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Volunteer Abroad for the Experience of a Lifetime

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About a year ago I was sitting in the Las Vegas airport waiting for my flight back home to San Francisco, feeling about how you’d expect to feel after a weekend of partying with a large group of friends in Sin City. As soon as one trip ends, the travel bug starts to bite and my mind begins to turn to when and where my next trip will be. Perhaps it was the frivolous nature of this particular getaway, or that nagging, post-graduation question of, “What exactly am I doing with my life?” Still, I felt that my next trip needed to have substance beyond just relaxation and sightseeing.

Before I’d even unpacked my bags from Vegas, I decided to put my wanderlust to good use and began researching opportunities that would allow me to volunteer abroad for a short amount of time. Through the recommendation of a family friend, I settled on an organization called Outreach 360, whose mission is to provide children with education opportunities that enable them to live lives of choice. I’d be traveling to Jinotega, Nicaragua—a beautiful city in the mountainous, coffee-producing region of the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

In the week my fellow volunteers and I spent in Nicaragua, we didn’t save any lives. We didn’t provide shelter or other physical resources, or make a visible change in the community. But we did meet some great kids, fellow volunteers, and local members of the community who made more of an impression on me than I had expected. As cliché as it sounds, I really do believe I grew and took more away from the experience than I gave. I didn’t build any houses that week, but I did build an identity for myself as a global citizen.

For any Gen Y woman who finds herself, as I did, seeking something more, something beyond her front door, volunteering abroad is a great option. Before you go, here are some things to consider:

  • Find a reliable organization to serve, with whose values and goals you align. If you can, speak to past volunteers who can talk honestly about their experiences and answer your questions.
  • Decide what you’re up for. Some organizations ask for a longer time commitment, which might not be feasible for most of us. If the heat isn’t your thing, do some research to see which climates will be tolerable and which won’t. If you don’t have a passport or if it’s expired, there are plenty of great opportunities in the United States that don’t require international travel. Some programs and destinations cost more than others; some provide comfortable accommodations while others will be very basic.
  • Talk the talk. Before and after your trip, put the experience on display. This shows that you’re passionate about what you’ve signed on to do, and it can help you gather support, from fundraising to encouragement from friends. I spoke so highly of my experience that when I return to Nicaragua this July I’ll be bringing a group of people with me who were intrigued by what I told them.
  • Develop an elevator pitch. An experience like this can be a great way to connect with people, both socially and professionally.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. While the service our group did was intangible and short-term, and we were well-fed, housed comfortably, and encouraged to enjoy the local area, my fear of not doing enough seemed silly in the end. The fact that you choose to spend your time this way is huge in itself, and the lasting impression it leaves on you will be something you can carry with you forever. What you choose to do with this is where the value lies.
  • Leave your comfort zone. Your chances of discovering something new about yourself or the world increase dramatically when you leave your comfort zone. I was really nervous about working with children, but now I think about them constantly and they’re the primary reason why I’m returning to Nicaragua this summer.

Doing international service is a highly valuable experience for any woman who may be unsure of what her purpose is, or who may be asking “what’s next?” For women questioning their career paths, this is an opportunity to explore other interests without having to overhaul their professional decisions, which is especially important in the earlier stages of post-graduate life. The personal development that results from even a short period of service can be transformative for the Gen Y woman—from nudging her closer to finding a sense of purpose to helping her put life situations in perspective to meeting inspiring people along the way. And if nothing else, it gives her a great story to tell about how she used her vacation time.

Have you ever thought about volunteering abroad? Where would you go? Tell us in the comments!

Ask Jane Gotts, International Director at the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, about stories from her own international travel!


Career Path Resumes #Self Discovery Travel Lifestyle
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Note to self: Time to go volunteer abroad! You've inspired me, Hannah!

As a Global Development student, I can't help but remind people to do their research before choosing their volunteering vacation. It's really important that you choose a reputable company to go through. (Churches are usually a good path as well.) Although building houses can be a great experience and certainly have positive effects on the community, sometimes it can take work away from local carpenters or have other detrimental effects that people don't normally consider. Usually volunteering in clinics, teaching computer skills, helping out in orphanages, or similar activities make the biggest difference, and knowing you've contributed positively in the community is a high like no other!

Alyssa - I'm looking to go somewhere in South America for several months in Spring 2014 to volunteer. I'd prefer to do something that helps female entrepreneurs. Do you know of any agencies that are responsible in creating sustainable / mutually beneficial volunteering experiences?
Is there a way to vet organizations, like a governing body of sorts?

This comment is more for Carissa & Alyssa, but you guys should check out They've just launched in beta and are connecting "experteers" to reliable international organizations that need help. Carissa, I might be able to link you to some orgs that help women. Just reach out!

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