Why and How to Volunteer While Abroad

It’s true: Americans love helping people!

Whether it was serving Thanksgiving dinner to families in need, tutoring inner-city students, planting trees in public parks, or taking care of the elderly, nearly 63 million of us volunteered our time and 79% helped a stranger last year.

As we get set to honor the legacy of the great civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 18, I believe it is important to extend this spirit of service by volunteering. Even if you are studying, working, or traveling abroad, it is easy and rewarding to make a positive impact in your community.

Photo credit Sung Joon Park (Korea WEST)

Why Volunteer?

The benefits of engaging in international community service are immense for both the volunteer and for the participant themselves.

1) Get Involved in the Community

Photo credit Megan Bradford (Cultural Vistas Fellowship)

Even if it’s just for an hour or two, community service truly does make a difference in the lives of the people you help. By devoting some time to address a need in your neighborhood, you are signaling that you really care about their welfare. Your positive attitude will be infectious. With time, people will admire your genuine dedication and will likely be inspired to join you.

2) Expand Your Circle of Friends

Photo credit Yoonwoo Jang (Korea WEST)

Because volunteering is a social activity, it is an opportunity to build friendships. When I lived in China in 2011, I had the privilege of participating in several wonderful community service projects, which helped me to branch out of my comfort zone. One of my favorites involved picking vegetables and digging irrigation ditches at a communal farm on the Tibetan Plateau. After working all day, a local family invited my friends and me into their home and cooked one of the most delicious, heartfelt meals I’ve ever eaten. Had I not volunteered in the fields, I may have never met them and enjoyed their incredible hospitality.

3) Venture Beyond the Tourist Hotspots

Photo credit Sabrina Guertin-Lahoud (J-1 Exchange Visitor Program)

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. However, as anyone who has been to the City of Light knows, there is a rich cultural quilt in other areas of the metropolis. By volunteering, you will get a better sense of how people in your city live beyond those picture-perfect “Instagram-able Oases.” And you will gain a greater appreciation for the new people you meet.

4) Practice the Local Language

Photo credit Lisa Panzerbieter (CBYX)

Similarly, you will have the chance to practice your language skills in a different context when you volunteer. By interacting with locals outside the confines of a classroom, you will be exposed to new concepts, slang, accents, and worldviews—all of which will help you improve fluency.

5) Serve as a Goodwill Ambassador

Photo credit Megan Bradford (Cultural Vistas Fellowship)

People appreciate the time and effort you put into community service projects. You may be the first American anyone in your host community has ever met and, as a result, people are likely to view the United States in a more positive light. At the same time, your good work can help dispel negative stereotypes of Americans and is a great way to build bridges across borders.

6) Feel Fulfilled

Photo credit Daniela Miler (J-1 Exchange Visitor Program)

Helping others is incredibly rewarding. When you do good, you feel good. ‘Nuff said.


How to Get Involved

Finding a volunteer opportunity has never been easier. There are literally millions of schools, clinics, and nongovernmental organizations around the world that need your creativity and passion. Here are some suggestions for taking the first step:

1) Ask Friends How They Give Their Time – And Join Them

It’s likely that your friends (or host family, if you’re lucky enough to have one) already engage in community service. Ask them how they volunteer their time and join them. It is easier to get started if you are with a group of dedicated people you trust and the service projects will bring you closer together with them.

2) Talk with Program Coordinators

As you probably already know, the coordinators for your program are great reservoirs of knowledge and support. They know the ins and outs of your host country and can help you identify community service opportunities. In some cases, they may even be able to directly introduce you to the staff at organizations that you want to work with.

3) Search Online

The instinct to Google is right up there with the need to breathe, sleep, and eat. Find an issue you’re passionate about, select a location, and be amazed at all of the volunteer opportunities you discover.

4) Reach Out To Organizations Directly

If you come across an organization that interests you, talk to them! Whether you’re at a networking event or you see a sign for an interesting group on the street, follow up. Professionals in the nonprofit sector love to talk about their work. In addition to expanding your knowledge of key issues facing people in your community, they will let you know about specific ways you can get involved.

5) Show Your Leadership

If you are passionate about helping, but cannot find an organization to volunteer withstart your own project! Make sandwiches (or empanadas, gyros, falafel, or baozi) to give to those who are hungry. Read Dr. Seuss books to those kids you always see playing at the park. Clean up the trash in your neighborhood. Make some art. Just get creative and make a difference.


Now, it’s your turn.

Throughout his life, Dr. King worked tirelessly to create a “beloved community,” a world in which an all-inclusive spirit unites the people of the planet and inspires them to replace poverty, violence, and discrimination with wealth, peace, and tolerance. Even if you’re only overseas for a short period of time, volunteering is incredibly rewarding and is the perfect way to actualize Dr. King’s global vision.

As we settle into 2016, let’s keep the conversation going. What are your favorite memories of volunteering internationally? For those of you currently abroad, do you have any plans to make a difference in your country this MLK Day? As always, I welcome you to share your stories and photos with us.


Note: All of the images in this post are by participants and alumni.