Do you want to meet people from around the world, practice your foreign language skills and help make the world a better place? Then you might want to consider spending a gap year as a volunteer through the Workaway organization.
Instead of heading straight from high school homeroom to college campus, more and more American students are taking a “gap year.” And volunteering in a new city or country can be one of the most exciting and eye-opening experiences you’ll ever have. Not only will volunteering look good on your resumé, you’ll also leave with new skills and friendships to last a lifetime.
If you do a quick search for international volunteer programs, you'll come up with an overwhelming number of results. However, almost all of these programs charge a rather hefty fee — so basically, you are paying to work for free.
But the Workaway organization is different. Because there are no agencies involved, the only fee you pay is for a membership that lasts for two years. You can sign up as a solo volunteer for $25 or with a friend for $35.
With Workaway, the deal is that you get free food and accommodation from the host in exchange for helping out for about four or five hours each day, five days a week. And this means weekends are free for you to explore the area, travel and do whatever you like.
Why volunteer abroad?
Josh Wilson, assistant director of the SRAS Institute, a resource for Eurasian study and travel abroad, explains that venturing abroad doesn’t only teach you about the culture and language, “it teaches you to think outside the box and to realize that your ways of doing things are not the only ways to approach tasks. You become more creative, a better problem solver, more confident and a better multi-tasker.”
• Language practice
Being a Workaway volunteer with a host that speaks your study language will give you an intensive opportunity to practice your language skills for free! Not only will you learn the language, but you will also get to learn the traditions and culture of your host’s country. Once you finally head to college, you’ll be at an excellent advantage and can even try testing into a higher language level in your college’s foreign language department.
• Real world experience
By the time you’ve returned home, you’ll have realized, ‘Yes! This is what I want to do!’ Or, ‘I’m glad I tried that out, but now I need to go a completely different direction.’ Above all, you will realize how many opportunities in your field of interest exist — even abroad!
• Get out of your comfort zone
As a volunteer, you will mix and mingle with other volunteers of all ages and cultures. No matter where you end up, you are bound to meet other Workaway volunteers. You will often be living in a very international community of travelers who each have their own stories to tell and unique skills to offer. Being part of a Workaway experience can really open your eyes to ideas and parts of the world you’ve never considered or maybe even heard of before! As Wilson points out, “Spending a bit of time abroad is sure to explode at least a small part of your worldview — and that is the first step to a true education.”
How to get away with Workaway
After you sign up to become a member on the Workaway website (www.Workaway.info), you will need to fill out your volunteer profile and describe yourself, what kind of work or volunteer experience you’ve had before, what skills you have and what kinds of projects and countries you are interested in. The more details that you offer, the better chance you will have of getting positive responses from the Workaway hosts you write to.
Then comes the fun part — searching for Workaway hosts! Here are some recent examples from advertised Workaway hosts: helping at a lavender farm in France, harvesting olives in Italy, picking walnuts in Bulgaria, making apple cider in Romania, helping at a children’s art camp in the Czech Republic, teaching village kids in India, helping with baby elephants in Thailand. The opportunities are fascinating and endless, and the host list is constantly growing.
You’ll find Workaway hosts in big cities, but many tend to be in villages and small towns — possibly off the grid and definitely off the beaten path. So how do you choose from such an overwhelming list of hosts and experiences?
Ask yourself these questions:
• How far do I want to travel?
• What is my travel budget?
• What do I want to learn or accomplish with this experience?
• How much time do I want to spend volunteering?
Ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable with the host – ask them about their expectations from volunteers as well as what you can expect from them, and find out how long you can stay. If it’s only two or three weeks, see if you can arrange some other Workaway stays nearby in the country or region, which will help you save on travel costs and allow you to really explore and understand the culture of the area, instead of rushing right through it.
The earlier you start writing to your list of hosts, the earlier you will know if they accept you or not. And when you get an acceptance, you can start planning your trip!
Volunteering is an exciting way to define your skills and passions, explore the world around you and make an important difference before you head off to college. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll discover.
Suchi Rudra is a nomadic freelance writer who specializes in education, travel, sustainable architecture and business.