The famous “gap year” volunteer—the student who wants to experience the world either before or during college—is a relatively new concept. The benefits of the gap year for young people are enormous. Many of them simply need time to grow. They need life experience and are excited for something challenging and bold, something different, beyond the scope of the familiar. Back in the early 1990s there weren’t a lot of formal opportunities for students wanting to further their experience and education overseas. Dr. Peter Slowe, a geography professor with some adventurous students, took it upon himself to find an international placement for them. Back then, there wasn’t an Internet full of volunteer organizations vying for volunteers. There weren’t thousands of great, sustainable volunteering non-profits out there for the average student. Instead, Slowe set up his students with some academics he knew in Romania. They took off to teach English and Projects Abroad was born.
Every year, thousands (maybe even millions) of students decide to volunteer abroad. They do it for many reasons—they’re not ready for college, their families needs time to save money, they’re interested in studying abroad, or they simply want to give back. Whatever the reasons, all of these young people need help finding the right opportunities. Some of them want to study while others simply want to live in a new place and to experience a foreign culture. There is nothing more important during this time in a person’s life than finding a good match. I firmly believe that traveling is a critical part of anyone’s education and traveling alone as a young person is transformative. For many, it’s the first time they will be independent, learning how to navigate a new place with a foreign language. Young people have different needs than adults. They may need guidance—program personnel they can rely on for advice or a homestay family they can go to for emotional support. Each young person has unique needs and if these needs are met in an international volunteer context, each young person can thrive.
As someone with a limited budget and an unlimited imagination, I’m always attracted to low-cost volunteer experiences with organizations that still hold themselves to top-of-the-line standards. There aren’t a ton of organizations that do both and understandably so. It costs money to be idealistic. I feel so jaded just writing that. I’m reminded of my college freshman self, that girl who was so determined never to get paid for her art. Back in those days I was making a very popular podcast with thousands of viewers, but I refused any kind of compensation. I was making it for the right reasons! I wasn’t about to sell out! I think a lot of the volunteer organizations that share that idealism fail. They fail because they can’t support their staff, they can’t fund new projects, and they can’t invest in marketing or publicity. On the opposite extreme are the greedy organizations—the groups that charge exorbitant fees and pocket most of them. They may look professional and flashy, and for good reason: they’ve got plenty of money. Clearly there is a happy medium here, an organization that remembers the details but doesn’t sweat the luxury.
This week I’ve been exploring the interesting intersections between tourism and learning. In some cases, like Return to Freedom (the American wild horse sanctuary) and the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, volunteer tourists learn directly through work. They help take care of animals, help with research, work on the farm, and help conceive of new sustainable projects. In other cases, like the Texas A&M Volunteer Entomology Training Program, volunteers learn in the traditional way, in the classroom. At EcoTeach, the subject of today’s article, volunteer tourists learn in a combination of ways—through wilderness expeditions (a classroom in the forest), conservation work, cultural exchange, and guided exploration.
In my research over the past few months, I’ve come across an astonishingly wide variety of volunteering organizations. Many of them have a specific demographic target: college students, established professionals, the under 18 crowd, or retirees. From a business perspective, it makes good sense to choose a niche. It’s easier to plan for the needs of a specific group than for the needs of all. It’s also easier to market to one demographic—you can focus your efforts on a narrower field of publications, television programs, social media platforms or events. This strategy is ideal for the volunteer looking to find a group of similarly situated people with which to travel and work, but what about the volunteer who wants a more diverse experience?