During her undergraduate degree, Liz Hesterberg traveled to Kenya with International Volunteer HQ twice as a volunteer before returning a third time as part of her college’s internship requirements. Liz now works with Cross-Cultural Solutions as a Program Advisor & Gap Year Specialist for students and recent graduates.
While international travel of all varieties can expose travelers to new cultures, perspectives, and communities, volunteer and internship abroad programs can further immerse participants through opportunities to serve and learn. Between 2004 and 2012, an average of 950 thousand Americans volunteered abroad each year, with participants between 15 and 24 years old making up the largest age group. The number of international interns is harder to pin down, but the past century has seen a significant increase in overseas internships to help fill the need for a more global workforce. Whether looking to teach English, fight for women’s rights, or save rainforests, overseas projects are ready and waiting. This guide highlights the value of these experiences, provides helpful tips on finding reputable organizations and funding trips, and offers insider knowledge from a former international volunteer.
While each individual pursuing an international volunteer or internship position may have their unique reasons for taking the leap, everyone on this path can enjoy several key benefits. Unlike domestic internships and volunteer roles, traveling overseas opens participants to new ways of seeing the world and interacting with others – not to mention the opportunity to build new skills and global contacts.
According to the largest research study of its kind, six out of 10 employers give extra credit to students who have some type of international experience, while 80 percent stated they actively seek out those who have studied abroad. In addition to teaching skills and making a difference in communities, international internships and volunteer roles also make students stand out when it’s time to get a job.
Studying a foreign language in classroom settings is effective, but a study by Georgetown University’s Medical Center found that those who study language through immersion are able to develop native speaker’s brain patterns when it comes to attaining and – most importantly – retaining a new language.
Aside from the personal benefits, international volunteerism and humanitarian-oriented internships offer the chance to give back to a community and make the lives of locals better. Whether working on clean water initiatives or helping victims of domestic violence, there are lots of places in need of qualified, empathetic individuals.
In today’s global economy it’s not unusual to speak with business professionals across the world on any given day. Individuals who spend time volunteering or interning abroad can gain a better understanding of their host country’s economy and learn about global business etiquette.
After learning countless theories and frameworks during a degree program, international internship and volunteer roles allow participants to practically apply them to a range of settings and situations. These experiences not only help connect the dots between learning and usage, but also offer students concrete examples to discuss with hiring managers.
A study by INSEAD found that individuals with overseas work or volunteer experience are better problem solvers and know how to engage their creativity more effectively in different settings. By expanding their worldview, students have more life experiences to inform how they make decisions and operate professionally.
It’s one thing to visit an international locale as a tourist, but quite another to experience daily life in a culture so different from your own. By spending a few months living amongst locals, learning the public transport system, and finding your favorite coffee shops, interns and volunteers get a better sense of what it means to be a local.
While an oversees experience may start as a short-term opportunity or internship, some students decide they want to stay longer. It’s much easier to find a job abroad if you’re already there and can network rather than trying to apply for and interview from thousands of miles away.
Did you know that volunteering is good for physical and mental health? A study by UnitedHealth Group showed that 94 percent of individuals who volunteered in the last year found their mood improved, while 78 percent reported lower levels of stress.
Perhaps at no other time in life is it less complicated to move abroad and experience the joys that come from living in a different culture. Having saved a bit of money working during college but not yet beholden to adult responsibilities, students and recent graduates usually don’t need to worry about paying mortgages or other factors that come into play later in life.
|Internships Abroad||Volunteer Abroad||Study Abroad|
|Internships abroad are designed for students or recent graduates looking to gain international work experience. Opportunities exist for paid or unpaid internships working for nonprofits, government-related organizations, or for-profit businesses.||Volunteer programs typically harness a student’s desire to help others. While a student may gain valuable skills and lines for their resume along the way, this may not be the primary motivator. In addition to colleges and universities, a number of nonprofits, government agencies and other companies arrange short and long-term opportunities.||The most traditional route for earning college credit while living overseas, study abroad programs are designed to combine a student’s academic interests with an international experience. These can be found through a number of colleges or via many different organizations that arrange trips.|
|Length of Program|
|Internships typically last between three and 12 months, depending on the type of position and whether or not you are still pursuing your degree.||International volunteer roles can be as short as a week and as long two years. Generally, one to two year programs can earn recent grads an education bonus or stipend.||Unless a student is completing a degree at an international school, study abroad opportunities tend to be one or two semesters in length.|
|Eligible for School Credit?|
|Students need to check with their college or university if credited programs are available. If not, there are a number of schools that provide credit which can be transferred so long as the student receives prior approval from their institution.||While volunteer abroad opportunities typically aren’t given credit without some type of academic component, students may be able to find a school program incorporating coursework alongside the role so credit is available.||The majority of schools offer international study abroad opportunities for credit. If not, students can check with their Office of International Affairs and Study Abroad to find another program offering credit that can be transferred.|
Deciding to volunteer or intern abroad may feel like a big decision, but it’s only the start of the experience. Students and graduates who undertake these experiences will be responsible for all steps of the pre-departure process, from planning, to funding and eventually preparing to leave. This may be a lot of moving parts to manage, but it’s worth doing the legwork to get the most out of the experience. Follow the steps below to make sure all bases are covered.
