Just about every college student’s study abroad experience consists of the same three things: books, bars and foreign babes. But how can a student break away from a typical time abroad and dig deeper into the cultures that lie beyond American soil?
Volunteering abroad has become the new way to experience the world during college. With school starting back for millions of college students in the next month, information sessions will be held very soon. While some volunteer abroad opportunities are as short as one week, they may last as long as an entire semester and require quite a bit of advanced planning.
One popular way that students choose to volunteer abroad is through alternative break programs that promote the idea of substance-free spring and winter breaks. The alternative break program Break Away has a network of over 100 chapter schools.
Courtney Holder, the coordinator of the alternative breaks program at the University of Maryland, said that the trips allow students from many different campuses to interact with each other.
“Spring break is an especially busy time for students from around the country to volunteer abroad,” she said.
This year, UMD will offer trips to Haiti, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas through the program.
Religious affiliations and independent organizations are also popular ways that students choose to volunteer abroad. Sam Tiburzi, a spring 2012 graduate from University of Maryland, spent his college years going to Honduras to build homes and schools through the organization Students Helping Honduras. He even founded the Students Helping Honduras UMD chapter and served as president until he graduated.
After Tiburzi’s graduation, he traveled back to Honduras for a seven-week volunteer trip and helped with the development of an online merchandise store that will sell SHH apparel as well as merchandise that the citizens of Honduras make by hand.
“My time in SHH was so inspiring that even though I have graduated, I still want to use this project of running the website as a way to stay involved and help the people of Honduras raise money,” he said.
Alex Voynow, a rising sophomore at Vassar College, spent a month in Ghana with the International Volunteer Headquarters partnered with Volunteer Corps Organisation of Ghana. Voynow spent his time teaching, feeding and providing care for 40 children in an orphanage, ages 3-13.
“After learning from those living the Ghanaian culture and from my fellow volunteers hailing from all corners of the world, [I realized] how infinitely much more life has to offer [and] how vast the gamut of human experience is,” Voynow said. “And I view that as an awesome thing.”
Volunteering abroad has become especially popular with students who do not have the time to study abroad for an entire semester.
“I was involved in Greek life, choir, Hillel and many other activities, so I didn’t want to miss out,” said Allie Robertson, a spring 2012 graduate from Rutgers University. “I found out about an eight-day, inexpensive trip to Nicaragua and it was the perfect opportunity.”
Rutgers’ Hillel organized Robertson’s trip, which was run through American Jewish World Service.
“We helped the poor citizens of Nicaragua sustain their economy by building brick ovens so that they could bake bread to eat or sell,” Robertson said. Her trip showed the students how to properly perform acts of charity by working with others to improve lives.
Robertson said her experience inspired her to now do social work for Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition in Washington, D.C.
So, why volunteer abroad? Why not help the people in America, around the corner, in the communities that are familiar?
“I always have to remind people that the only thing that makes me different from a resident of Honduras is a boundary line that someone drew thousands of years ago,” said Tiburzi. “Just because we don’t live near Hondurans doesn’t mean that we can’t help them.”
Voynow had a similar response.
“I wanted to see and immerse myself in a radically different culture, mostly because I strive to view the world outside of the American lense to which I’ve been relegated for the past 18 years,” he said. “Being able to help those children was a truly priceless experience.”
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