If you’re planning a gap year at the moment, you’ll know there are a huge amount of things that everyone tells you that you simply have to do. Things you should do, people you should meet up with, strange and foul sounding drinks you have to try on a beach in Brazil… spend even five minutes on the internet researching gap year ideas and it’s enough to overwhelm anyone. In a bid to simplify some of the anthologies of information that circulates the web, I’d like to discuss volunteering abroad during your gap year in clear and simple terms: the pros and cons.

The Pros: Gap Year Volunteering

Experience Real Life in a Real Community. Something you don’t get with normal ‘gap year travel’ or a holiday abroad, by volunteering you can really learn about a particular culture, lifestyle and country. Through spending a sustained period of time in one place, you can become part of the community by working and living at the heart of it. If you’re looking to experience new things, meet new people and get more than just a fleeting glance of a town or city, volunteering abroad is a great way to do this.

Some more of the Ja Ela team and I at the tourno, Sri Lanka

Some more of the Ja Ela team and I at the tourno, Sri Lanka

Make a Difference in this Big Old World. By completing a volunteer placement abroad you probably won’t achieve world peace or solve the poverty crisis, but you do have the chance to make a real difference to many people’s lives. Let’s say you decide to teach English in a small community in a Kenyan village, you may only teach thirty or so children how to speak English a little better, but by doing this, you are equipping them with skills for life that they can use to find future jobs, travel further afield for work, understand the world better, etc. It might seem like a small initial impact, but any volunteer work helps with community development that will still be improving things generations later.

Give Yourself the Experience of a Lifetime. It sounds like an impossibly big cliché, but volunteering abroad can genuinely be one of the best things you’ll ever do. Ask anyone who has volunteered abroad before, me included, and they’ll tell you just how rewarding, fun and life-changing it was. You’ll learn new skills, meet new people from all over the world and have a lot of fun. The work might be challenging at times, depending on what you decide to do, but I guarantee any difficulties will be well worth the effort. If all else fails, it looks great on your CV.

The Cons: Gap Year Volunteering

The Costs You’ll Have to Cover. Unfortunately, but perhaps obviously, volunteering abroad is not free. Depending on which agency you go through, the costs will vary slightly. However, the vast majority of volunteer agencies offer a lot for the fees they charge. Check individual agencies you’re interested in working with, but the majority will offer support both before and during your placements by trained and experienced advisors, help organising flights, visas, vaccinations, etc., all very important things to consider, but perhaps the most important aspect of this is safety. With an accredited volunteer agency, you are paying (in part) for the knowledge that you will be safe when you’re out there.

Amount of Time Spent in One Single Place. Taking on a volunteer placement during your gap year isn’t something you should do on a whim. You will have to commit a significant amount of

time, usually anywhere from a number of weeks up to a year or beyond. In my opinion at least, the benefits of volunteering outweigh the time you will lose from other travels during your gap year, but it is something to consider.

There Will Be a Lot of Hard work Involved. Stating the obvious, volunteering abroad doesn’t involve lying on the beach with a piña colada in hand; it will involve some real hard work. The choice of what you do is completely up to you, so if you don’t have the biggest muscles I might suggest avoiding heading to projects like building schools and hospitals, but so long as you are confident you can cope with the work you should be fine. Head to where your interests are and your gap year volunteering abroad will be much more worthwhile and enjoyable. You probably won’t even think of it as work if you are really up for it.

Hopefully I haven’t completely put you off volunteering during your gap year. Speak to any alumnus of a volunteer abroad programme and they’ll probably tell you just how fantastically life-changing it was. And they’re probably telling the truth. If you are still interested, I have volunteered with Global Vision International before and can only say good things about them, but take a look online for the type of volunteer placements you are interested in knowing more about, and you’ll find a lot of information to help.