Interning and volunteering abroad have different outcomes, so students need to decide what their overarching goal is before beginning their research. If looking to gain career-oriented experience that will benefit them in a future job, an internship is probably going to serve them better. Conversely, students who are primarily motivated to do something for others or explore new skills may be better suited for volunteering abroad.
It may be that one student wants to improve their Spanish language skills, while another is particularly interested in serving those affected by a recent earthquake. Regardless of the driving factors, it’s best to make a list of a few locations or regions to help narrow options before beginning a search.
Depending on the type of experience, internships and volunteer roles can last from a couple weeks to a couple years. Some programs have set amounts of time available, so students should go into the process with a timeline in mind that allows them to weed out options that don’t fit their needs.
One of the most important considerations is funding, and students need to know their budget before committing to any internship or volunteer opportunity. Unlike work abroad experiences providing a stipend or paycheck, many short-term experiences offer no compensation. On top of paying program fees and airfare costs, students may also need to calculate how much money they’ll need for living expenses or any additional travel if their program does not include them.
Before trying to reinvent the wheel, students should check in with the study abroad coordinator at their school to see what programs are already available and if they have a list of recommended organizations for students who want to travel to a location outside of the country. These coordinators can also help with creating budgets and applying for the documentation students will need in order to travel. They can also be crucial to securing school credit for eligible intern abroad experiences.
After weighing locations, deciding on a length of time, and creating a budget, the next step is to pick a program or two and go through the application process. If the program is coordinated by an organization outside a student’s school, the process will be similar to applying for a job. Students fill out an application, answer essay questions, and provide a resume.
All intern and volunteer abroad experiences come at a cost, whether you coordinate through your school, an organization or on your own. Students and recent grads have a few options for covering program costs, airfare and in-country spending. Some choose to use their personal funds, while others opt for scholarships and fundraising through friends, family or the online community. Find out more about funding option in the section below.
After being accepted into a volunteer or intern abroad program, students need to start preparing for their trip. For those who do not have one, obtaining a passport should come first as this usually takes the longest. Students also need to find out if they’ll need any country-specific visas and whether any immunizations are required. They need to confirm that housing is provided and see if health insurance is included or whether they need to take out an international short-term plan. Before hopping on the plane, students should also register with the U.S. State Department via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
At first glance, it may seem like there are as many organizations providing overseas experiences as there are actual opportunities. Prospective travelers need to take time and figure out which programs are reputable before signing a contract and committing to program payments. Having a clear sense of where they want to go, the work they want to do, and the budget they have to work with will also help with narrowing down options.
The list below is my no means exhaustive, but highlights 20 quality providers of internship and volunteering abroad experiences.
This nonprofit volunteer organization has offices in America, the UK, and Australia and works to create meaningful volunteer programs for students and graduates alike. Options range from providing paramedical support to sports coaching, with additional projects focused on support for women, museum assistance, human rights, and even sea turtle conservation. Available projects run from one to 12 weeks.
Volunteers looking for opportunities off the beaten path may find what they seek at Fronteering, which focuses on providing unique and exotic experiences in areas of conservation, wildlife research, and indigenous communities. Trips range from one to 24 weeks, although most last at least one month.
Since 1993, GSC has provided international volunteer, service learning, and internship opportunities to students and graduates looking to make a difference. Areas of work include HIV/AIDS prevention education, teaching English, orphanage care, community development, and sustainable agriculture. Programs range from short volunteer vacations to six-month volunteer and internship assignments.
GVI hosts more than 200 different projects that are always in need of volunteering, including a program providing primary school lessons to 8,000 children in developing nations across the world. The organization also provides a smaller number of internship positions in areas including education, medicine, business, and technology, to name a few. Projects typically run between one and 24 weeks.
