Become the Best Version of You Through Volunteer Travel
The most memorable travel experiences go beyond what’s captured in pictures or Instagram captions. The travel experiences that really stick with you are the ones where you made a meaningful impact on the community you visited. They’re the experiences you reflect on and can’t help but smile because you know you’ve made a difference. Service programs give new meaning to travel and can challenge you personally and professionally in unparalleled ways.
Service programs, or “service abroad programs”, are structured service projects that take place internationally. These programs can run for any duration of time but commonly take place during the summer months, when teens and young adults are on summer break but may want to spend their downtime contributing to a greater cause.
However, service abroad programs are not limited to specific age groups or individuals — there are service programs for people of all ages and that cater to diverse interests and backgrounds. The focus of service programs is wide-ranging and can include anything from restoring a school playground to developing a community compost center.
Service programs are valuable, life-changing experiences that can help you write your next chapter in life. Whether you’re an aspiring educator who wants to promote a more engaging environment for students or you’re just looking for a new experience to get out of your comfort zone, a service program could be a great next step. Here are 7 ways a service abroad program can prepare you for life:
Students and young professionals may opt to take a gap year to volunteer abroad before starting college or prior to entering the workforce. You may find that after you complete your service program, your intended major or planned career path may be entirely different from what it was before the program. Service abroad programs give you hands-on experience with a long-term project that affects the everyday lives of real people. Seeing the change you’ve driven or the joy you’ve created by completing a service project may breathe new life into your passions and interests.
Service programs are a first-class ticket to new cultures. Many service programs are “immersive”, meaning that volunteers live with a host family, learn the local language, and participate in a service project that benefits the local community. Volunteers also get to take part in local traditions and celebrations.
For example, volunteers who spend their fall semester in Ecuador with AMIGOS can celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where the streets are lined with vendors selling dark purple flowers and guaguas de pan, bread baked in the shape of a person, in honor of all those who have died.
Volunteer programs not only expose you to a new geographic location, but they also open your eyes to a different way of living. Depending on where your program takes place, you may find that the way people eat, sleep, celebrate, or commute is completely different than what you’re used to or what you might have imagined. No matter your takeaway, serving and spending significant time in a community different from your own can change your perspective of the world.
Almost any service project you pick is going to enable you to develop an existing skill or to learn a new skill entirely. This can include hard skills, like gardening or painting, or soft skills, like communication and cross-cultural understanding. Remember, service programs are structured experiences, which means that most programs have an academic or training component to prepare you for your service project and to foster the skills you’ll need to be successful.
One of the most difficult moments in any service abroad program is when it comes time to go home. After months of working side-by-side with other volunteers and community members and sharing laughter and meals with your host family, you may have a hard time accepting that the program has come to an end. The good news is that just because your service project is over, that doesn’t mean that any of the connections you’ve made will end. In fact, friendships forged over something as meaningful as a service program can be some of the strongest, most fulfilling friendships you’ll ever have.
A service abroad program can change the course of a volunteer’s life. Some volunteers may feel so moved by their experience that they return home fully committed to working abroad or to a career that involves service in an international setting. But you don’t need to have your mind made up as soon as the plane lands. Once you’ve completed a service abroad program, you’ve established a global network. This is a community that you can always go back to whether for a short visit or to pursue a more long-term goal.
When you think of “culture shock”, you may think of things like food, customs, and traditions that are different in your new environment than they are in your home country. However, you may not think of something like compassion or kindness. Host families and other members of the local community are usually very eager and enthusiastic to welcome visitors to their home and community. Locals understand that volunteers may have some reservations or nervousness about what their experience will be like and often go out of their way to make volunteers feel comfortable and supported. The kindness and compassion you experience while volunteering abroad is truly one-of-a-kind.
Service abroad programs can be just as impactful on your personal and professional growth as they are on the communities that they serve. No matter what your plans are down the line, whether you’re in the process of finalizing the last of your college applications or interviewing for your dream job, spend some time researching service abroad programs. Read some of our alumni testimonials or grab coffee with a friend who has volunteered abroad. There’s a whole world out there for you to explore. So, what are you waiting for?