When I was a first-year student, I decided to take a year off to volunteer abroad. I was looking for an inexpensive and worthwhile experience volunteering with children in Latin America. After searching the web, I arranged my own volunteer placement with a non-governmental organization (NGO) working in the northern coast of Peru. The organization, AYNI, had a small group of volunteers who worked in a rural village teaching English and doing other education and community development projects, such as nutrition workshops and a micro-credit program. I volunteered for 10 months and loved every minute of it!
Why Find Your Own Program?
Cost was the main factor for me. I didn't have $3,000 to spend up front on a program. Being a frugal person, I knew that I could live on a limited budget and decided to seek out my own program so that I could avoid the fees that more structured programs charge. In the end, I saved a lot of money by using frequent flyer miles and student airfare discounts to find cheap flights (try STA Travel or Student Universe). I also minimized my cost of living while volunteering by renting a room from a family. Each month, I lived comfortably on $300. Finding a program like AYNI allowed me to participate in a small organization. I quickly took on a leadership role and because AYNI was a less structured program, there was much more freedom to design our own projects and be creative.
How Do You Find Your Own Program?
Here are two strategies:
First, you can just start searching the web for NGOs that are looking for volunteers. I found my program by searching at Volunteer Abroad. The Idealist website is also an excellent resource. Both websites have extensive listings of NGOs that are looking for volunteers. Try asking around for opportunities on discussion forums for expatriates in your country of choice or on the Lonely Planet discussion forum. In South America, the South American Explorers Club is a great resource for volunteer opportunities (and travel information, which is their main focus). There are two books I recommend, How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas and Alternatives to the Peace Corps, which profile many volunteer opportunities.
When contacting programs, be persistent! Many of the smaller NGOs are understaffed and overworked. Phone is a quicker and more personal way of getting in touch; a random e-mail may just get overlooked. When you call, introduce yourself, let them know why you are interested in their organization and what you could bring to their project. Sell yourself, but at the same time, make sure that this organization fits your needs.
Your second option is seek out contacts through professors and graduate students in your department. On campus, there are many researchers who have gone abroad and partnered with NGOs; hopefully, they can hook you up with a trusted organization. (Hint: you could probably set up an independent study and get credit for your work as well).
Who Should Seek Out Volunteer Work Independently?
Doing this on your own takes strong language skills in your host country's language. You should also be a persistent and independent person. Going abroad on your own is going to require courage and patience. Adjusting to another culture is hard. If you pick a small organization, they may offer less hand-holding. If you are someone who loves a challenge, who is passionate about volunteering abroad and who is self-directed, seeking out volunteer work independently is for you.
What Are Some Pitfalls to Watch Out For in This Process?
Be very clear with your host organization about your needs and expectations. Ask them what they expect of you: be clear about the types of work you are willing to do. Find out ahead of time if they will help you find housing or provide any other kind of support. Find out if they've hosted foreign volunteers in the past (if they have, make sure you contact them–they will be an excellent resource!). When you find an organization and arrange your volunteer placement, really treat that commitment just as you would a job offer–being a volunteer means committing to working hard and to following through on your scheduled trip. Research cost of living in your host city and start reading about the history and culture of your host country.
What Will Living in a Developing Country Be Like?
Research a lot ahead of time. Information geared towards backpackers traveling through your intended destination will offer key advice about health and safety issues that you should be aware of. You should be aware of any vaccinations or other health issues that you will need to take care of ahead of time; check the CDC website for country-specific information and see your doctor to ask her/his advice. The UHS Travel Health Clinic is a great place for travel health information here in Ann Arbor. Be aware of guidelines for finding safe food and drink while abroad; most travel guidebooks will offer general advice, such as don't eat food that hasn't been refrigerated and don't brush your teeth with tap water. While in this country, you will probably stand out as a wealthy American. for your safety, try to minimize this as much as possible. Don't carry a lot of money or valuables on you and take precautions not to get pick-pocketed. The State Department has country-specific information about crime and safety; register your trip on their website for assistance during any major disasters or unrest. UM students should follow the travel requirements set by University, including registering travel in the Travel Registry and purchasing Travel Abroad Health Insurance. In general, common sense and a reasonable amount of caution are your best protections.
For me, volunteering abroad was a life-changing experience. Personally, I became a lot more confident. After I went abroad, I changed majors and I am now planning a career in international development. I also learned a lot about life in a developing country. Going abroad challenged much of my own assumptions about what was typical in a society; it made me realize how privileged my life has been. I feel a lot more connected to the rest of the world and I have made a commitment to become a global citizen.
Michelle Hunscher, 2008 Peer Advisor for the Education Abroad Office
A version of this article was published in Abroad View, Spring 2008