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Considering a Volunteer Abroad Program? Read This First

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As a teenager, there’s a good chance you’re interested in traveling and seeking new experiences outside the comfortable space of your hometown. You also know that volunteering is a useful way to spend your time—it allows you to positively impact your community and the world, and the colleges you apply to eventually will be happy to see it on your resume.


Volunteering abroad in an organized program oriented toward teenagers looks like an ideal combination of enjoyable experience with useful work. Programs like these involve the excitement of international travel and sound a lot more interesting than mundane volunteer positions like working in a soup kitchen at home. They also promise you something cool and relatively unusual to include on your college applications in order to show that you’re willing to undertake more intense experiences to support a cause or meet a goal that you believe in.


However, you may want to think twice before you sign up for one of these programs; there’s a lot more debate about their potential usefulness than you might think, and the actual experience might not be what you would expect. The issues involved aren’t straightforward, but there are some important questions you’ll need to consider in order to make an informed decision.


Here’s what you should know before you commit to any volunteer abroad program as a teenager.



What Are Volunteer Abroad Programs?

Volunteer abroad programs are, generally speaking, group programs that take American young people out of the country to work for charitable or humanitarian causes in another country. These programs are available for a variety of different age ranges, but in this post, we’re talking about programs for high-school-aged students, which are usually short-term and closely supervised.


A typical volunteer abroad program for high-school-age students might look like this: you learn about the program in the United States. You attend some orientation and training sessions, get the proper documentation and medical updates (like immunizations), and possibly fundraise to help the cause you’re working with or to cover the cost of your trip. (Many charge substantial fees to participants.)


When the time comes, you join a group of students and adult leaders and travel together to your site, where you’ll live (perhaps in dormitory-style housing) and work for the duration of the trip. Throughout the trip, your adult leaders will instruct you on what to do, take care of much of the logistics, and make sure you’re housed, fed, and kept safe.


Once you’ve reached your destination, you’re put to work on a specific short-term project— something that’s within the abilities of minimally trained teenagers, relatively safe, and fits within the time constraints of your trip. You might perform physical labor like building a school, distribute food or supplies, or teach English to children, but there are many other options.


At the end of your trip, you and your group will return to the United States with broader horizons and volunteer experiences under your belts. Typically, that’s the end of your involvement with the program. (Of course, you might choose to continue focusing on the same cause at home.) However, the organization you’ve worked with will probably continue to send other groups of teenagers to the same place to do the same type of work.



That Sounds Great—What’s the Catch?

Despite how good they sound, volunteer abroad programs for teenagers may not have the impact that you’d like them to have, either on your college applications or on the world at large. The truth is that short-term international volunteer work is a controversial field, these trips can be expensive and difficult for participants, and participating may not actually show colleges the qualities that you’re trying to demonstrate.


While volunteer work sounds positive, short-term international volunteer programs for teenagers don’t always create a positive impact. They can be unhelpful or even harmful to the communities you would be working in, and they’re often not well-equipped to give communities the kind of help that they actually need.


As a teenager, your skills and training are limited, and safety and liability concerns mean that you can only be allowed to do certain tasks. You’re also only on location for a short period of time. In contrast, many important causes really need long-term involvement from skilled and trained adults who are able to take on demanding and sometimes risky work while building enduring relationships with the people they’re helping.


Volunteer abroad programs for teenagers have to spend quite a bit of their resources on supervision and safety, as well as on repeatedly re-training new groups of volunteers. That’s money and effort that could instead go directly to the cause. Bringing in outside volunteers to perform labor can also remove opportunities for local residents to get paying jobs doing that same work.


International volunteer programs for teens often charge high fees for participants, which limits who can join. Even if your family can afford the trip, that’s money that could otherwise be budgeted toward assistance with other parts of the college application process, which could ultimately be much more helpful to your college ambitions.


It’s also likely that the trip may not involve as much fun as you might have hoped. You’ll be working hard and living in conditions that may not be particularly pleasant. If you really are doing significant volunteer work, you won’t have a lot of time to experience the local culture, and you’ll probably spend most of your working hours only seeing your fellow group members, further limiting your exposure.


Most teenagers who set out to volunteer abroad do so with the best possible motives; they genuinely want to help those in need and make a difference in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that impulse—in fact, it’s a great thing! Sadly, however, participating in volunteer abroad programs as a high-school-age student is often not an effective or ethical way to actually make positive change.

