in Asia, working with children in India, and building houses in Central America are just a few examples of projects I’ve recently heard about through the travel grapevine. I myself have volunteered internationally–working in a hospital in the Andes in Northern Peru, shadowing a diabetes dietitian in Chile, and helping out at a childcare center in Brazil. These experiences were humbling and opened my eyes to the condition people live in across the world and I believe my time abroad will make me a better dietitian (and human) for it.

These experiences were humbling and opened my eyes to the condition people live in across the world and I believe my time abroad will make me a better dietitian (and human) for it.

I get a lot of questions from students, friends, and travelers alike wondering how I found my international volunteer placements. With so many opportunities–free and paid–it can be hard to know where to start. Below are some tips, tricks, and resources to get the ball rolling on your next adventure abroad.

What Skills & Knowledge Can You Bring?

Whether you want to work with children, teach English, or do a medical mission, the opportunities for international volunteer work are endless. Most programs hope to find volunteers that have applicable knowledge or a skill set that aligns with their work, but many are happy to have an extra set of hands to help with their mission. Do you have experience in construction and want to help build houses? Are you a registered nurse, dietitian, or even a student studying health and want to use your skills to help out? Whatever your interests are, you should start with what you know and search potential projects that would be a good fit.

It is not necessary to be fluent in the language of the country you will volunteer in, but having at least an elementary proficiency will open up the possibilities of work that you will do. It may be possible to combine your volunteer work with language lessons while overseas. During my time in Peru, I worked in a hospital in the mornings and took medical Spanish lessons in the afternoon with other volunteers from all over the world. My Spanish was elementary at best, but after a few weeks of being immersed in the language I noticed a huge difference in my understanding–which in turn helped me to be more hands on with patients.

Be Ready to Get Uncomfortable

The idea of traveling to another country, living amongst its people, and giving your time can sound magical when you are at home but when all is said and done you find yourself in the middle of a foreign country without your usual comforts, it is not always easy.

The idea of traveling to another country, living amongst its people, and giving your time can sound magical when you are at home but when all is said and done you find yourself in the middle of a foreign country without your usual comforts, it is not always easy. Even seasoned traveler can experience culture shock after spending weeks or months in one place and eating the same meals over and over again (rice and beans three meals a day for a month, anyone?). The novelty of a new place can–and will–rub off and you may begin asking yourself why you decided to come…or stay so long. This is a very normal process and it will pass, but it is important to be prepared for it before leaving.

Be Honest With Yourself About What You Want To Do & Why

It is also important to remember to be culturally sensitive to the conditions you will be working and living in. You may become frustrated by the disorganization of projects and the lack of initiative to change. It is important to remember that unless you were asked to come on to a project to revamp it’s structure, there isn’t always much you can do to change the way things are run. The kind of people who are willing to jump into another culture feet first are also the kind of people who may bulldoze over cultural norms for the sake of “the better way.” You must avoid ethnocentricity, and go with a mindset of observation and learning. Remember your reason for volunteering and reconcile that you cannot save the world, but you can help make small changes here and now.

Cost Considerations

Most volunteer projects come with a fee and can be anywhere from a few dollars to day to hundreds of dollars a week. Most medical volunteer programs that charge do so for a reason–they find your project, place you in a homestay that provides meals, provide transportation, and pay a fee to the site where you will be working. These types of projects are great for first time volunteers or the unseasoned traveler as they handle the logistics for you and your job is to show up, lend your time, and learn about the culture around you.

Free programs are a bit harder to come by and will require more research, and are usually not as organized as a paid experience. Having said that, a free program can be the best way to really understand the conditions of the country you will work in. You will likely not not help in securing accommodations or transportation, so having some familiarity with the country is essential. I had the chance to volunteer my time in a small preschool in Brazil and the organization was anything but organized, but the small group of people who came together to take care of the children had a lot of heart and I was able to experience what life was really like for families in a Brazilian favela.

It’s Never Free, Even If It’s Free

Many programs offer volunteer placements for free or at low cost, but keep in mind other fees associated with your travels. Airfare to and from the country, lodging, and transportation to and from the site must be considered for the budget traveler. I have yet to hear about a volunteer program that will pay your travel fees (unless you’re joining the PeaceCorps, and if so then you wouldn’t be considered a beginner by any means) and these expenses can be costly. It is possible to find a work/stay site or have the potential program connect you with a homestay family in the area. It never hurts to ask what the options are when considering a program.

Scams

As volunteering abroad becomes more popular and people are willing to pay for placements, it is inevitable that scams will pop up to take advantage of beginner travelers. Does the website have reviews of travelers who have participated with the program? Is the staff you are corresponding with prompting you to pay before answering their questions? Are they asking for your credit card number or using Paypal instead? Some particularly well known volunteer scam are advertised as orphanages in Southeast Asia and India, and you can read more about them in this article. Bottomline? Do your research, check reviews, and use common sense.

Project Search Considerations

  1. What will you do? What are your skills, what would you like to learn, and what would you like to do?
  2. Where will you stay? Would you like a homestay with a family or do you want your own accommodation?
  3. How will you get around? Does the program provide transportation? Is there public transportation and is it safe?
  4. How long will you stay? Most programs require at least two weeks but some suggest at least a few months to make a difference.

Resources For Locating Your Volunteer Site

Start first by deciding on a location, a project, or your interest and then begin your search. Below are great resources to help  pinpoint your next adventure:

Great Blog Posts on Volunteering Abroad

Never underestimate word of mouth!

Ask friends, family, peers, and search forums on sites like Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, or Reddit for suggestions and real person reviews. I stumbled upon my experience shadowing a dietitian in Chile while I was on a train to Machu Picchu in Peru by simply telling fellow travelers that I met about my interest in nutrition. They had a friend who was a dietitian in Santiago that I connected with when I arrived in Chile, and the rest is history!

Good Luck & Happy Travels!

Do you have a trusted program or website that should be included? Leave a comment or email me at kristina@kristinatodini.com. 

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