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Volunteering Overseas: How Long You Should Commit

Volunteer Sutay Berman treats a child
Sutay Berman, RN, measures a child as part of a malnutrition survey of unemployed tea workers. Photo by Joshua Berman.

Volunteering overseas. Why stay longer than a week or two?

At its best, volunteering overseas is an extraordinary way to experience another place and culture from a perspective of solidarity and mutual learning. While short-term opportunities are popular with those tight on time, the value of your contribution can increase exponentially the more time you can commit. But that’s not the only reason to consider a longer commitment. Here are four more:

1) Make Friends

Just about any volunteer experience provides the opportunity to meet new people. But an extended commitment will help you to better understand your host community, and integrate into it. And that is when deeper connections can be formed. By sticking around for several weeks or months, you have the chance to build trust and relationships.

2) Learn a Language

From local slang and colloquialisms to the basics of a new language or dialect, sticking around longer also enables you to improve your language skills. Which, in turn, will help you to deepen your connections in the local community, not to mention become more effective at your volunteer efforts.

3) Impress College Admissions

With Malia Obama about to embark on a gap year, this trend is only gaining in popularity. Originating in the UK, a “gap year” refers to a break between finishing high school and starting college. It might encompass travel, work, study, volunteering, research, or all of the above. More than that, it is a chance for young adults to explore the world and gain valuable life skills and experience – a fact that has drawn colleges and universities to view gap years with increasing interest. Some schools, such as Harvard University, explicitly encourage students to defer admission for a year if they are interested in a gap year.

Don’t be put off by the price tag — there are increasing options for financial support. Global Citizen Year and Where There Be Dragons both offer financial assistance for their popular programs. Colleges are following suit: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Florida State University now offer fellowships to gap year students; more are sure to follow. There are lots of resources on Transitions Abroad about gap year adventures and volunteering.

4) Get Paid

Of course, no one is suggesting to volunteer for the money! But, a small stipend might be what makes a longer-term commitment possible.  Placing volunteers for 6 to 12 months in Haiti, Peru, Zambia, South Sudan, and Kenya, CMMB asks its volunteers to fundraise before departure, but then provides the airfare, housing, insurance, and a monthly stipend. Like CMMB, United Nations Volunteers provides roundtrip airfare, insurance, and a modest living allowance to its more than 8,000 volunteers in the world, who typically make commitments of a year or more (with a few opportunities for three-month placements). These aren’t big salaries, but may be just enough to make a longer stay feasible.

If you don’t yet have a skill set that might land a stipend, remember that volunteering may also pay you back when it comes time to apply for a job. It can help provide that “1-2 years’ work experience” that many junior professional positions require, or fill in a career gap when you’re ready to take a break from your job.

And this brings us back to the original reason to volunteer overseas: to make a contribution of your time and talents.

A commitment to stay longer gives the volunteer a chance to accomplish more. If you are teaching an English class, you can see what works and what doesn’t, and hone your most effective techniques. If you are helping to protect wildlife, you have the chance to do community outreach. Or, your longer commitment may open the door for a local organization to accomplish a special project.

Joshua Berman, author of Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon, spent large chunks of his 16-month “honeymoon” volunteering with his wife Sutay. A three-month commitment in India meant they could conduct and write up a study on malnutrition amongst tea plantation workers. In Ghana, Sutay was able to apply her nursing knowledge at a family planning and fertility clinic, while Josh shared his writing, video, and social media skills with the organization’s media coordinator and youth group. (Read more about Josh’s honeymoon and volunteering in this interview.) Highly skilled volunteers such as heart surgeons can have a life-changing impact in a matter of days. For the rest of us, making a longer commitment, like Josh and Sutay did, is what can make it monumental.

With so many reasons to pursue a longer-term volunteer opportunity, the question is no longer “why stay longer?”, but “why not?”

Amy E. Robertson Amy E. Robertson is a travel writer and author of several guidebooks for Moon Handbooks. Her work has also been published in Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler and Budget Travel, among others. Amy has lived in Spain, the UK, Ecuador, Honduras and Lebanon, and traveled in some 60 countries across the globe. She has a background in international development and nonprofit management, and has worked in both private and nonprofit sectors.

You may see Amy's articles and books on her bio page.

More on Volunteering Abroad by Amy E. Robertson
How to Plan an Unforgettable Volunteer Vacation in Latin America
How to Find a Worthwhile Voluntourism Experience Abroad
How to Connect Locally while Traveling Internationally: Budget-Friendly Destinations in Central America
Why Study Another Language Abroad?: 10 Immersion Schools Where You Can Study and Volunteer in Latin America
Top Considerations for Volunteering Overseas… with Your Kids
Developing Global Citizens through Teen Volunteering
How to Volunteer Overseas to Protect Wildlife Effectively

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