While choosing a volunteer abroad program, you’ll come across some terms that often are used interchangeably. This book will focus primarily on volunteer vacations and long-term service, but let’s take a look at the more common types of travel associated with these two, and note the differences.
These are short-term programs that last as long as standard vacations, often cost about the same, and—of course—incorporate a service project. Overall, these programs are structured to engage many short-term volunteers over a long period of time, meaning you likely won’t see immediate results of your work.
Popular volunteer vacations include construction, trail maintenance, and wildlife or plant research.
As we define it at Volunteer Global, long-term service covers those programs that last six months or longer. Many are free of charge, and might even provide a small stipend for your work, usually comparable to average income within your host community. Common projects include agriculture, business development, childcare, education, and healthcare.
Most long-term service organizations ask that their volunteers have background experience or education in their project area. If you don’t have much experience—for example, if you’re just out of college—the application process may take a little longer and be more involved.
Long-term service is similar to a job placement overseas; since the host organization covers your housing, food, and even medical care for several months, they want to know that you’re the right person for the project.
This term often is used interchangeably with “volunteer vacation,” but it’s not quite the same thing; philanthropic travel includes a monetary donation to a host group or charity, rather than a hands-on community service project.
In recent years, a good number of hotels and travel agencies have started offering philanthropic travel packages, including cultural outings and a donation to a sponsored program.
This is exactly how it sounds: It’s time to travel, explore, learn, and even volunteer if you choose. Gap years usually are taken between high school and the first year of university—this time can be used to reassess your current path, build a new one, expand on your current skills, meet new friends, and try your hand at living independently. Volunteer projects often are incorporated into gap years, but they are not always the priority.
This is kind of like a gap year for professionals—a career break allows you to take some time off from work, whether it’s several weeks, a few months, or a year. A career break allows you to recharge, reassess your career path and goals, and forge a new one if you choose. As with a gap year, you might volunteer during your career break but it’s not always a priority.
Service-learning combines volunteerism and education. Many projects are organized by specialized study abroad programs or by a school. Usually programs take place during a spring, winter, or summer break for high school students or during a regular semester for college students. Projects integrate field experience with the classroom to identify key issues in a program area, and then hash out ways to address those concerns.
Service-learning can be applied to college credit or as an internship for students interested in pursuing that field of work. For example, you might collect data on marine life in a protected area, and then later report on and study ways in the classroom to preserve endangered species and their habitats.
Study abroad is most popular for college students, though it also is certainly available at the high school level. While universities often organize study abroad programs during a regular semester, high school students often go this route during summer or winter break.
Study abroad programs focus on cultural immersion and education—those that incorporate a volunteer component generally fall under the category of service-learning. Study abroad programs usually last from a few weeks to a year, and can include cultural outings and tours, special projects, and even part-time employment or internships.
This can be described as a learning vacation where you might stay with a host family, eat local food, and observe host country customs. These trips can include a volunteering aspect, but community service is not the priority.
Cultural immersion trips are designed for an interactive, educational purpose for those interested in learning more about the host community from a local’s perspective, rather than from a tourist’s view.
Adventure tours are high-impact trips incorporating such activities as zip lining, horseback riding, or whitewater rafting. Tours can include accommodations ranging from rugged, backcountry campgrounds to luxury, high-end hotels. As with cultural immersion, community service can be included, but is not the priority.
Photo Credits: Visions Service Adventures.