Volunteers can choose from more than 120 meaningful projects in 41 different countries and territories ranging from Albania and Palestine to the Galapagos Islands and Vietnam. Areas of work include childcare, community development, construction, environmentalism, health, sports, and teaching. Opportunities are designed to fit around traditional semesters, but shorter and longer programs are also available.
PA’s opportunities run the gamut of interests, offering students the chance to intern or volunteer in areas ranging from archaeology to teaching and farming to human rights. Alternative spring breaks for college students are available, as well as gap years for students looking to take time off. Opportunities range in length from one to 12 weeks depending on the type of program.
Volunteer opportunities offered by Working Abroad include opportunities in community development, environmentalism, healthcare, marine and wildlife conservation, and teaching. Whether seeking a gap year option or ways to spend a summer between junior and senior year, there are countless options available to meet those needs.
Whether looking to build international business skills in China, learn about tropical biology in Costa Rica, or learn how to run a women’s shelter in Ecuador, CISAbroad offers opportunities ranging from week-long alternative spring breaks to full semesters for students who want to truly dig in to their surroundings.
This volunteer vacation organization has provided opportunities to more than 18,000 travelers since 2003, with areas of participation including medicine, teaching, conservation, environmentalism, women’s rights, and community development. Programs are offered throughout the year for varying lengths of time. Many programs also include an immersive orientation at the start to familiarize participants with the language and culture of the region.
With a focus on developing leadership skills through global service initiatives, GLA focuses on eight different program types: animal/wildlife conservation, children, environmentalism, language immersion, medicine, photography/journalism, social entrepreneurship, and sports. Projects vary in length by assignment and how much time a student can devote.
IES Abroad offers both part and full-time internships in a variety of metropolitan areas throughout Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America. All of their internships provide college credits, ranging from three to nine available credit hours. Areas of study include language, entrepreneurship, technology, business and economics, to name a few.
Focused primarily on serving Latin American countries, Maximo Nivel provides both volunteer and internship positions for students and graduates seeking affordable options for serving overseas. Programs include one-week volunteer vacations, semester-long projects, and full gap year experiences.
With the mission of building a community beyond borders, United Planet provides internship and volunteering experiences allowing individuals to immerse themselves in local cultures and take part in meaningful work. Projects are focused in three areas: children and education, environmental sustainability, and global health. Participants can choose programs allowing both short-term (one to six weeks) and long-term (six to 12 months) involvement.
Providing one of the most expansive arrays of fields, participants in a World Internships program can choose from 39 different areas of work. These options range from advertising to zoology and are available in multiple locations to satisfy individual needs. The majority of programs last four to 16 weeks and some allow participants to find their own housing if they’re looking to cut costs.
Volunteers and interns who choose to travel overseas with Cross Cultural Solutions can impact those they serve in areas ranging from child development and literacy to female empowerment and HIV/AIDS prevention. In addition to providing low costs for their trips – which last between one and 12 weeks – CCS also helps volunteers and interns find innovative ways of paying for their trips.
Offering internships lasting four, eight, and 12 weeks, these programs easily fit into existing summer and semester schedules for students seeking college credit. Each opportunity provided by Global Experiences is focused on allowing participants to experience a global community while also building skills in areas of nonprofit management, fashion, tourism, business, marketing, communications, and many others.
Global Volunteers focuses on engaging students and graduates on projects related to education and helping children reach their potential. Whether helping to build schools, provide health care, or teach classes, volunteers play an impactful role in the mission of this organization. Projects are short-term, lasting one to three weeks.
Since 2007, IVHG has sent nearly 63,000 volunteers to more than 30 countries to work on 150 different projects. These projects are sensitive to the needs of each location and include childcare, medicine, community development, NGO support, elderly care, conservation, and construction. Most projects last approximately one to 12 weeks and offer some of the lowest program fees.
With a focus on the African continent, NAV provides opportunities for skilled and unskilled volunteers alike so long as they have a heart for making a difference. Areas of work include community outreach, healthcare, sports coaching, teaching, and wildlife conservation. Students and graduates can apply for projects ranging from alternative spring breaks to multiyear commitments.
Since its inception, United Way has engaged 2.9 million volunteers via 1,800 different locations to impact more than 50 million people throughout the world. Whether working on long-term projects in healthcare and education or responding to natural disasters, volunteers have the opportunity to make a difference in individual lives and communities on a global scale.
With so many different providers offering volunteer and intern abroad programs, it’s helpful to look at all your options in one place. The following websites are excellent resources for browsing through program providers and even connecting users directly with organizations or companies that have current openings for volunteers and interns.
