When I decided to take a gap year by volunteering abroad, there were many motives behind my decision.
The noise in my head included a desire to do something I haven’t done before, to explore the world, see how people live in other places, just to name a few.
That was how I was thinking before leaving. When I got back home after a year, I realized that I have gained much more and much different stuff.
In the rest of this article, I am going to tell you how things have worked out for me in terms of benefits.
My volunteering gap year is one of the most important life events because of them. They make me divide my life before and after my gap year in the same way I divide my life before and after the first day in school or a similar event.
It doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily reap the same benefits from your own adventure. You are a different person, with your own desires and needs, and your adventure will be unique to you.
Only one thing is certain – your life won’t be the same after the gap year.
From my own experience and the experience of my volunteer friends, it is very likely that you’ll get at least the following benefits, if not more.
All of them together can be called personal growth, but one by one, they are…
1. Make a Positive Impact
Making a positive impact makes people feel good about themselves. That’s normal.
You must have felt great at some point in your life when you have helped someone else.
Well, the positive impact you’ll make by volunteering your skills and time to people in need is many times bigger than that.
The feeling when you cause someone smile, save a dog, or maybe see that your students have learned what you wanted to teach them is a wonderful experience. That’s what makes many people want to offer labor and skills for free, after all.
But, even if making a positive impact is not your biggest motive to go abroad and volunteer, be sure that after a while you will realize that this is one of the best things about it, whatever your initial motives may be.
It is important to note that not all volunteering projects cause a good impact on the environment and the community.
There are some projects that exist only to cater to tourists who want to get the same good feeling about themselves in a week or two.
These projects should be avoided by ethically-minded people.
2. Travel On a Budget
Exploring the world is expensive, but volunteering makes it affordable.
The free volunteering projects enable you to travel the world on a small budget or, on rare occasions, on no budget at all.
That’s why many travelers choose to volunteer their time and skills in exchange for free accommodation, meals, sometimes even flights and pocket money.
Accommodation usually consumes most of the travel budget, so if you cut down that cost, you’ll have an adventure on the cheap.
What you thought that was reachable only to rich people with rich parents, suddenly becomes within your reach as well.
Cheap travel is a legitimate reason to choose to volunteer abroad. Moralists may argue that you have to go there only with the purest motives to help people, but as we already discussed, even making a positive impact has a feel-good motivation behind it.
Your potential hosts know that free travel brings them many helping hands and they gladly accept it and do their best to make the trip as cheap as possible to volunteers.
They use whatever premises they have available to host people, provide them with as much food as possible, and try to get funding to provide even more.
During my gap year in France, my host organization lent me a bike, allowed me to use the car when necessary, and connected me with the right people when I needed something they couldn’t provide.
All the time, they did know that free travel was one of the main reasons that brought me there. And they were fine with it.
3. Take Time Away From Your Life
Taking time away from your life is often the purpose of taking a gap year.
Going abroad is the easiest way to do it. It allows you to leave your life behind and try something else for a change.
You won’t be doing your everyday routine anymore, you won’t see your family and friends every day, and you’ll be surrounded by a completely different environment.
Engaging in a volunteering project will make that make the process much faster.
First and foremost, you’ll be doing something that you usually do not do. Of course, you’ll be providing your current skills, but you’ll do it in a different context and probably with a different purpose in mind.
Second, you’ll do it in a different culture. Even going to a neighboring country brings certain cultural differences and you’ll feel it right from the beginning.
Moreover, you’ll be around people you’ve never met before.
These new people are your new lifelong friends, you just don’t know that yet.
The best thing is that you’ll be part of a new community right from the beginning, which cuts down the time to find new friends and enjoy life in the new location.
It is nice to take away some time from your life. For me, it had a healing effect. It put my life into perspective and made my thoughts clearer. By the end of it, I knew what I needed to do next to put my life in the right direction.
I believe it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t take a gap year abroad.
4. Make New Friends
Happiness is real only when shared.
People make life rich and volunteering is here to help you make it richer.
As long as you do not avoid interaction with people, you can’t avoid making new friends while volunteering. Both introverts and extroverts will eventually find their friends.
Long-term volunteers make friends among both fellow volunteers and coworkers.
Staying in the same place for a few months inevitably leads to getting to know your neighbors, the guys in the nearest cafe or the local market sellers.
I was never alone while volunteering abroad.
