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Study abroad : Student Life

Volunteering abroad and why you should do it

Heard of the many social causes on Facebook? Thought of becoming a volunteer while studying abroad? We tell you all about it here


A recent report from the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) showed that its database of candidates has rocketed to more than 25,000 and the number of volunteers globally is in the millions. Volunteering, particularly among 16-25 year-olds, has seen a surge in popularity recently, with more and more young people coming forward and offering their time to worthy causes. While governments and international organisations have invested financially, it's social media and the ability to share the amazing work done by charities and organisations among communities that has really raised the profile of volunteering worldwide. 


There are so many worthwhile causes both locally and abroad, so where do you start? We tell you more about how to choose your volunteering discipline, how to become a volunteer and the benefits it will bring to your own life and others...


What is volunteering?

So, what is volunteering exactly? For those of you who have yet to experience this wonderful act, volunteering, according to Volunteering Australia, is the “time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”. Volunteering today has come to encompass a wide variety of activities, all with the goal of helping improve other people’s lives or situations. Some of the sectors that volunteering or non-profit organisations look after include:

  • Animal-related issues such as animal welfare
  • Arts/culture (e.g. preservation works of a heritage site etc.)
  • Education and training
  • Emergency services
  • Environment
  • Faith/religion-based (e.g. Christian missions to poverty-stricken areas)
  • Health
  • International aid/development
  • Children
  • Elderly
  • Community


Types of volunteering

Volunteering opportunities come in different forms, types and sizes: long-term, short-term, intermittent, one-off days. Make sure you evaluate the amount of time that you have and then decide which commitment period suits you the best. 


If you're fitting volunteering around your studies, plan out your weekly timetable (including allocating time for self-study and assignments) before committing to a volunteering or charity project. The last thing you want to do is commit too much time to volunteering at the expense of your grades slipping! 


Hotcourses Abroad volunteering tip!
Tell your tutor or lecturers about your volunteering plans and get their advice. They may have contacts in that area that can help you find a placement. They also know your work schedule so will have advice on how to fit volunteering in around your studies. 


Where can you volunteer abroad? 

Most, if not all, universities today have some form of voluntary programme in place, if they don’t have a programme that you can participate in directly, they will most likely be able to point you in the right direction or partner you up with a voluntary organisation.


The UK
Each year, over 100 UK universities take part in Student Volunteering Week, which usually takes place in February. The National Union of Students and Student Volunteering Network come together to enable students, universities, colleges, students’ unions, charities and social enterprises to give back to local communities and causes. 


City University London has a dedicated team that matches their students up with the kinds of opportunity that they’re interested in. There are 300 different types of volunteering opportunities at any one time, students can browse the list of current opportunities that vary from being an befriender to older people with hearing loss, an archive researcher for a heritage project to running to help raise funds for a cause or helping children with autism. If students are not sure which programme would be best, the university helps them by matching the relevant opportunities based on the details, interests, skills and availability that the students have keyed into their system.


The University of Kent has a comprehensive volunteering programme for students. They run a few programmes that students can participate in and have a large pool of organisations that they partner up with. Students can opt to volunteer locally or abroad.


Canadians are particularly concerned with protecting the environment. In fact, the students and staff at Centennial College in Toronto are so passionate about green issues, they marked their 50th birthday by cleaning up parks and shorelines across the globe. The 'Paint the town green' campaign involved 15,000 people in Centennial's network and spanned locations across India, Panama, China, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam and Canada. It received lots of press coverage across the world and even the President of Canada sent the college a letter of recognition!


The rest of the world
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a registry of student organisations that look at different causes and provide resources for volunteer abroad opportunities.  Other universities like Toyo University in Japan and Sungkyungkwan University in Korea have their own volunteer programmes that help the society, such as mentoring volunteer work, volunteering at a hospital, reconstruction works areas affected by natural disasters etc.


