Service Internships vs. Volunteering Abroad: What’s Right for You?

Service Internships vs. Volunteering Abroad: What’s Right for You?

There are many opportunities available to travel abroad, further your career prospects and broaden your life experiences during your break period. It can sometimes be very difficult to decide which opportunity is best for you. One of the decisions you may have to make is whether it will be best for you to volunteer or intern abroad. To make this choice, it helps to understand the differences between the two options.

Volunteering Abroad


There are many different flavors of volunteering, with the most common options consisting of simply lending a hand at your local sports club or school. With service, consistent mutual benefits are exchanged, and this ultimately adds to creating a better community and a better individual. Volunteering abroad is exactly the same, and you’ll be enhancing your experience by going international. This will provide you with the opportunity to cooperate and add value across different societies, languages and cultures, thus developing your global confidence.

Volunteering abroad is a great experience for anyone, irrespective of your age or life stage. Many volunteers return from their trip feeling that they’ve grown as a person, having a broader perspective about the lives of others around the globe.

Volunteer abroad trips can be taken whenever it is convenient. That’s why they’re a great option for someone who wants to make a difference in the world. If there are specific time constraints in your life, choosing an alternative break trip may be a good fit. Many organizations offer volunteer trips abroad for different lengths of time, from a few weeks to more than a year.

Most of the volunteer abroad organizations allow you to choose how your trip should be structured. They will assist you in tailoring the journey to meet your unique interests and needs. Options available include sight-seeing excursions on weekends, cultural classes and language lessons. Some organizations will also arrange your meals and lodging, enabling you to focus on volunteering, learning a new language, cultural immersion, and other interests.

Although volunteering abroad is not directly focused on career or education, it is a great way to gain practical experience. Living in and interacting with a foreign community will provide you with insight and perspective that you won’t likely acquire while volunteering in your own country. This experience is a great way to keep your body and mind active while doing something worthwhile on your break from work or school.Some schools and universities even offer academic credits for a volunteer abroad trip.

Why Should You Volunteer Abroad?


No matter your experience or life situation, volunteering abroad will allow you to take your unique skills to a community that needs additional support across a wide range of projects. While adding value to a community is in itself great, the best part about volunteering is the cultural exchange that happens – not only are you giving something, but you are also getting something back. Working in foreign communities will expand your perspective on the world, allow you to learn from others and do your part to improve the living situation of real people at the same time.

Once you’ve decided to volunteer abroad, you need to know and understand what you want to get out of it. This will determine what type of volunteer work you should apply for. You may for example decide to volunteer abroad based on a specific destination or country you’ve always wanted to explore, or alternatively, by the type of volunteer work you want to do.

Living Abroad as a Volunteer

How much support you get while volunteering abroad will depend on the organization you use and the program you select. Although volunteering through an organization will cost more than going for some programs that are virtually free, it does have the advantage that the program will be better structured and provide more support.

These services typically include being met by a local team member when you arrive at the airport and being taken to your accommodation. These typically consists of local homestays or volunteer style hostels. You will also be supported by placement staff and the local coordinator on a day to day basis while volunteering. An organization is also super handy when you want to plan adventures in your free time.

If you decide to volunteer at a smaller program that costs a lot less, you won’t have the level of support described above and may have to figure things out on your own. Although this could be a thrilling experience all on its own, not everyone is cut out for this, and ultimately the route you pick will depend on your own personality and preferences.

Key Benefits of Volunteering

  • Helping communities improve and thrive

  • Making global connections

  • Obtaining hands on experience

  • Be part of collective involvement

  • Achieve personal growth

Internship Abroad

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Traditional internships tend to be office bound working a 9 to 5 within your hometown or country. One the other hand, the wonderful world of internships abroad will allow you to experience relevant opportunities in a global setting. This will build your foreign language proficiency, employ-ability, global network, and even cultural intelligence. All of this, and you get the opportunity to explore the world around you.

Internships are great for gaining practical job experience before joining the workforce or striking out on your own. An internship is also an excellent experience for students in high school or college who are not quite sure of their career interests. They will allow you to learn from and shadow working professionals, and will help you decide for yourself if a specific profession is something you can see yourself doing. Doing an internship in another country has the added benefit of exposing you to cultural practices and ideas that may be different from your own.

An internship abroad is an ideal opportunity for students doing a gap year, or students wanting to supplement their academics during a break from school. Building international connections can be very beneficial for your career, and can also be personally rewarding.

If you would like to intern and are still in school, a study abroad office may be able to coordinate an internship for you. For unpaid internships, it’s worthwhile to find out if you’ll get academic credits for participating. Internships are also coordinated by many third-party companies and organizations.

Types of Internships Abroad

Taking an internship abroad might sound scary, however, it is not as difficult as you may think. There are many companies and organizations that are geared towards this and simplify the process dramatically. They will typically provide you with customized internship placement and all the support you need.

Internship placement is based on a wide range of career field options available. Internships focusing on soft-skill development are available, and these typically include an academic experiential learning framework. Modules are associated with themes, objectives, and skills relating back to your career focus.

Living Abroad as an Intern

Once the academic side of your internship has been taken care of, you must be wondering how you’ll be living abroad as an intern. If you’re traveling with a reputable organization, this should all be part of your internship package.

Internship programs abroad typically include accommodation (sharing houses with other interns or in homestays). You will also be supported by a supervisor, internship coordinator, and other team members who will provide you with ongoing help. They will also help with scheduling extras such as language lessons and tourism excursions.

Key Benefits of an Internship

  • Global networks

  • Career readiness

  • Professional growth

  • Cultural intelligence

Can I Volunteer and Intern Abroad at the Same Time?

Yes, it may be possible to volunteer and intern abroad at the same time. However, most individuals prefer to either volunteer or do an internship. There is nothing stopping you from doing both at the same time, aside from scheduling conflicts.

Internships and volunteering are somewhat different in that they focus on different outcomes. There are however consistent benefits that are shared between the two options:

  • Personal and career growth opportunities

  • Cultural immersion

  • Affordable options

  • Flexible time commitments

  • Proven safety record

  • Dedicated expert support

  • Global community

So Should I Volunteer or Intern?

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The option that’s best for you depends on your primary goal.

Volunteering is the best option for you if you want to gain life experiences in an informal environment and absorb a new culture together with like-minded individuals set on giving back and self-discovery.

An internship is the best option for you if you want an experience that focuses mainly on exposure to your professional field and career development, with the possibility to gain credits or broaden your skills.

For some individuals, the direction they want to take is clear cut. For others, the options are one and the same, so there’s no wrong decision in selecting one or the other.