We stuck to each other with the other volunteers in my organization, so I always had someone to talk to, go out, make short day trips, travel around the country, or do anything else.
Aside from them, I made plenty of other friends among the locals. I met one, then I met their friends, and went to some event where we met more people… you get the idea.
If you volunteer short-term only for a few weeks, you won’t be alone either.
Short-term volunteers always stick to each other because they know only each other and no one else.
They do not meet as many locals as the long-term volunteers because they don’t stay as much time but being all the time with them inevitably creates a strong bond.
Imagine that you are somewhere out there and you know no one. Well, other volunteers are in the same situation as you – they are out there, know no one, and hope that you’ll be their friend.
Take that chance and you’ll never be alone and make lifelong friends.
5. Learn a New Language (Or Improve It)
Speaking a second language is a valuable asset.
It allows you to communicate with people who don’t speak a second language, it looks good in your CV and provides you with an insight into another culture.
Speaking the local language is very important for cultural immersion.
By learning how locals speak, you’ll learn how they think.
When I first arrived in France I new just a few words in French. After four months I could speak a bit and it completely changed my perception of the local culture.
Suddenly I could talk to more people, understand and absorb their perspective.
After two more months, I could understand them even better.
When the whole year had passed, my perception of France was completely different than the one I had before arriving there and speaking the local language played a major role in that.
Volunteering will make the language learning process faster because, for most tasks, it will be necessary to learn at least a few sentences.
If you only backpack during your gap year, you’ll end up mostly in touristy places where most people speak English or any other language the tourists speak. You won’t need the local one.
But, that’s not the case with volunteer travel. Many placements won’t require a language, but learning some will take you a long way ahead.
Needless to say, but if you are not a native English speaker, you’ll have lots of opportunities to improve your English.
And it is not as difficult as it may seem.
According to a blog post on language learning by Tim Ferriss, by learning only the 300 most common words of a language, you’ve learned the words used in 70% of the communication.
By learning 2000 words, you already know the words used in 90% of the communication.
Now it doesn’t look scary, does it?
6. Obtain New Skills
Yes, you will volunteer your current skills on your placement, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing new to learn.
Also, you may work on something that is completely new for you and in that case, there is a lot to be learned.
Volunteers who belong to the latter group usually are young people with little or no volunteering experience at all.
They join the programs aimed at young people, which normally doesn’t require possessing any skills.
If you are one of them, you may use the volunteering to see if any particular job is right for you.
When I volunteered, I met young people who took their volunteering gap year to do work they could eventually choose to be their profession.
They were doing it before enrolling to university.
That way, they could learn how much they want to do that job and whether it is worth investing times and money in getting a degree about that.
If they choose that career later, their gap year will look nice on their resume.
People who provide their work experience and skills abroad for free do not go home without learning anything either.
They network with colleagues from all over the world, learn how things are being done somewhere else, and encounter situations they normally do not encounter while working home.
Whatever situation you’ll be put in, it will be something new for you. Those new situations are the ones that make you grown, both personally and professionally.
7. Immerse Yourself With a New Culture
This is the cliche of international travel, but it couldn’t be truer for volunteer travel. Volunteer work requires living and sharing with the local community and that leads to immersion with the local culture that backpacking and other ways of travel do not provide.
Even if immersing with the culture is not important to you, you cannot escape it.
When I arrived in France to volunteer, I was primarily interested in doing social work, cheap travel and having lots of fun. I wasn’t interested in the country itself very much.
After a year, I ended up loving everything French. I loved the language, the way people work, the way they spend their free time, the way they think about certain stuff… and many other things that make a culture.
That’s what cultural immersion is. You become part of the community, absorb from them a lot without noticing, and suddenly you realize that you think differently and are part of a new culture.
But also, you have become a global citizen.
8. Make Memories
Gap years leave mark on people’s lives. It is one of those things that make you live so intensely that it is impossible to forget how good it was.
To compare it with anything, think about first love, first time going abroad (if any), the first day in university, or that time when you got your favorite toy as a present.
The times spent with the residents of the shelter where I volunteered, the parties with my friends, the endless conversations with my friends, the travels all around France, all made memories that are still dear to my heart. I gladly remember every event and every person during that year.
I enjoyed it and I still love it.
And I love when, occasionally, I talk to my volunteer friends or colleagues from those times and recreate those memories with them.
They love it as well. I have yet to meet a person that has done volunteer travels and has no nice memories.