Simply making the decision to go on a volunteer abroad program is the most important decision in the entire experience.
But a close second involves choosing the best volunteer abroad destination.
This applies whether you want to do a multiple country volunteer abroad program or stay in one country. Even if you are at the early planning stages for your volunteer abroad program, it is best to start narrowing down your list sooner than later. If nothing else, you can lean toward a specific continent.
5 Factors in Choosing a Volunteer Abroad Destination
1. Health & Safety
Health and Safety should be the most important consideration when choosing a volunteer abroad destination.
Make sure the country is politically stable with an established government that maintains law and order. Especially avoid countries that will be holding elections during your volunteer abroad. Make sure street crime is minimal.
Do you need any special vaccinations? A Yellow Fever shot is required by many African countries like Ghana. If you are doing a multi-country volunteer abroad program and flying from an African country, the arrival country usually requires a Yellow Fever shot.
Do you have any medical conditions to consider? Volunteer abroad participants with any respiratory issues should rule out cities like Beijing because of its smog and Quito, Ecuador with its altitude of 10,000 feet.
A country’s infrastructure is important. Many developing countries have horrible roads conditions with vehicles in disrepair, not to to mention dangerous driving habits. Seat belts are usually not even an option in many cars and buses. (Honduras had another fatal crash last year with volunteers from Columbia University killed.)
Women’s safety on a volunteer abroad program should be a factor also. Women going abroad are sexually harassed often. It rarely escalates to assault, but research the local situation when deciding on a volunteer abroad destination. For example men groping women on public transport is common in places like Tokyo and Delhi (Delhi has women-only trains to combat this).
What program do you want to focus on during your volunteer abroad? The most popular programs are: volunteer work, language study, internships, adventure travel, and academic study. Most countries have viable volunteer abroad programs in all the above avenues.
First check with your school’s counselor / international programs office to see a list of companies offering volunteer abroad programs. The companies’ websites should describe the programs in detail including length (weeks/months), host organizations, daily schedule, requirements, group versus solo programs, any course names and descriptions, number of credits available, and supervision.
Gap years can provide a unique opportunity to learn and practice a foreign language. There are volunteer abroad programs that focus primarily on language study. Other programs involve no language study and/or have no language proficiency requirements.
Research the language level required of your volunteer abroad program — whether you’re there to study a language formally or not. Will you need to speak in the local language(s) with your host family, within the volunteer abroad program itself, and on the streets in everyday life?
Some countries like Ghana and India do have English as an official language which makes things easier. However for countries in Latin America, you will need at least beginner’s Spanish for most programs. In Vietnam, expect that only those locals catering to foreigners will speak decent English (hotel clerks, tour operators).
Even if you are not officially studying a language as part of your volunteer abroad program, locals everywhere will greatly appreciate your making the effort to at least learn some phrases and words. There are always local tutors and schools that offer one-on-one lessons from native bilingual speakers.
Choose a country or region of the world whose culture interests you. Do you have a specific interest in aspects of a country’s culture like its current events, religion, food, language, sports, music, architecture, the arts and even the partying scene (sorry, parents)?
Again, women have extra considerations. For volunteer programs in certain Middle Eastern countries, be prepared for gender segregation in all aspects of life — as well as possibly having to cover your entire body and head in public.
Religion: Go to India. There are reportedly 330 million deities in Hinduism. You could spend years studying Hinduism and still not be an expert (thank Brahma for reincarnation — you can keep coming back for more study!)
Food: Every country has great cuisine. Although food shouldn’t be at the top of your list in choosing a volunteer abroad country, you do have to eat everyday so why not eat a cuisine you like. These days it’s easier than ever to become familiar with different foods before you leave home (it seems there are Vietnamese Pho restaurants everywhere in the US these days!).
Language: It’s not just Spanish anymore for language study. There has been an explosion in Mandarin and Russian language immersion programs. Even Swahili in east Africa is becoming more popular.
Sports: Every country has its own sports scene. The Aussies are obsessed with sports. Cricket, Australian rules football, and rugby union are the most popular. Football (soccer) is king in most other places.
The location of the destination is another important factor in deciding your gap year destination.
Climate: If you volunteer in Africa, the weather will likely be warm and dusty. If hiking in parts of South Korea during a gap year in the winter, the temperatures will be below zero with regular snow. Humidity bother you? Avoid Thailand and other tropical places.
Urban or Rural: Do you prefer a rural village or massive modern city like Seoul? Each setting has its own pros and cons like pace of life, physical comforts (A/C, beds), night life, phone/Internet, local attitudes, and access to medical care.
Excursions: The available excursions should be considered too. We love Ecuador because with just one bus ride you can visit the jungle, the beach, mountains, or expansive farmlands. Southeast Asia has become a favorite spot for gap year participants because excursions there are cheap, safe, diverse, and easy to self-arrange.
Visitors: It is usually more feasible for friends/family to visit you on your volunteer abroad program if you are in a place like London compared to a mud hut in rural Tanzania (not that there’s anything wrong with mud huts — we love them).