Volunteering abroad sounds like a great way to spend part of your summer vacation. Traveling to a foreign country and helping some of the world’s neediest people seems like the chance to make difference, right?
The answer is: maybe.
In recent years, more and more teens feel pressured to distinguish themselves on resumes, scholarship applications, and college admissions packages by volunteering in an exotic, faraway land. While volunteering abroad can bring much-needed relief to some very poor foreign communities, recent reports have shown that the same communities have been exploited both by volunteer agencies and by the so-called “voluntourism” industry itself. Plus, these experiences cost volunteers a great deal of money, and the physical and emotional toll can prove to be too much for some volunteers.
So, it’s important for teens and their parents to enter into the “volunteering abroad” discussion with open eyes and realistic expectations.
Unfortunately, volunteering abroad isn’t free for the volunteer; in fact, it requires layers of fees. Volunteers are responsible for program fees, airfare, visas, travel insurance, vaccinations, and more. This can add up to an average of $3,000. While there are organizations out there that focus on making international volunteering more affordable, it still isn’t as affordable as volunteering for a needy cause within driving distance of your own home. And, if you are able to start volunteering in your own community and commit to it for a sustained amount of time, your long-term commitment will be more attractive to college admissions officers than two weeks spent in Nepal.
Colleges aren’t automatically impressed.
A report recently released by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions” says that students who volunteer consistently for “at least a year of sustained service or community engagement” will demonstrate greater strength and ethical awareness than students with an isolated “high-profile or exotic form of community service.” The authors of the report explained that, when it comes to volunteering, teens should focus not on the unusualness of the project but on choosing a project authentically and committing to it for a long period of time.
It’s way outside your comfort zone.
Volunteering abroad often requires volunteers to learn (at least the basics of) a new language and leave behind their usual creature comforts. That means you can bring your toothbrush, a change of clothes, and not much else. Often, accommodations at volunteer sites are primitive, so volunteers should be prepared to live very simply for the duration of their stay. In many cases, this can be an opportunity for massive personal growth, where teens can discover their own strength and resolve. They can learn new and important lessons about the world around them. However, it might not be the right environment for some teens, as it is quite a drastic difference from home. Give this some careful thought, and be realistic about your strengths, limits, and abilities.
You might not be ready.
Not all volunteer abroad programs are created equal. In fact, some of them are considered to do more harm than good. As teens, you are still at the cusp of your development in serious skills and abilities, so there are natural limits to what you can do to make a difference while volunteering abroad. This is okay. Without medical training, there is a limit to what you can do in a foreign hospital; without extensive knowledge of a foreign country’s political web, there is a limit to what you can do to effect change in social justice for its people. For some teens, spending sustained time volunteering domestically, while pursuing college courses or job training, might provide the experience and training necessary to prepare them to make a greater impact volunteering abroad at a later time.
Teens who still have their hearts set on volunteering abroad shouldn’t feel their hopes dashed immediately upon reading this. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever volunteer abroad, or that all volunteer abroad opportunities are meaningless. It simply means that any decision to volunteer abroad shouldn’t be made without serious thought, and that choosing to volunteer domestically is still a worthwhile choice.
As with any volunteer opportunity, know that your first step should involve spending time learning about the cause you are serving. Work alongside veteran volunteers so you can gain insight, and approach your beneficiaries with a little humility. Regardless of whether you’re down the street or across the ocean, you’ll gain a better understanding of the cause you serve by studying, engaging, and reflecting; only then will you discover how you can truly make a difference.
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