Whether you’re taking a break between finishing high school and starting university, giving yourself a breather before beginning a new job, or if you’re in real need of a career break, volunteering abroad is the ideal way to see the world and do something meaningful for your gap year. Whatever stage of life you’re at, if you’re reading this chances are you’ve got a yearning to travel, be immersed in different cultures and give back to communities around the world.
Thinking back to my gap year, where I volunteered in a Maasai community in Kenya, I made the decision to pack up and leave during a lull in my career. I soon set off on a path to explore the world, and here’s how to do it…
Step 1: Tell your friends and family
It may sound a bit odd to share your plans with your family so early on. For me, I found that gaining the support of my family (especially my parents) was an important part of the gap-planning process. Naturally your parents will have their concerns, so being able to include them in your thought process from the get-go can help their confidence before waving you goodbye at the airport. IVHQ provides this handy information for parents, answering the frequently asked questions that mums and dads tend to have when their children are considering volunteering abroad IVHQ.
You’ll also find the more you talk about your plans with friends and family, the more you’ll learn about others’ experiences. You may be introduced to another destination or community that you hadn’t considered before. You never know… Uncle Bob’s tour of South East Asia in the 70s might just inspire your travel plans. Plus gaining the support of friends and family might help with your budgeting, but we’ll get to that shortly…
Step 2: Choose your destination/s
Research online, read plenty of books and talk to as many people as you possibly can. Learn about different cultures, living situations, and start building a bucket list with all your wonders of the world. Take notes, and keep them handy. You’ll soon realize that your interest in a certain part of the world becomes more apparent and your yearning to visit there will only grow. Either way, you’ll have a far greater appreciation for the local community and culture when you have an understanding of their history and how they live their lives, plus it helps with the inevitable culture shock in the first couple of days once you arrive.
Lucky for you, IVHQ has affordable volunteer programs in over 50 destinations around the world, so chances are we’ll have a program in a country you’re interested in. However this list of destinations also be somewhat overwhelming for the first-time gapper, so consider taking this interactive quiz to help with the decision-making process.
Still can’t decide on a single destination? Many gap year volunteers choose to register for a number of different volunteer programs across a range of destinations. If a gap year in South East Asia is on the agenda, you have the capacity to volunteer in Vietnam, jump the border and become a volunteer in Cambodia, before finishing off as a volunteer in Laos. Or if a gap year in Africa, Centra America, South America or Europe sounds more like you, explore your options with IVHQ here.
IVHQ will connect you with a dedicated IVHQ Program Manager to help you combine various volunteer programs around the world and create your ideal gap year itinerary. Keep in mind that budget comes back into play when choosing your destination, so if money is a bit tight you may find yourself repeating this step a couple of times until your budget and travel aspirations align!
Step 3: Consider your skills and interests
Becoming a volunteer abroad is a great way to explore your interests - whether you passion for wildlife conservation, the environment or people and culture. It’s also a fantastic way of boosting your CV and job prospects for your arrival back home, while making a meaningful contribution to a community abroad.
Take some time when researching IVHQ’s project options and ensure you pick a project which aligns with your skill set, while being able to keep you engaged throughout your time abroad.
Considering volunteering in a range of destinations for your gap year? Decide whether you want to engage in similar projects in the different destinations that you visit, or explore your options and opt to take on different projects in different countries. For example, why not combine your love and skills related to teaching in Zambia, before crossing the border and getting your hands dirty, working amongst wildlife in Victoria Falls to satisfy your passion for wildlife conservation?
Not sure which IVHQ project suits you best? Yip, we’ve got a quiz to help with that too!
Step 4: Start budgeting
Congratulations, you’re in luck! You’ve already found the most affordable volunteer program fees, starting from US$180 per week. IVHQ’s fees include your airport pick-up, your accommodation during your program, meals (some programs provide 3 meals per day!), orientation and 24/7 in-country support with IVHQ’s local teams around the world. It’s a great start for a Gap Year volunteer’s budget, knowing that many of your essential travel related costs are covered at an affordable price!
My key advice… Start saving early. Don’t rush your savings or skip over doing a budget, as it may mean the difference between whether or not you join your fellow volunteers on a once in a lifetime safari through the Serengeti! Read your IVHQ information booklet for money advice, work out how much taxis will cost and budget for the fact that you’ll be tempted every once and while for dinners out with your new-found friends.
Think outside the box when saving for your trip. Before I left, I sold my car, some old furniture from my flat, and opted for cash towards my trip in lieu of gifts at Christmas and Birthdays. I found extra part-time jobs, including giving up my weekends to become a Wedding DJ, playing the Village People’s classic ‘YMCA’ at least twice every weekend. Once you start looking, little opportunities to grow your funds will present themselves, so make sure you grab every $ you can! Check out these fundraising tips from former IVHQ volunteers to consider.
Don’t forget about some important travel-related costs, including your flights, passport, travel insurance and vaccinations, and make sure you factor them in to your budget early on. These costs can amount quickly if you’re not prepared for them, and may also require a visit back to ‘Step 2’ if the budget looks a little tight…
The steps in this list may switch around the more you research, talk with others and plan your trip, as you find yourself jumping between the different steps constantly. If anything, this just prepares you for life on the road, as during your volunteer gap year, you’ll face challenging situations and your plans will alter and change, however you’ll return home a more confident and worldly person, with a refreshed global perspective and understanding of cultures and the way of life in communities around the world.
Be aware. Taking a Gap Year as a volunteer won’t cure your travel bug, it’ll only make it grow. Don’t just take it from me, read inpsiring stories of IVHQ Gap Year volunteers, including Craig Putman who volunteered across 7 countries over 9 months.