In consultation with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, AIESEC provides students with a list of thousands of verified internship opportunities in areas of business, engineering, information technology, language education, marketing, and sales.
This organization aggregates thousands of short-term volunteer and work positions throughout the world for students looking to grow, explore, adventure, and serve global communities.
Providing information on 17,000+ verified programs with nearly 20,000 reviews, GoAbroad is a one-stop-shop on information for those considering an internship or volunteer abroad opportunity. The organization also has more than 2,500 travel articles to answer any questions before embarking.
Connecting students to programs in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and Latin America students can choose from a variety of different fields and interests before being referred to relevant programs to fit their needs.
This online database is used by nearly 120,000 nonprofit organizations in need of volunteers across the world. It also features a number of overseas jobs, both short-term and long-term.
IVPA works as an accrediting body for overseas volunteer and internship positions. The association maintains an active list of member organizations that have been vetted to ensure the legitimacy of their work.
This powerful search engine allows individuals interested in volunteering find charities across the world based on location and their areas of interest.
This digital warehouse of information about volunteering, interning, and studying abroad shares information about programs throughout the world as well as helpful tips and hints to make the most of every experience.
This online magazine's mission is to help people travel with purpose, and they do that by providing insightful articles, tips on overseas volunteerism, and guides to make the most of every experience.
In addition to providing a range of helpful articles about volunteerism, Volunteer Forever provides a platform where individuals can share their story and fundraise for an upcoming volunteer trip.
Although individuals undertaking volunteer or internship experiences abroad likely won’t be getting compensated for their time, they’ll still be expected to pay for all the costs of spending time in a new country. The costs can add up, but hopeful volunteers and interns don’t have to do it alone. The following section reviews some of the common ways of funding these experiences and provides concrete tips on how to use each method.
It may seem daunting to pay for an international internship or volunteer role out of pocket, but thinking in terms of personal funds is a great way to develop the type of financial responsibility and discipline needed to live abroad without a source of income. Whether it means waiting tables on the weekends, taking on freelance work, or cutting existing costs, the sooner someone starts saving, the better.
Creating a realistic yet thrifty budget and sticking to it is the most important step. It can also be helpful to have a completely different savings account where a portion of monthly income is automatically moved to that account and forgotten about until it comes time to pay for the overseas experience. In addition to working, garage sales and selling items online are also great ways to add to existing monthly income and save even more.
Scholarships are typically only available for programs providing college credit, but grants may be available for those who have already graduated but need financial assistance to serve communities overseas. These financial awards do not need to be repaid.
Students should first check with their office of international education to find out if their school offers scholarships or if they have a list of outside scholarship programs. Graduates should research individual program providers or independent foundations to see if funds are available for their program.
Organizations like Go Fund Me and Fund and Seek were created to help individuals realize their goals by engaging friends, family and the larger community in raising funds. Aside from online fundraising, hopeful travelers can also fundraise by hosting an event, seeking individual donors, or asking businesses for contributions.
Before telling anyone about their fundraising initiative, students and graduates need to take time to formulate a cohesive statement on why they want to volunteer or intern overseas, how they will be serving, and how donations help them achieve that goal. It also helps to have concrete figures, such as airfare, housing, travel, insurance, food, and passport costs.
Another form of fundraising, crowdfunding was designed to help individuals cast their nets wider and reach a larger array of prospective donors. This method was first used by start-up businesses and nonprofits, but increasingly individuals are harnessing its power.
Similar to setting up a digital fundraising page, users create a profile outlining their specific project, with individual cost breakdowns for flights, program fees, insurance, and other fees. The crowdfunding platform opens it up to thousands of donors who can review their information and choose whether or not to donate.
Since volunteer and internship abroad programs are more expensive that opportunities in local communities, resourceful students and graduates typically find ways to cut costs without sacrificing the experience they hope to have. The good news is that there are lots of ways to lessen costs and still have a meaningful experience filled with opportunities to learn and serve.
As demonstrated in our list of reputable overseas organizations, individuals have lots of choices when it comes to volunteering or interning abroad. Budget-conscious participants who do their research can often save hundreds of dollars by comparing costs for similar programs.
Aside from set costs like airfare, housing, and transportation, individuals considering an overseas experience must consider the additional funds they’ll need while overseas. Program fees may include food and in-country transportation, but this isn’t always the case. Extra spending money for entertainment, additional travel and things to take home will likely be out of pocket.
