For many college students hoping to leave the country at least once before graduation, the initial decision is between a study abroad program and an international volunteer trip. As someone who’s been on both, I’m going to hopefully help clear up some confusion and get you on a plane out of the country sooner. Here are the four things you need to
The most prominent difference between studying and volunteering abroad is the purpose of the trip. While many friends may tell you that studying comes second in studying abroad, the point of spending a semester in another country is to improve and diversify your education or gain work experience through an internship. If there was nothing to be gained from taking a chemistry course in France instead of your home university, why did you go through three years of French classes to prepare for your adventure?
The purpose of volunteer trips, on the other hand, is to help those who are less fortunate than you. Sure, it looks nice on a resume, but if you only want to help dig wells in a third world country to embellish your job application, you have no business being on a volunteer trip. So, if you find a trip that seeks to solve a problem near and dear to your heart, by all means pack your bags for a week (or longer!) of selfless service! Otherwise, studying abroad may be a better fit for you.
Of course, there are trips of both types that can last anywhere for a week to an entire year. However, studying abroad tends to be for a whole semester whereas volunteer trips more typically only last a week or two. Several colleges offer international volunteer trips during spring break or the winter holidays. The summer is also a common time of year to travel for either type of international experience. With more time, many students leave the country for a shorter-than-average opportunity to study abroad or a longer-than-average opportunity to give their time and service in parts of the world that need help.
Cost is usually the factor that causes college students to choose one form of international travel over the other. Because volunteer trips tend to be shorter, they also tend to be less expensive. Volunteer trips are very well organized with pretty much everything – such as living accommodations, transportation, and meals – already planned out before anyone signs up. Volunteer trips also go to countries with lower costs of living than America, which also keeps the costs from skyrocketing as they tend to do on semesters abroad.
While international airfare is expensive no matter where you’re going, accommodations for an entire semester are going to be pricey, not to mention the costs of tuition, books, and school supplies you’ll need in a foreign country. Don’t let a large price tag discourage you. Your university may offer scholarships for anyone leaving the country whether it be to study or volunteer, and there are lots of other places to look as well. Fundraising is also always an option, especially in the age of social media.
The final, and probably biggest, difference between our two types of trips is the requirements. Studying abroad generally requires that you be in good academic standing with your university, that you’ve completed any prerequisites for classes you plan on taking abroad, and that you meet any language requirements for the country you’re traveling to. You will also need to plan to study abroad at least an entire semester or summer before you leave the country, the program could delay your graduation if it’s not properly scheduled. Volunteer trips, on the other hand, generally only require that you have the time to participate. However, because volunteer trips typically go to underdeveloped countries, you may be required to receive a number of vaccines or medicines for your journey. Be sure to check with the volunteer program and the CDC vaccine recommendations before booking a flight.
Although a long list of international trip options can feel overwhelming, by understanding what you want to get out of your experience abroad as well as your financial and academic limitations, choosing a trip that’s right for you can be both exciting and gratifying.