The Top 5 Things to Consider When Volunteering Internationally

The decision to serve internationally can be up in the air

By: Matt Aujero, Recruitment Associate

So you want to do serve internationally.  What does that mean?  What are some things you need to think about?  Oh it cost how much?  What about the language?

These are all things I had to think about when I decided I wanted to serve internationally.  And having done it, I decided to make the Top 5 List of Things to consider for graduating students who want to get their feet wet in international waters.
#1: Location, Location, Location
Specific vs. Anywhere
We have to ask the question, are we drawn to a certain area of the world?  Some people know they want to be in the Philippines (shout-out Motherland!) teaching Filipino children.  I know for me, I wanted to go to Latin America and speak Spanish.  For people like us, I recommend looking at programs that only have locations in your desired area.  FrancisCorps, the program I served with, for example, had one international site in Costa Rica.  Knowing that they placed in a specific country helped give me peace in the process.
Other programs like Jesuit Volunteers International or VIDES, on the other hand, ask you to apply to their program, and if you’re accepted, they will place you where they think you fit best.  This could range from Mexico to Africa to China.  If you prefer the “leave it up to God” approach, this is the best way to go.
#2 Language Requirements
So, I have to speak….
When we’re thinking about programs, we have to consider what language requirements there are.  Some programs, for example, provide/require language training before you get there.  Most of these programs are two-year commitments as are the majority of long-term (9 months or more) international programs.  Other programs like mine, require that you are proficient/fluent already in the language spoken in the country, and many of these programs will be one-year commitments.
#3 Leaving Home
Keeping in Contact
The truth is, it will be harder to stay in contact with family and friends in the U.S. when you’re serving internationally.  The biggest thing for me was how I could not text or call any of my friends or family whenever I wanted.  The upside, though, is that technology is better today with software like Skype and G-phone (you can call the U.S. for free from your computer in most countries.)  Plus, there’s something about receiving and writing old-fashioned letters.  Make sure you contact specific programs and ask them about the different ways you can stay in contact.
Going Home
How often you can go home to visit varies from program to program.  There are obviously exceptions for deaths in the family and even weddings, but we have to remember that programs want us to be present in both the community and culture abroad.
Fact: Most long-term international programs require two or more years commitment.
Fiction: That extra year is not worth it.         
For many, like myself, to consider going away for one year is a lot, so the idea of two years may be too much.  We have to remind ourselves that the reason these programs are two years is because it takes that first year to learn the language, culture, and work. It’s not until the second year that we are really immursed in the culture and community and can really excel in our work. 
I admit that the two year fear intimidated me enough to make me only apply to the handful of international programs that are a one year commitment.  A note about these programs is that proficiency/fluency in the country’s spoken language is a must and requirement.  In hindsight though, I was very close to considering staying for a second year, and two of my friends in our program ended up applying for another year of service.  All of us in the house felt like that first year went fast and that we could definitely see ourselves doing two.  Ironic, right?
#4: Application Deadlines
Another fact: most deadlines for international programs are earlier than domestic ones.  For example, many deadlines to apply for domestic programs are in March while many for international are in January.  Make sure you contact your program early and get all of the information about applying and deadlines.  Give yourself plenty of time to put the application together, from getting references to writing answers to the essay questions.  If you start at the beginning of winter break, it will take you most of that month to get everything together.
#5: Fundraising
The truth of the matter is that it can cost you money to serve abroad – anywhere to a $100 to $10,000 depending on the program and how long you serve.  For instance, I had to raise $1,800 for my year, but that combined with my program’s fundraising covered my plane ticket, health insurance, room and board, food money, and even a personal monthly stipend.

Even so, many of us don’t have “Benjamins” just lying around, and coughing up a couple thousand dollars up front can be tough.  That’s why we fundraise, and here are some tips on how to do it:

Write letters
Start off by writing a generic letter of what you want to say about your program and why you want to do it.  Then, make it personal to each aunt, uncle, and family friend you know.  This personal touch is the difference and will take 30-45 minutes.  Include ways that your family and friends can accompany you on mission and be part of the experience with you. But you may get a check for $25 or more for that time put into a well written letter.         

Go to your church and school

I’ve heard of many people appealing to their churches and schools to see if they can help them out.  You’d be surprised how generous your parish priest, school principal or even local Bishop might be.
Be creative
I’ve had friends run half-marathons to raise money.  I’ve also heard of people creating their own charity dinner night, charging per plate of a home-cooked meal of ethnic food of the country they’re going to, then giving a small presentation about what they’re doing.  If you’ve got the will, there will be a way.
So, that’s all I have.  When you’re applying to these programs definitely include your family, friends, and God in the conversation.  The people who know you best will tell you the truth, will see your passion, and in return will be more invested in you and what you’re doing.  And at the end, God will always lead you to where you will be most happy. 
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