From working in a clinic in rural Ghana to assisting with AIDS awareness and educational programs in Ecuador and beyond, more and more pre-health students are choosing to volunteer abroad. While this can be a challenging and rewarding experience, it is important to reflect on why you want to volunteer abroad. The International Volunteer Programs Association provides the following suggestions about what to reflect on and think about when considering a volunteer experience abroad (Adapted from the publication “How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas”):
In addition to the country and type of work you would like to participate in, there are many other factors to consider in choosing a program that is right for you. It is important to ask for the names and numbers of returned volunteers to learn about their experiences first-hand.
First, take a moment to reflect upon your own motivations for volunteering abroad:
- Why do you want to become an international volunteer?
- What people, events, and experiences have led to your interest in volunteering abroad?
- What do you hope to get out of the experience?
- What do you hope to contribute?
- How do you see international volunteering affecting your life?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
While there is not just one ‘right’ reason to volunteer abroad, it is important to realize that different motivations can led to different types of service. We caution against wanting ‘solve other people’s problems’ or ‘fix things’, as too often this attitude has had negative effects on communities and has disempowered local people.
Factors to Consider
Duration and Time of Year
How long do you hope to be away for? There are international volunteer projects lasting from one week to three years. Many of the programs have set dates, while others allow volunteers to determine their own start and end dates. The shorter-term (1 to 3 week) opportunities often entail a specific project such as building a medical clinic or repairing trails. In longer-term programs, volunteers live and work side-by-side with the local people, virtually becoming a part of the local community and it’s rhythms of daily life.
Type of Volunteer Organization
Find out if the program you are considering volunteering abroad with is a government agency, a for-profit tourist agency, or a non-profit or non-governmental organization (NGO). In some cases, governmental programs are intimately tied to a government’s foreign policy initiatives. In this case, you would need to decide whether you can stand behind these policies, and determine how these policies might impact the communities you help to serve.
A for-profit agency might or might not contribute part of their profits to the long-term sustainability of a community and its resources. It would be important to find out whom the for-profit agency is benefiting most—the traveler, the local community, or its own staff. While most organizations listed on this website are non-profit and non-governmental, we can not guarantee that they are all reputable. Many of them are significantly influenced by the experience and interests of their founders.
Is the sending organization faith-based or secular? Determine what role, if any, religion or spirituality play in your motivation for volunteering abroad. Quite a few programs that place and receive volunteers are identified with a religious organization. Some of these seek volunteers that subscribe to a particular faith, while others don’t require any type of religious affiliation. Some have a specific evangelistic agenda, while others only emphasize peace and justice issues with no reference to religious beliefs.
If you speak with returned volunteers and agency representatives, you can often get a clear picture of the type of work you will be doing and the nature of the organization you will be representing. Whether you are a religious person or not, you will want to ensure that your values and objectives are in line with those of the sending and host organizations.
Many of the opportunities you will find on this website don’t require volunteers to have specific skills. A willing spirit and an open mind are often all that’s required to assist in the work initiated by local community members. However, if you have professional experience in a certain field (medical, technical, business, etc), you may want to choose a program that will allow you to put your skills to use. On the other hand, if you are hoping to gain new skills or explore new career options, consider programs that provide the greatest opportunities for hands-on work in your area of interest. It is never too late to acquire new skills!
Some programs require conversational ability in the local language, but many don’t. Some offer language training before your volunteer work begins or as part of the program. Either way, volunteering abroad is an excellent way to practice or learn a new language. If one of your primary objectives is to practice a new language, look for a program that offers a home stay or a cultural immersion experience.
What are your budget constraints? Would you be willing to fundraise if you were given some support from an organization? Does the sending organization offer scholarships? More importantly, what does the program fee cover?
The costs of international volunteer programs vary widely. Some include airfare, room, board, and in-country support, while others only arrange your placement in a project abroad. Ask the program representative how your fee will be allocated. Will any of it go directly to the project or community being served? Are any other benefits included, such as language training, pre-departure and re-entry orientations, health and accident insurance, emergency evacuation, a living stipend, travel within the host country, special tourist excursions, or academic credit?
You might want to consider the following questions when determine which program is best for you:
- Would you prefer working in a rural or urban environment?
- Do you like the idea of traveling and volunteering independently or with a group?
- How much support or structure do you require of the agencies you’ll be working with?
- Are you willing to rough it in bare-bones accommodations, or are you looking for a program that will provide more comfortable lodging options?
PDF Document: Guidelines for Premedical and Medical Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad – this document reviews a number of items to keep in mind in exploring volunteer programs abroad together by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)
American Medical Student Association – has searchable database with 80+ opportunities listed for pre-med undergraduates
Idealist.org – has searchable database of volunteer opportunities worldwide; also has organization directory
International Volunteer Programs Association – has searchable database of opportunities; articles and information about volunteering abroad.
Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER). At FAIMER’s sites, you can find list of programs and fellowships.
Association of Voluntary Service Organizations – has member directory of organizations worldwide that you can contact
Family Medicine Interest Group – listing of international health volunteer opportunities
The Working Group on Global Activities by Students at Pre-Health Levels, charged with advancing best practice standards for undergraduate students in health-related settings abroad.