Depending on where a participant hopes to travel, costs can fluctuate tremendously. Developing countries and those less impacted by tourism tend to be less expensive, while the cost of living in major metropolitan areas like London or Berlin will be much higher.
Because a large percentage of the cost of international programs is related to airfare, visas, passports and other one-time fees, the cost for staying longer does not increase exponentially. Participants need to pay these baseline fees whether they stay one week or six months, so it makes sense – and cents! – to lengthen the time spent abroad.
While it may take a bit more preparation, resourceful planners can decide to do the legwork of structuring their own experience rather than going through a facilitating organization. This plan often starts with identifying a location and cause, then researching nonprofit organizations working in that region and, finally, securing a housing option.
Aside from personal funds, alternative payment methods like scholarships, grants, crowdfunding and traditional fundraising can help cover the costs of an intern or volunteer abroad program. Keep in mind that these funding sources can pay for more than just your program fees; they may also be able to cover your additional costs.
Chances are that students and graduates reading this guide are early in the process of selecting their overseas internship or volunteer role, making it the perfect time to begin saving. It takes a few months to pull applications, essays, visas, and other paperwork together, so start saving as soon as possible – it all adds up.
Established by John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps has sent more than 220,000 Americans to 140 different countries to provide hands-on, skilled service to communities in need. The majority of Peace Corps positions last two years, although experienced professionals are sometimes recruited to the Peace Corps Response team for short-term projects. The Peace Corps is a popular option as it provides a housing and living stipend while on assignment, $8,000 (pre-tax) in transitional funding at the end of service, and partial cancellation of federal student loans. Peace Corps also pays for all travel expenses and provides medical and dental benefits. The application process is rigorous, but the experience is rewarding.
As of 2016, the Peace Corps has volunteer placements in over 60 countries, serving communities in six sectors:
Countless organizations provide opportunities for teaching abroad, including those requiring participants to have some type of certification at the time of their application and those that train volunteers once accepted. The length of each placement varies by the organizing body and location, but most want to see volunteers in their role for at least six to 12 months as to not disrupt teaching and learning.According to the International TEFL Academy, the best places to teach abroad in terms of work availability, compensation, and quality of life include:
Interested individuals should research reputable companies and learn about their requirements early in the process. Common certifications include Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), Teaching English as a Secondary Language (TESL), and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). These certifications typically cost a couple thousand dollars, so participants who don’t have this qualification should first look for programs that provide training as part of the contract.
With thousands of opportunities offered as short, medium, and long-term placements in countries across the globe, finding the right experience can be exhausting and overwhelming. Despite so many options, students with a clear sense of purpose, goals, and budget can sort through the available options with easer.
Organizing groups for oversees volunteering and internships include nonprofits, faith-based organizations, government agencies, and for-profit ventures. Before signing up with a group, take time to research their overarching missions to find ones aligned to your goals.
Many volunteer and internship program websites include student blogs, testimonials or reviews. Take time to see what others have to say about their experience before committing to a program.
Volunteer and internship organizations usually offer options for housing – including letting participants find their own accommodation. Living in a new country can at times be lonely and living with a host family may seem appealing, but if your job is to interact with people all day, you might want a quiet space of your own to return to each night.
Especially for recent graduates who aren’t bound by academic calendars, finding the right amount of time that balances the desire to make a difference with the realities of earning a living is key.
Before signing on the dotted line for any program, participants need to create a budget and find out how many expenses are included in the fees. Areas to consider include airfare, lodging, housing, transportation, medical expenses, and personal funds for independent travel or items to bring home.
I had recently finished my undergraduate work at university and was debating on applying to graduate school, although not entirely sure of which direction I wanted to go. I knew a few people that had volunteered through International Volunteers HQ, so after doing some research I applied to volunteer in Kenya for two months. I signed up to volunteer with the Women’s Empowerment Program.
In the midst of my volunteering, I realized that I wanted to go back to school to get my master’s degree in Intercultural Relations. Being in Kenya and working with the group of ladies at WEEP had inspired me. The strength each and every one of them had made me want to do more. I found a program for Intercultural Relations and International Higher Education in Boston, and I decided to apply, because why not? Next thing I know I am being contacted to have an interview, only problem is – I’m in Kenya…so instead I had a phone interview during a taxi ride through Mombasa!
One thing I have found to be extremely important in both my volunteering and interning is communication. Talking with the people you are working with, asking what their needs are, what their goals and aspirations are for both themselves and the project proves to be an important aspect of communication.