Please note: A link to resources on this website should not be construed as an endorsement by Career Advancement or the University of Chicago. Students and alumni are encouraged to use caution and judgment when evaluating services related to work abroad and consult Career Advancement advisers with any questions or concerns related to the advice and resources provided here.
Volunteering abroad is distinguished from interning and working abroad by the assumption that the volunteer is undertaking the experience primarily because of an interest in an issue or region rather than an interest in earning a salary. Volunteer experiences are very rarely compensated beyond room and board (the exception is some long-term positions, like the Peace Corps). They almost always require the volunteer to cover the cost of transportation, usually room and board, and many require a program fee or donation as well.
Status as a “volunteer” however, does not always mean basic, low-level tasks. While volunteering is an excellent option for students breaking into a new field or exploring an interest, volunteering can also be a way to build professional skills and contacts.
Like teaching or interning abroad, there are many organizations that can arrange visas, insurance, room, board, and other important requirements for a fee. It is also possible to arrange an overseas volunteer experience without the assistance of a program.
To arrange a volunteer experience abroad, start early. You should begin contacting people, organizations and investigating travel details a minimum of six to nine months before you plan to depart.
If the official or business language of your desired destination is not English, you may get more out of your volunteer experience if you are at least functional in the language of the country in which you hope to work. If you wish to have a volunteer experience in English in a country where English is not spoken, you may require the facilitation services of a program. If you are studying a foreign language and wish to build your professional skills and network while you are in the country, however, volunteer experiences can be a good way to do this.
Once you secure a position, work with the organization or program and the embassy of your destination to make sure that you have the proper visa to enter the country. In some countries, especially if your project is long-term, you may require a visa; you should allow as much time as possible for the processing of visa paperwork. Make sure to allow at least six weeks to get a passport, if you don’t have one already, and check the State Department travel advisories and in-country and travel forums.
Working with a volunteer program may help to reduce the amount of time and effort you must expend to obtain an international volunteer experience. While different programs offer different levels of services, many programs will match students with an experience and some may provide insurance, housing and airport pickup. Only a few include transportation. Programs are best for students with limited time and/or who do not have experience with the language or culture of their destination.
Questions to Ask
It is important to do adequate research on any volunteer programs of interest. Before giving any money or paperwork to any program, be sure to carefully vet the program by asking specific and detailed questions of program administrators and (ideally) former participants. Make sure you know the exact fees charged, and what expenses they go toward. Be clear on who will secure your visa, what kind of, and how much, health insurance you will be provided, whether you are provided housing, training, and/or materials as well as the level of on-site support you will receive. You may also want to make an appointment with a career adviser to discuss your options.
If you are concerned about a particular U.S.-based organization, check them out here on the Better Business Bureau website.
Long-term and government programs are one of the few ways to volunteer overseas at no or very low cost to the volunteer. Programs that cover volunteers’ costs usually require a commitment of at least one year and may also require that volunteers have certain language, vocational, or professional skills.
Create Your Own/Direct Hire
It is not always necessary to go with an international volunteer program to facilitate an overseas volunteer experience. Many University of Chicago students organize their own international volunteer experiences by contacting organizations directly. When communicating with potential volunteer sites, be clear on what you hope to do, for how, and how you can benefit the organization.
Databases of opportunities and organizations can also be a good resource. Make sure not only to check organizations in addition to these databases for already-established positions and programs.
Below is a list of international organizations and NGOs that seek student volunteers (please note that this list is not comprehensive).