10 Myths About Volunteering Abroad

Misconceptions debunked! In the end, no two volunteer experiences are the same.

Even if you haven't volunteered abroad yet, you might already have an idea of what the experience looks like. You'll live in a rustic village in Africa. You'll help build houses or teach the English language. You'll make friends with the locals. You'll make a large and lasting impact.

Though this could all end up being true, the imagery is only a part of some people's experiences. Thousands of students volunteered abroad this summer with Global Leadership Adventures, and each of their experiences was likely unique from the next. I personally volunteered alongside students on the China: One Nation, Two Worlds program. Now that I've had time to reflect on my trip abroad, and answer all of my friends' and family's well-meaning questions, I realize there are some common misconceptions all of us have about what it means to volunteer abroad.

A GLA student captures the beauty of our walk to community service: working on an organic farm in China!

Myth #1: All volunteer abroad projects are making a positive impact.

We'd like to trust that all organizations running community service, service-learning and volunteer abroad programs are completely honest and ethical. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Not all organizations that run volunteer projects do so responsibly, and some fall into the problematic category of "voluntourism."

Make sure you read reviews carefully when choosing an organization to go with, talk to former volunteers and do your research to make sure your planned trip has all the traits of a sustainable, responsible project. Speak with representatives from the organization over the phone or in person and ask them if they've experienced the trip themselves.

Research the organization's leaders. How involved are they in projects, and do they treat their partners abroad fairly? Do a simple Google search and make yourself familiar with the people of the organization.

Myth #2: Volunteering is the same thing as service-learning.

Ever heard of the term "service-learning"? It's like the more complex, in-depth older brother to volunteering.

Service-learning is a blend of learning and volunteering at the same time. Both the volunteering part and the learning part focus on the same global issue, so each experience reinforces the other. This makes both sides more compelling and valuable, to both the volunteer and those they serve. Reflection is an important component of the service-learning experience as well. Participants talk about the context of their volunteer work and bring their service experience into meaningful discussions to better apply their experience to the real world.

Service-learning programs tend to have a more sustainable impactand work with more community-led initiatives. All GLA programs are developed around service-learning. Read how GLA combines service, learning and adventure for the greatest impact on both our students and the communities they serve.

Students on the Dominican Republic: Global Health Initiative listen to a lecture about the current public health system before they volunteer on a global health project.

Myth #3: You know what the community needs.

We think Atoosa, one of our Ambassador finalists last year, said it best:

"To make the most of your experience, take all of your expectations (what the community will be like, what the country will be like, who your peers will be and what work you'll be doing)—and set them all aside. Absorb the experience as it happens." 

The beauty of traveling to a new destination is not knowing. Researching the social or environmental issues you'll be addressing before your arrival are great ways to be prepared. Just try to remember that all the preparation in the world still pales in comparison to what the locals will share with you in person.

Go with an organization that respects the community's leadership. GLA depends on our Service Partners—people who have lived and worked in the country for several years—to place our students in community-led service projects where they are needed most. We believe our role as volunteers is to support the community's vision, not to impose our own.

Myth #4: You'll be all alone, in the middle of nowhere.

Definitely not true! Volunteering abroad is all about meeting new people and having new experiences. GLA students travel to their destinations independently, but spend the entire duration of their trip in a group setting, so there are plenty of opportunities to socialize. You’ll also find a community of program directors, mentors and Home Base staff who become like family, and are professionally certified to watch over your safety at all times.

Yes, you certainly could end up living in a rural area, but there are varying levels of development among countries, and even within them. On GLA programs, you're more likely to be living in a unique, traditional guesthouse owned by a local family. Modern conveniences like Wi-Fi and air conditioning might be harder to come by, but that's a small price to pay when this is what home looks like:

Home Base for Costa Rica: Surf & Sports Service Adventure

Myth #5: You have to speak a foreign language.

While locals may not speak English (or your home language) fluently, you should be able to get along with a few basic phrases. That, plus a smile and some universal hand gestures is often all you need. GLA staff members often provide a "crash course" in the native language to help you learn frequently used phrases, and you’ll find that most people are friendly and accommodating.