If your university does not have a programme that you’re interested in, you could check out these organisations- International Volunteer HQ, Volunteering Solutions, Ecoteer and Volunteer Action for Peace, these organisations offer slightly more affordable programmes that won’t break your bank. We highly recommend that you read the fine print before signing onto any of the programmes offered by an organisation that is not run or affiliated by your university. Some volunteer abroad programmes do more harm than good by taking away paying jobs from the locals.


Become a volunteer

So, how do you go about becoming a volunteer? There’s a few things you need to do before you get started. 


What cause?

People often volunteer for charities that are close to them or have affected their families and friends, so this can be a good way to work out what you're passionate about. What are the movements or initiatives that speak to you? For instance, would you enjoy working with children, the disabled, homeless people, the elderly, refugees or wounded animals? Or would you rather be cleaning up the environment and educating the masses on green initiatives? Maybe you'd like to raise the profile of a particular hospital or charity?

What skills?

Once you’ve selected a suitable organisation, write down the kinds of skills that you can offer. Do you have a way with words? Think about how you could use that skill to write copy for a campaign. Are you a whiz with the computer? Maybe you could help sort out the administrative side of a charity. Perhaps you're a patient and compassionate person. Why not consider using these characteristsics to work with underpriveleged children. Understanding what you’re good at can help you narrow down the kinds of programmes that are available with the cause or organisation that you’ve selected. 


Start small

Chances are, this will be your first time volunteering. Don’t over commit yourself. Start with a small project, so you can better understand the kinds of projects that you’re comfortable with and are good at, you can also change it if you find that it’s not a good fit. If possible, start off by dedicating a couple of hours to a cause - see how you get on with it and then you can look to expand your commitment. 


Above all else, research!

We cannot emphasise the importance of this enough. Volunteering is an amazing experience, but as with any experience, it can go awry, especially with other life commitments and the pressures of day-to-day life. Research the charity or organisation well. Talk to your contacts and find out what their volunteering experiences have been like, and more importantly, seek out those who have volunteered with your chosen organisation. Your school’s volunteer office is also a good source of information. Getting all of your information beforehand will let you know what to expect and ensure you can contribute to the best of your ability. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask a lot of questions. Is there training involved? Who you will be working with and what should you do if you experience any issues during the project? All these questions are important to address before you start. 


Why should you volunteer?


The happiness effect

Gain the “happiness effect”! According to a study conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics, it was found that there was a direct correlation between the amount of time spent volunteering and their level of happiness, i.e., the more you volunteer, the happier you become!


Expand your social network

Volunteering is a great way for you to make new friends, especially when you’re studying abroad. Taking part in a shared activity provides you with the opportunity to meet like-minded people from all walks of life. As a university student, the importance of cultivating your network cannot be understated. Who knows what sort of opportunity these valuable contacts can lead to?


Improved communication skills

Studying abroad has already given you a head start in honing your communications skills, you can further sharpen them by volunteering either abroad or in the country that you’re studying, where you will interact with people of all ages and from different backgrounds and work with them towards a common cause. For those of you who are naturally shy and have a hard time approaching strangers, being in a volunteering group takes the edge off as you’ve already got a goal in common.


Learn new skills

With a highly competitive job market, gaining a new skill or two will keep you ahead of the pack when applying for a job in the future. Employers today look favourably upon candidates who have had volunteer experience under their belt, it shows both initiative and goodness of character. Volunteering can help you develop leadership skills, working in a team or independently, and can even let you try out a career that you’re thinking about. For instance, you can choose to volunteer in an organisation that needs help with graphic design or writing and many other tasks. You will also gain insight on the different working environments.


We hope that this article has helped you understand the world of volunteering a little better and perhaps motivate you to give it a shot!


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About Author

A fan of anime and all things Japanese, Khai has been writing professionally since 2010 and “unofficially” for much longer. In her free time, you will often find her baking, reading, travelling and doing everything else in between.