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Tips for Volunteering Abroad

When you are starting out in your career or contemplating a career change, volunteering abroad can be an attractive option.  Not only do you get to see the world and have experiences that you would never be able to have at home, but you can use this as an opportunity to gain skills that will make you a more marketable candidate for your target job.  However, not all volunteer abroad experiences are created equal; some are rewarding, while others will make you wish that you had stayed home.  Here are some tips that will help make your volunteer abroad experience positive and worthwhile:  

Be clear about your goals.  The more specific you are about the type of volunteer experience that you would like to have, the more you will get out of it.  It's not enough to say, "I want to volunteer in Asia", instead say, "I would like to participate in community development work in Asia.  It is also important to consider how you will leverage your volunteer experience to help you get a job when you get home.  If you are thinking about this from the beginning, you will make better decisions and you will find experiences that will help you reach your career goals.      

Do your homework.  Organizations that offer volunteer abroad opportunities vary considerably in the types of experiences that they provide.  Some organizations will try to match you with tasks that allow you to use your education and develop skills that are relevant to your industry.  Whereas others may leave you standing around as they look for something for you to do.  The best approach is to go with an organization that is willing to provide you with a detailed outline of what you will be doing on a daily basis.  When the expectations are clear, it is more likely that it will be a good experience for you.    

Be flexible.  When you are living and working in a different country, it is important that you pack your flexibility.  You cannot expect things to be the same as they are in your home country.  Try to take it as an opportunity to learn how to approach things differently.  View yourself as a student in their culture and their way of life.  Learning how to work effectively in a different country will help you develop valuable skills which will be important as you navigate different organizational cultures throughout your career.   

Be proactive.  You have your own unique skills that you are bringing to your volunteer experience and they have never met anyone quite like you.  For this reason, you have the opportunity to carve out the perfect position just for you.  Try to identify any problems that you have the capacity to solve.  If you come in trying to find ways to help and you are willing to step in, you will be valued and it will be a rewarding experience for you.   

Work on your language skills.  In today's multicultural environment, the ability to work and communicate with people from different cultures is important.  Just by living in a different country, you are demonstrating that you possess flexibility and an awareness of other cultures.  If you are able to learn a new language while you are working abroad, it will make you a more marketable candidate when you are looking for a job.

Volunteering abroad can be an amazing experience for you on both a personal and a professional level.  However, you need to be strategic about it.  Take some time to find an opportunity that will contribute to your career goals and make the experience as rich as possible.  When you are stuck in the day to day drone, it becomes easy to exist in autopilot.  A volunteer abroad experience can be enough of a jolt to send you back to a path that is consistent with your values.            


(Written by Karen Bivand, Image by