If you're looking to actually improve your foreign language skills, service-learning abroad is an amazing opportunity to do so through language immersion. GLA uses an Experiential Language Curriculum that focuses on immersion to improve conversational skills.

Myth #6: Service-learning abroad doesn't look as good on your college application as an academic program.

Gone are the days when a perfect transcript was enough to get you into a great college. Volunteer abroad experience can help you stand out because it shows prospective universities that you understand different cultures and global issues, have seen communities beyond your hometown, and have self-awareness. Many GLA students describe their experience as "life-changing," and bring home stories of personal development that they use in their essays and interviews.

Your service-learning program with GLA might even yield a better understanding of who you are, what you want in life and what area of study you want to pursue.

Myth #7: You have to work with children.

Many people assume that doing any kind of volunteering abroad means working in a local orphanage or teaching English to kids. Those are certainly options, but there are also plenty of other projects, including animal conservation in Fiji, building and construction in the Dominican Republic, or public health projects in Ghana.

Do some research on the volunteer projects available, and consider your own passions. You'll certainly be able to find a trip that matches your interests and goals. GLA currently offers programs exploring nine different global issues, from education to environmental action.

Students build an eco-compost toilet from start to finish, a critical feature for improving the public health of up to hundreds of community members.

Myth #8: Volunteering abroad should be free.

Think about it: Hosting a volunteer costs money. The organization and projects you choose to volunteer with will always have costs in facilitating, managing and monitoring your involvement, which are all essential elements in making your volunteer work abroad meaningful and sustainable. Getting to participate in a community-led initiative is also an opportunity for your own personal development, while doing something positive. When you recognize what you can get out of volunteering, the reason to pay to volunteer abroad becomes far more obvious.

But, isn't it more effective to just give the money directly to the organization? That's a well-meaning thought, but not all impacts are financial. The longest-lasting impact can often be facilitating a cultural exchange that builds relationships, develops people's’ thinking about sustainable development and leaves volunteers with a thorough understanding of the meaningful work they have done, as well as the ability to pass these learnings onto others to create long-term change.

Go with a reputable organization that allocates the vast majority of their outgoing funds to program expenses. GLA puts most of the money that comes in from volunteer tuition toward supporting the in-country program work.

Myth #9: International travel is expensive, so you need to be rich to do it.

Many people who want to volunteer abroad are shocked when they discover that one, they have to pay, and two, it can cost thousands of dollars when you factor in your flight costs. As we mentioned earlier, hosting volunteers isn’t cheap. The fees you pay help cover the cost of your food, housing, transportation, expenses that make the volunteer work possible and sustainable, and in the case of GLA, staff members and learning activities that make your experience both more well-rounded and more educational.

Don't be daunted! Start fundraising now, and ask about scholarship or aid options. Many GLA students each summer run small fundraising campaigns (writing letters, asking for donations in lieu of birthday or Christmas gifts, getting a part-time job, holding a fundraising event) that turn out to be fun and incredibly effective. Students have even fundraised 100% of their trip costs, including airfare; and sought out scholarships and aid to realize their dreams.

Myth #10: If it's not with a nonprofit, it's not a good project.

Social enterprises can also be focused on impact, and actually help boost the local economy as well, by providing jobs and making long-term investments in a community. And because they have more resources, they can often provide a better experience for volunteers.

Rather than asking if a project is run by a nonprofit, try asking how the local community is involved. Nonprofit or not, the organization's ability to answer this question is a much better indicator of whether or not the volunteer work is worth your time.

(Pro tip: Look for certifications like B Corp, which indicates the organization or company meets rigorous legal standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency—think "Fair Trade" or "USDA Organic," but for businesses. This can also help give you confidence in the legitimacy and impact of the organization you're volunteering with.)

Did you know? GLA is a certified B Corporation, where the tuition monies paid by students help fund African Leadership Academy!

Misconceptions, debunked!

In the end, no two volunteer experiences are the same. Yours will be shaped by your attitude, your project, and your ability to choose a reputable and responsible project to work with.

Now that you've debunked these common misconceptions about volunteering abroad, you can embark on your adventure abroad with more realistic expectations and have a more fulfilling experience—both for you and for your host community.