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Tips on volunteering overseas
15 April 2008
by Emily Green

If you've thought of spending some time doing volunteer work or teaching overseas, your twenties may be the time to pursue it.

For many, the age offers a unique period of financial and personal independence -- free of children and entrenched professional careers. For some, time overseas can provide a respite from professional life, while for others it may clarify career ambitions.

When Dan Cwirka, age 26, applied for the Peace Corps after graduating from college four years ago, he did not have big ambitions. "Part of the reason I applied was I didn't need to think about what I was doing for the next two years. I could just go out and help out," Mr. Cwirka says.

While in Namibia, he combined his interest in music and humanitarian aid to work with local musicians to record songs to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. The project has since evolved into a nonprofit group, Humanitarian Notes.

The Peace Corps (PeaceCorps.gov) covers participants' expenses for their two-year stints and is one of the most well known international volunteer initiatives. Other programs vary widely in cost, from nothing to several thousand dollars, and in time, from a week to three years. In general, programs with no fees are more selective, lengthier and more demanding.

Specialists Wanted

Two programs targeted to doctors, engineers and other skilled professionals are Volunteers for Prosperity (online at VolunteersforProsperity.gov), administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and United Nations Volunteers (unv.org). Attorneys can apply to work overseas as part of the American Bar Association's Rule of Law Initiative (abanet.org/rol).

Another option: teaching English as a second language (ESL). Uncertified teachers will find landing a job in Western Europe near impossible, but opportunities exist just about everywhere else. The pay isn't huge but usually is enough to cover your in-country expenses.

For articles and resources, go to TransitionsAbroad.com and, on the left, click on "Teaching English."

Short Stints

If you're looking to volunteer for only a few weeks, you'll be hard-pressed to find a program without fees. A typical two-week program runs around $2,600 and covers all in-country costs, including medical insurance. For help choosing, try VolunteerInternational.org and idealist.org/volunteer/travel.html.

What you get for the fees on such programs, says Marisa Annunziata, a coordinator for New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Cross Cultural Solutions, is that you typically "don't have to worry about where you are going to stay, where you are going to eat dinner, who's going to pick you up at the airport."

Among other overseas options, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (wwoof.org) has information about volunteering on farms around the world in exchange for room and board.

Some nonprofit organizations that either partially or entirely cover volunteers' expenses aren't for the faint of heart. For instance, in return for at least one year of work providing "protective accompaniment" to human-rights workers in a conflict zone, Peace Brigades International (online at peacebrigades.org) gives volunteers a stipend and pays for housing and travel expenses.