A Student’s Guide to Voluntourism

For most students, “vacation” conjures up images of lounging on a sandy beach, fruity drink in hand. Or perhaps a break from the daily grind means hitting the slopes, experiencing wild roller coasters or exploring national parks and waterways. Whatever the destination, vacation usually means R & R — not working hard.

There’s a growing trend among students, though, to use the time off from school to give back and help make a difference in the lives of others. Voluntourism combines traditional vacations and volunteer work. For example, you might help with the construction of a public building in an impoverished community, interspersed with excursions to see local sights. In other cases, you may volunteer for a few days, followed by several days of rest at a nearby resort. In either case, voluntourism is an opportunity to travel and have a richer, more authentic experience in a foreign land.


Types of Experiences Available

Student voluntourism opportunities vary widely. Depending on what you hope to gain from the experience (as well as your budget) you might choose from the following types of trips.

Credit-earning experiences. Some degree programs include a foreign volunteer component as a requirement for certain courses or as a prerequisite for earning a degree. You might spend as little as a week or as long as a semester working in overseas, providing health care, education or labor in exchange for college credit

“Alternative” spring break. Most college campuses have at least one organization that arranges a trip as an alternative to the traditional party-centric spring break. Students on these trips devote their break time to working on projects either domestically or overseas.

Organisational trips. A number of organisations arrange trips for students who wish to volunteer; for example, Habitat for Humanity needs volunteers for projects all around the world, as does the Sierra Club. The American Hiking Society offers plenty of opportunities close to home as well, attracting volunteers to help maintain trails throughout the U.S. in exchange for free campsites.

Of course, you can always arrange your own voluntourism experience by contacting an organisation directly and inquiring about opportunities. However, most students find that joining a group provides the structure they need as well as more peace of mind that they can access necessary resources.


Everyone’s Number One Question: How Much Does it Cost?

travel volunteerOne common misconception about voluntourism is that it’s a bargain break. After all, you’re showing up to provide free labor, so everything else should be covered, right?

Wrong. In some cases, a voluntourism trip can cost just as much, if not more, than an equivalent stay at a resort. Earthwatch expeditions, for example, range from $2,000 to $6,000 before airfare. Depending on the organisation sponsoring the opportunity, you may need to provide your own lodging, food, or equipment; if food and lodging are included, you can usually expect rustic accommodations that are similar to those of the local residents. In some cases, local families or churches may even host you. At the very least, you will have to cover your own airfare, as well as costs associated with passports, visas, immunisations, and other paperwork associated with the trip.

If you are taking the trip as part of coursework, and you will earn college credit for the experience, you may qualify for some financial aid or scholarship money to defray your costs. Check with your school’s financial aid office to determine what type of assistance is available to pay for your trip.


Important Considerations

If you’re considering voluntourism, keep a few points in mind. First, it’s unlike any other vacation. You won’t be sleeping in and gorging yourself on a gourmet breakfast before putting in a few hours of “work” and then hitting the beach. In most cases, the workdays are long and you will be getting sweaty and dirty. You may have some time to yourself to explore or relax, but expect to spend the vast majority of your time working.

Second, you need to prepare yourself emotionally for the experience. Volunteering abroad can be one of the most fulfilling experiences you will ever have, but it can also be challenging and even frustrating for many. It’s difficult to see extreme poverty or to witness the impact of natural disasters, war or climate change. Volunteers need to travel with the mindset that while their work is valuable, they are not going to be able to change everything in a week’s time. Instead, you need to do what you can and be content knowing that you have made some impact on the people you’re serving.

Travel in and of itself can be perspective and life changing. If you combine volunteer work with your vacation, it can be an even richer experience — and more fulfilling than yet another game of limbo on a tropical beach.

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