Branching Out: Volunteering & Internships Abroad
Explore overseas programs and get tips on funding
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.
Top 10 Reasons to Volunteer or Intern Abroad
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.
01 Stand out to employers
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.
02 Learn a second (or third) language
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.
03 Make a difference
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.
04 Position yourself for international roles
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.
05 Put knowledge and skills to good use
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.
06 Build up problem-solving skills
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.
07 Live the local life
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.
08 Pave the path to international work
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.
09 Improve yourself while helping others
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.
10 Enjoy this stage of life
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.
Intern vs. Volunteer vs. Study Abroad: What’s the Difference?
|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.|
Make It Happen: Steps to Volunteer or Intern Abroad
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.
Choose your experience: Intern or volunteer?
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.
Figure out where you want to go
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.
Decide how long you can commit
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.
Calculate your budget
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.
Talk with an international advisor at your school
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.
Pick a program and apply
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.
Time to consider the funds
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.
Get ready, get set, go!
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.
Find the Right Volunteer or Internship Abroad Program for You
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.
- A Broader View Programs Offered: Volunteering Program Locations: 24 different countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America See Description
- Fronteering Programs Offered: Volunteering Program Locations: 14 countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, North America, South America See Description
- Global Service Corps Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: Cambodia and Tanzania See Description
- GVI USA Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: 15 different countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Latin America, and North America See Description
- Love Volunteers Programs Offered: Volunteering Program Locations: 41 different countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, Oceania and South America See Description
- Projects Abroad Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: 31 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and Oceania See Description
- Working Abroad Programs Offered: Volunteering Program Locations: Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Latin America and North America See Description
- CISAbroad Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: 22 different countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and Latin America See Description
- Global Crossroad Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: 18 different countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America See Description
- Global Leadership Adventures Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Central America and the Caribbean, Europe, and South America See Description
- IES Abroad Programs Offered: Internships Program Locations: Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Cape Town, Dublin, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Rome, Salamanca, Santiago, Shanghai, Sydney See Description
- Maximo Nivel Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru See Description
- United Planet Programs Offered: Both Program Locations: 35 different countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Latin America, and North America See Description
- World Internships Programs Offered: Internships Program Locations: 16 different countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Latin America and North America See Description
- Cross Cultural Solutions Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Morocco, Peru, Tanzania, Thailand See Description
- Global Experiences Programs Offered: Internships Program Locations: Barcelona, Dublin, Florence, London, Milan, Paris, Shanghai, Sydney See Description
- Global Volunteers Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: 18 different countries in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America See Description
Volunteer HQ Programs Offered: Volunteering Program Locations: 30 different countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, Oceania and South America See Description
- Naturally Africa Volunteers Programs Offered: Internships, Volunteering Program Locations: Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania See Description
- United Way Programs Offered: Volunteering Program Locations: 40 different countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, Latin America and North America See Description
Additional Resources for Finding Your Abroad Experience
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.
- AIESEC 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.
- Back Door Jobs 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.
- Go Abroad 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.
- Go Overseas 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.
- Idealist 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.
- International Volunteer Programs Association 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.
- Network for Good This powerful search engine allows individuals interested in volunteering find charities across the world based on location and their areas of interest.
- Transitions Abroad 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.
- Verge Magazine 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.
- Volunteer Forever 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.
How to Fund Your Volunteer or Intern Abroad Experience
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.
Personal Funds What it is:
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. Make it happen:
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/Grants What it is:
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. Make it happen:
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.
Fundraising What it is:
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. Make it happen:
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.
Crowdfunding What it is:
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. Make it happen:
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.
Quick Tips for Making Your Trip Affordable
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.
- Shop around for providers 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.
- Plan for additional costs 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.
- Consider location 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.
- Stay on-site longer 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.
- Consider a DIY experience 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.
- Secure additional funding 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.
- Start saving – now! 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.
Spotlight Opportunity: Volunteering for the Peace Corps
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:
- Community Economic Development
- Youth in Development
Spotlight Opportunity: Teaching English Abroad
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:
- South Korea
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.
Choosing the Right Volunteer or Intern Abroad Experience
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.
- Find an organization aligned to your values 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.
- Read the reviews 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.
- Consider housing options 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.
- Think about how long you want to be gone 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.
- Calculate your budget 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.
Advice from the Field: Interview with an Intern/Volunteer Abroad Veteran
Liz Hesterberg Expert Contributor Read More How did you choose your volunteer/internship position? What factors did you take into account when selecting it?
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. How has your experience benefited you personally and/or professionally since completing it?
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! What advice would you give to other students/recent graduates considering an international volunteer or internship position?
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.
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