Volunteer Abroad

A volunteer surrounded by kids
Build valuable experience, learn about new cultures, travel inexpensively, and give back to the global community.

Still not convinced you should volunteer in another country?

  • Volunteering overseas can teach you to let go of preconceptions about what other people need and what they should do. You have an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the ideas and resourcefulness of those in the host community.
  • International volunteering provides an invaluable opportunity to experience firsthand what you learn in the classroom, see on television, and read in books and on blogs.
  • Gain insight into your own culturally-based perceptions of disability, through the lens provided by interactions and experiences in a different culture.
  • You gain unique skills and experiences that can open doors to employment in international and domestic fields, including international development, public health, education and more.
  • Living in another country and taking part in day-to-day activities and traditions provides an invaluable intercultural experience.
  • There is great value in studying and using another language to the best of your ability. Language provides rich clues about individuals, their worldview and the cultural context in which they live. 
  • Make friends with people from many different countries: volunteer abroad programs often bring together many volunteers from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
  • Journeying to an unknown country and culture can be a wondrous adventure, full of new sights, sounds and aromas.

“It isn’t just about warm fuzzy feelings. Aggravation and frustration, give and take, bewilderment and enlightenment are all part of living and serving in another culture. Volunteering in a community elsewhere in the world provides ample opportunity to see myself and my own culture in a new light. Getting to know the local people and learning their language and culture really enriched me.” - Pam Houston, who has cerebral palsy and volunteered with Food for the Hungry in Peru and with the Peace Corps in the island nation of Kiribati

Find Your Volunteer Abroad Experience

Whether you apply to participate in a volunteer abroad program like the Peace Corps or join a volunteer project abroad, volunteering can dramatically change your life and the lives of those around you. Ask yourself these questions when considering volunter abroad opportunities:

  • Do you want to volunteer for a couple of weeks, a few months or as long as two or three years?
  • Are you interested in being part of a group project or would you rather work individually with local community members?
  • What skills do you want to contribute? Some volunteer projects involve a lot of physical labor such as trail or building construction and archeological digs. Others require skills such as teaching, community organizing, or public health training.
  • Do you want to combine the experience with academic coursework and training?
  • What kind of structure and amount of direction or freedom do you want on the project? Some organizations provide volunteers with clear tasks to accomplish; others provide a general framework and leave it up to the volunteer to determine the specifics.
  • Are you interested in being in a bustling urban area, a rural village or even in a wilderness area?
  • Are you looking for a program through which you can use or improve your foreign language skills or do you want one where you can speak your native language?
  • Would you like to volunteer with friends or family, including children?
  • How much money can you fundraise or afford?

Fund Your Volunteer Abroad Experience

Many volunteer abroad programs require fees to cover expenses related to local travel, lodging, meals, travel/health insurance and more. Although it may seem strange to pay to volunteer, there are significant costs involved in preparing, sending, training, and supporting volunteers abroad. Typically, volunteer-sending organizations, volunteers and host country partners work in a partnership to share these costs.

Compared to many traditional study abroad programs, volunteer abroad program fees are typically lower, and the program fee is the volunteer's contribution to the overall cost.

Past volunteer abroad participants have used creative strategies for raising money, including setting up crowdfunding websites, hosting fundraising dinners, approaching local businesses and service clubs, and much more.

A student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Tamer Mahmoud approached the Director of Student Affairs at RIT about sponsoring his participation in a Global Reach Out Initiative, Inc (GRO) program in Thailand. In exchange for the cost of his airfare, Mahmoud gave a presentation about his experience in Thailand to the school community when he returned home to New York.

Volunteering with a Disability

For people with disabilities, international volunteerism can be a particularly empowering experience as they have historically been considered recipients – not providers – of volunteer service. Since many volunteer organizations offer opportunities to work with disability communities overseas, people with disabilities can be valuable role models at these placement sites.

“When I pushed myself around my community, people stared at me curiously. Many had probably never seen an independent woman in a wheelchair before. Every time I heard, ‘Qué quapa (you are hardworking)!’ when going to work on my own, I knew that I had changed another person’s perspective.” - Shannon Coe, who has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair on her Peace Corps experience in Paraguay

As you consider your disability-related needs for a potential volunteer abroad experience, remember that many people with disabilities have successfully coordinated a variety of supports in order thrive in international volunteer settings. Some suggested strategies for selecting a volunteer experience that meets your needs include:

  • Enlist the support of volunteer program staff (if planning to do a formal program) in the U.S. and abroad to identify potential barriers and disability-related resources in the destination country
  • Find out more about the specific tasks involved in the volunteer experience and identify adaptations or alternatives for tasks that are not independently manageable
  • Approach disability organizations in the host country about local resources, such as refrigeration for medications, bicycle repair shops for wheelchair repair or counselor
  • Consider your strategies for managing disability concerns, and then make an informed choice about a program’s suitability