Students Learn About the World and Themselves by Volunteering Overseas
At a time when entrance requirements for university faculties have become more selective, and full-time, fulfilling employment has become harder to come by, many Canadian high school students are looking for new and more ways to diversify their experiences, enhance their resumes and make an impression on admission officers and potential employers. Giving up idle summers of fun and frolic in order to volunteer overseas might be one of the best ways to do that.
Of course, the experience of volunteering overseas does much more than pad a resume. In most cases, it is a life-altering, unforgettable experience that benefits young adults in innumerable and immeasurable ways. Without exception, volunteering overseas fosters self-sufficiency, adaptability and responsibility. At its most basic level, it provides opportunities to learn a new language, develop leadership skills, make new friends, see the world and learn about other cultures and other ways of life. Overseas volunteering also provides an unprecedented opportunity to make a small but positive, enduring and sustainable impact on the life of an individual or of a disadvantaged community.
“Volunteering overseas is a way to explore a new country … see how families abroad live compared to back home in Canada, and get an understanding of differences in education, cultures, day to day living and more,“ says Ashima Dhingra, the Director of Projects Abroad’s Canadian division, based in Toronto.
Projects Abroad (PA) is one of several organizations dedicated to creating outstanding overseas volunteer experiences. Since its founding in 1992, the company has arranged for more than 100,000 volunteers, individually and in groups, to work for various lengths of time and on various kinds of projects in 30 different developing countries across Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the South Pacific.
“Volunteers can choose their country of interest and projects they would like to participate in.” explains Dhingra. “The projects can range from building a school or assisting teachers in a school, to conservation work, or to more career oriented service projects such as medicine, law and human rights.”
Her organization, Dhingra adds, can match almost any interest or passion to an overseas project, whether that interest is sea turtles, mental health, organic fruit, special education, carpentry or conservation. All of the projects, no matter how short term, are designed to have a long term, positive, social, environmental and economic impact on the communities in which they take place.
While PA attracts volunteers of all ages, many of its most enthusiastic participants are high school students, most of who choose to join one of the organization’s High School Special programs. These High School Specials are two to four week programs that, unlike other PA programs, start and end on specific dates in the summer. By setting specific start and end times, PA ensures that its young participants will be working, living and socializing with other people of the same age, thus enhancing their overall experience.
In the summer of 2017, more than 1,700 high school students – including 300 Canadians – participated in these High School Specials. Gabby D’Amico was one of them. The 17-year-old, grade 12 student at Oakville Trafalgar High School in southern Ontario spent three weeks volunteering in Nepal with a medical outreach team. “I chose to volunteer with the medicine project specifically because it is something that I want to get into after high school,” D’Amico says. “I wanted to get a look into how medicine is used and practiced in a third world country.” And that is exactly what she was able to do. “I was very fortunate to be able to see a lot of things during my placement,” D’Amico continues. “I was able to see two live births, and many procedures and operations.” But D’Amico was not just an observer. Among other responsibilities, she was tasked with checking children’s teeth for cavities and teaching them how to brush their teeth.
In some cases, depending on what the project is and where it is located, student volunteers are billeted for the course of their stay with local families. D’Amico, however, was based in a hotel with other Projects Abroad high school volunteers, who came from a variety of countries and were involved with a variety of projects. “Staying in the hotels was a great way to get to know everyone,” she says. “There also was a good amount of time allotted for socializing. Every night we would have about four to five hours of relaxing or playing games. (And) on the weekend trips, we had the perfect amount of time to see everything we wanted to see and do everything we wanted to do.”
“We understand that young volunteers travelling abroad need structure, a safe environment, and support from qualified staff,” explains Dhingra. “With this in mind, we have tailored our High School Specials to provide a full timetable of events to keep the volunteers busy. The volunteers spend every day with PA’s professional staff and mentors, and are never left alone.
Like the Projects Abroad organization, Global Leadership Adventures also is committed to ensuring that its student volunteers enjoy many opportunities to get to know one another, as well as the locals, customs and culture of their new environment. Although based in the United States, Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) has arranged for hundreds of Canadian high school students to volunteer overseas in countries as diverse as Ghana, Guatemala, Bali and South Africa and Spain.
By strictly adhering to its mandate of combining community service with hands-on-learning and adventure, GLA continually influences and impassions its young participants to do good work, make connections, listen, learn, lead and contribute their energy, expertise, ideas and labour to the projects at hand.
“Leadership development is at the heart of every GLA program,” says Ali Zimmerman, a GLA enrollment specialist. “We empower students to discover what they are passionate about, and teach them how to begin affecting change within themselves, their communities, and the world. Through group discussions, meaningful service projects, workshops and excursions, they leave stronger leaders, and are inspired to transform the world.”
GLA also ensures that all participants feel safe in their unfamiliar surroundings. “To ensure our students health and safety, as well as their families’ peace of mind, we have implemented the GLA Five-Point Safety System,” explains Zimmerman. This system ensures that student participants have access to secure lodging, careful supervision, healthy and hygienic meals and water, safe transportation and expert local knowledge. “Part of the GLA difference is that our programs are run with our in-country staff and partners who have intimate knowledge of the host community and live there year-round,” Zimmerman adds. This ensures that the programs support community-led initiatives that are sensitive to the local culture.
Both GLA and PA have comprehensive application processes to ensure students have the requisite maturity, motivation, expectations and character to live on their own, away from their families, in unfamiliar surroundings and among unfamiliar people. Both organizations have rolling deadlines, although they advise applicants to make sure to apply early enough in order to give themselves enough time to access vaccinations and visas if necessary. Ghana, for example, requires Canadian visitors to apply for and receive their visas before entering the country, while Nepal invites Canadians to apply for their visas once they arrive.
All participants travelling overseas must also have passports that are valid for at least six months after the final date of international travel date. In Canada, passport applications submitted by mail are usually processed within four weeks. A 10 year passport costs $160 for Canadians 16 years or older.
Tuition fees for both GLA and PA’s programs range from about $2,000 to $5,000, depending on the destination, type of project and project duration. Airfare is not included in this price. GLA offers limited scholarships based on need, and both organizations offer fundraising guides and tips. “Program fees include all the basic things that you will need while you are away – three meals each day, accommodation, comprehensive travel insurance, airport pickup and drop-off, 24/7 support and assistance from our full-time local staff,” says Dhingra.
Knowing that all the details have been looked after, the high school volunteers, and their parents back home, can relax and focus entirely on the work at hand, whether that work is upgrading an ancient water system, collecting data on marine diversity, constructing a cowshed, building a library, planting a garden or painting a mural.
“Volunteering was truly an amazing experience,” says Gabby D’Amico, “It will truly change the way you look at the world.”
By: Sharon Chisvin