For anyone considering voluntary work, not only will they have the chance to travel and help people who are in genuine need, but they will also come away with a deep understanding of a whole different culture from their own.
Whether you want to teach English to monks, coach football to barefoot youngsters, work on a nature reserve, build new homes in remote villages or help conserve coral reefs, plenty of volunteering opportunities are available. Each one represents a chance to help out those who are living lives less fortunate than your own.
Many students choose to simply travel during their gap year, following well known backpacker trails around the world. By volunteering instead, you can enjoy all the fun of extended travel but also benefit from a powerful feeling of accomplishment, as you see the first bucket of water drawn out of a new well you have dug, see a family move into their newly built home or watch the baby turtles you helped to rescue head out to sea.
More often than not you'll have to opportunity to visit places that are far from the usual tourist trail and therefore get to truly know a country and its people from the inside. Living within the same community where you work, staying in the home of a resident or a small local guest house, you'll make friendships that will endure long after you return home.
The people you are helping will be well aware that you are giving up many of your usual creature comforts in order to assist them, which will make the work you do even more meaningful to them. Many volunteers find the experience to be truly life changing.
If you take the opportunity to volunteer abroad during your gap year, you can gain valuable, first-hand experience of global issues that will serve you well and impress anyone who looks at your CV. You will also learn about things that simply cannot be taught in a classroom environment and also be left with a sense of pride and achievement, that comes from knowing you have truly made a difference to the lives of others.
You don't usually need to speak the local language or have any special skills, though if you do, it is a good idea to speak to the organization you plan to volunteer with, in order to ensure that they can make the best use of you. That said, spending an extended time in a foreign country can be the perfect opportunity to really develop the language skills you do have, as total immersion in the culture will accelerate the pace at which you progress. In an increasingly global marketplace, fluency in foreign languages is a valuable commodity.
Remember that, even though you will be working for free, you'll still need to pay for your flights, along with a contribution towards your living costs. If you wish to volunteer for a marine conservation programme, you may need to train in additional skills, such as scuba diving, which you will also have to pay for. You'll also need to arrange your own travel insurance, visas and vaccinations.
Paul Cooper writes regularly on opportunities to volunteer abroad for a wide range of travel related websites and blogs. He has also worked as a volunteer himself, helping to dig water wells in Africa and teaching children in South America.
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