By Sarah Hendrix | Staff Writer

Volunteering abroad can be an incredible learning experience for students. Unfortunately, students who have never volunteered before are susceptible to organizations that can be more harmful than helpful to the specific area it is sending volunteers to. It is essential for students to be fully informed about the organization they choose to devote their time to and to understand exactly what they’re signing up for when they choose to volunteer abroad.

I have had the chance to volunteer with a non-profit organization called Youth With A Mission for seven years from 2009-2016. During that time I traveled abroad to 12 countries across Asia, Europe and Central America volunteering with projects involving disaster relief, working in orphanages, delivering medical supplies and teaching English.

Narrow the Search
Choosing to volunteer abroad can be an intimidating process because there are many options to choose from. Organizations want volunteers for a variety of circumstances such as disaster relief work, working in orphanages, delivering medical aid, building homes, and teaching in schools. For students who are new to volunteering, it is important to narrow down the search. Once students find a category of work that might fit them the best, it will be much easier to find a volunteer organization that is suitable.

Students can start by asking themselves these questions:

• How long can I commit to volunteer for?
• What area(s) of the world am I interested in volunteering in?
• Am I interested in working for a religious or non-religious organization?
• What are some skills I have to offer?
• What skills do I want to learn through volunteering?

These questions will give students an idea of what they are looking for in an organization. From my experience, people who come out of volunteer opportunities disappointed are the ones who were unsure of what they wanted going into volunteering. Some of these questions will help students find an organization that would best fit them.

Research the Organization
Once the volunteer search has been narrowed down, it is beneficial for students to ask questions. Most organizations can be contacted by email or telephone and have people who are designated to answer questions from potential volunteers. It would be best for students to spend time searching the website of an organization they are interested in and to write down questions as they come up. It is wise to gather as much information on an organization and the work that it does before students commit their time and money to working for it.

Some basic questions students can ask when they speak with a representative of an organization are:

• Could I speak with someone who has recently volunteered with the organization to hear about their experiences?
• Do many people my age volunteer with this organization?
• Are there any costs not listed on the website that I should expect?
• What does a typical day look like for a volunteer working with this organization?

Looking for recent reviews of an organization, personal blogs or forums, is especially helpful to hear from people who have been previous volunteers. They will be able to give a new perspective and experiential information to students

Research the Country
Researching the country is a crucial part of the process when choosing where to volunteer abroad. Especially in developing countries, there is plenty of information available online to see the culture and political state of a nation. The more students know about the nation they are wanting to volunteer in, the less stressful their experience will be. In researching a particular country, it is significant to note how an organizations presence is being recognized. Usually, if an organization has been causing issues in a country it sends volunteers to it will receive bad publicity. Students should avoid any volunteer programs that are causing more harm than good abroad.

Difference Between Volunteering and Tourism
Recognizing the contrast between volunteering and tourism is an important aspect that students need to be aware of when they choose to volunteer their time abroad. The point of volunteering is to freely donate personal time and devote it to helping a particular cause. If a student chose to volunteer in China teaching English, then they are signing up to spend most of their time in a classroom. Touring China, seeing the sights and exploring the Great Wall are great opportunities if there is time for mini-excursions. But for students choosing to volunteer, it is essential to remember that they are primarily there to help rather than explore the country they have traveled to.

Volunteering abroad is a great opportunity for students to participate in. It will be a much more enriching experience for students who decide to take the time to research and commit to volunteer opportunities that best fit them.