Planning your gap year: The most frequently asked questions about volunteering abroad as part of a gap year
Having attended dozens of events over the spring, talking to sixth form interest groups, speaking at seminars with parents and attending gap fairs, we are able to summarise the answers to the most frequently asked questions about planning your gap year and volunteering abroad as part of this.?
What is the minimum time I can volunteer for?
We recommend a minimum of a month in conservation projects. Two weeks is possible in some conservation projects, so it can also be a short break over the summer holidays.
We recommend a minimum of two months for those working with children and vulnerable adults. In these projects you are building relationships and trust, and will also have some investment made in you by local staff, so it is only fair to return this with a longer volunteering commitment. Some projects will require a minimum commitment of 3 months based on the nature of a volunteer role.
The general rule is the longer the better and on average our volunteers go for 3 months. As a volunteer living in a new country, effectively in a new job, you will experience a lot of change. It will take a while to get comfortable in your new surrounds and develop confidence in your volunteer role, so the longer you stay the more confidence you will develop, the more enjoyable it becomes and the greater the difference you can make.
Can I go for a year?
It is possible, but for those gap year volunteers with more budget and time we would recommend 6 months initially, working across two or even three projects. In this way two projects benefit from your added capacity and you have the benefit of learning from multiple experiences.
Sometimes this may be two different projects, such as teaching and a conservation project, meaning you see two different sides to a country. Or you can even travel between two different countries!
Either way, doing multiple projects means you stay energised and fresh, and you can always extend your stay if you wish. 12 months is a big commitment that we only recommend for mature volunteers.
Should I go before, during or after Uni?
Only you can answer this. There is never a perfect time, as there is always a natural pull towards continuing your studies or career.
We see more and more schools encouraging students to consider a gap year before University, to take on more life skills and experiences, but the time has to be right for you.
Think about whether you feel confident enough to travel independently. Does the idea of being away from family and friends excite you or fill you with dread? Will you be happy to work hard in a volunteering project abroad?
You will be taking on quite a challenge volunteering abroad; for some this will be the perfect opportunity to develop yourself while helping others. For others you might choose to wait until you have more life experience.
You might have an overwhelming desire to travel and take time out, have some fun and think about the future. Volunteering can be a very formative experience, helping you gain a better understanding of yourself, your passions and therefore a study or career choice; so it might be better to go for it sooner rather than later.
For others volunteering may support your further education, being a valuable part of a language course for example, or giving you experience with your vocation, (as a part or newly qualified therapist or teacher for example). This may mean that volunteering during or after Uni is a great choice.
Can I do anything I like?
Within reason, yes, but together we need to make sure the project is well matched to you, taking account of your experience, study and career goals, and any strong personal preferences.
The variety of projects we support means there is usually a project to suit everyone. An important role we play, especially with younger volunteers, is to make sure you are in the project best suited to you. We do online interviews with all our volunteers, to get to know you and make sure we make the very best choice of project together. This sometimes means recommending a project that would not have been a natural first choice, but one you will enjoy more.
There are a broad range of teaching roles for example, some with more responsibility for the class and some with less. Each one has its nuances that means some will suit you more than others, based on the nature of the volunteer role, location or accommodation for example. That’s why we believe talking to you before you book is a vital part of the volunteer placement.
[For more advice on choosing a project read our recent article on this topic]
When can I go? Are there set dates to leave?
All of our projects are sustainable community projects and so they exist irrespective of our volunteers. So within reason volunteers can organise dates to suit them, as long as there are spaces available (we don’t want an excess of volunteers swamping a project).
Of course some projects like the turtle conservation and the whale research are based on a breeding season, and schools will have term times that need to be accounted for.
When do I need to book?
We recommend having your volunteer placement booked a minimum of 6 months in advance, and ideally 9-12 months. This gives you the time to consider all the options thoughtfully, prepare your finances, and importantly research & prepare for your volunteer role.
We do manage to support volunteers going out on just a few month’s notice, but this is never ideal and can leave you exposed to higher flight costs.
Can I volunteer with a friend?
It is possible to volunteer with a friend, but of course we make sure you share the same ambitions and preferences. What might seem great for one person might be less suitable for another, and this can lead to challenges once you are out there.
Some projects are ideal for two volunteers and it can be a real benefit as you feed off each other’s ideas. Alternatively, there are some locations where you might stay in the same volunteer accommodation but work on different projects, so sharing part of the experience but working more independently.
Will I be with other volunteers?
This is one of your preferences that we want to understand, so we place you in a project that meets your requirements.
Some projects we support may have other volunteers there, some may not. Some volunteers want to be with others to enjoy a social experience, other volunteers want to see less of other volunteers so they can integrate more with the local staff and culture.
In many locations the volunteers share the same accommodation, so even if you are not on a project together you will have other volunteers to socialise with in the evenings.
What support will there be out there?
One of the most important members of the Outreach team is the local country coordinator, who is there to meet the volunteer, provide an orientation to the location, health & safety briefing, introduction to the project and be an ongoing coach, friend or parent to each volunteer.
Our Outreach country coordinators help ensure that things go right and offer knowledgeable local assistance in the event anything goes wrong.
Can I do this while back-packing?
Many of our gap year volunteers choose to volunteer as part of a longer back-packing experience. For example volunteering in Ecuador before going on to tour South America. This ensures there is a really meaningful element to your adventure, giving you a very different perspective on the country you visit – a working guest of the community, rather than a tourist.
We recommend volunteering at the start of your travels, as it helps you develop the confidence and skills to then go off independently.