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Volunteer Abroad Programs and Your College Apps

As we’ve said, teens who volunteer abroad typically have a genuine desire to make the world a better place. However, building up a compelling resume for college applications is undeniably part of the equation as well. College-bound students know that volunteer experience is a valuable resume booster, and they’re also on the lookout for new and interesting experiences to make their applications stand out.


Volunteering abroad may seem like the perfect addition to your applicant profile, and in fact, it is a relatively impressive experience; after all, you’ve traveled far from home and worked hard to further a cause you care about. Whether or not that particular volunteer program is really helpful to its clients in the end, you’ve shown your dedication, willingness to undertake a major project, and interest in people and communities beyond your hometown.


However, the ethical concerns associated with these projects remain. Also, as volunteer abroad programs continue to be popular, putting this experience on your resume may come off as slightly cliched. This is especially true if you don’t seem to have a personal interest or investment in the project, whether you just wanted to travel somewhere exciting or you were just trying to check off a box for your college applications.


The short duration of high school volunteer abroad programs also limits what you can get out of these programs. On a short trip surrounded by other Americans, you’re unlikely to become much more familiar with the local culture, geography, and history. You won’t have the time or the full immersion necessarily to considerably improve your language skills, either, and your young age will limit what kind of work experience you can gain. 


In addition to these practical limits, when it comes to college applications, colleges want to know what you really care about. They want to see how far you’re willing to go to support the causes that are meaningful to you and get more deeply involved in the fields you’d like to pursue.


A short-term volunteer program of dubious effectiveness may not be the best way to actually build your involvement in the fields and causes you value. Long-term projects that take a more thoughtful approach to communities and their needs and allow you to develop deeper relationships with with the people and subjects involved will better demonstrate your investment.


Volunteering locally also shows that you’re invested in engaging with and improving your own community. This may also reflect well on you; it can be a lot easier to see problems and potential solutions in communities far away than it is to recognize that change needs to happen in your own backyard.


It’s okay to start small and work locally; there’s good work to be done everywhere. A drought in another country, for example, might offer a particularly visible example of hunger, but there are undoubtedly people in your own community who struggle with food insecurity as well, and helping your neighbors is no less important.



So Should I Volunteer Abroad?

Not all volunteer abroad programs are the same, and they’re not all a waste of time and money for you to pursue, particularly if you do have a deep personal interest in the subject matter or problem being addressed. However, it’s important that you recognize the potential downsides of these programs as you’re making your decisions.


If you’re considering a volunteer abroad program, you definitely need to do your research first. Look carefully at the organization you’re working with and the kind of tasks you’ll be doing for them during your trip. Are the community’s needs being accurately identified and met? Is the organization committed to long-term investment in the area? Will someone maintain and keep up your project once you’re gone so that it can continue to be useful?


For example, let’s say you’re considering a program where you travel abroad to build a school. First, ask yourself whether that community actually needs a new school, and whether there are more pressing needs that should be addressed first. Then, find out whether this school will be sustained in the long term. Is there money for teachers and equipment? Do local kids have reliable transportation to actually get to school? Who will take care of the school’s utilities, or repair the building if it’s damaged?


It may be that the program you’re interested in has a plan to address these longer-term issues. Regardless, it’s important to ask the question. If you find that your volunteer abroad options aren’t satisfactory, but you’re still interested in international travel and/or making a difference, there are other ways you can pursue these interests.


Study abroad programs, whether in high school, in college, or as a gap year, can be a good option for learning about culture and language outside the U.S. while earning academic credit. You could also use a gap year to undertake a longer-term volunteer project that will allow you to better get to know a particular place. (Some gap year programs share similar ethical concerns, so do your research.)


Again, don’t discount the opportunities that are available to you in your own hometown or region. There’s a lot you can do to have a substantial positive impact on the lives of people closer to you, without the travel, expense, and safety concerns required for international volunteer programs. You can put your local knowledge and connections to better use at home while getting some of the same benefits for your college applications, your personal growth, and your community’s well-being.


Part of growing up is becoming much more aware of the world outside of yourself, as well as the problems that exist in it. As a teenager, you’re right in the midst of a period of great growth, and your urge to make the world a better place is something to be celebrated and encouraged.


However, not every potential solution to a societal problem is necessarily going to be a good idea, nor is it sure to effectively or ethically solve the problem, no matter how positive the intentions behind it. As you follow your urge to get involved, remember to thoughtfully and critically evaluate the organizations and projects you become involved with.


Looking for more tips and information about seeking out—or creating—volunteer opportunities? Check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog for our best suggestions.



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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.