Volunteering Overseas for Gap Year Offers Opportunity, Along With Perspective

A recent U.S. News & World Report notes a growing number of recent graduates are finding direction in volunteer work abroad. Rather than following the typical path of graduating and immediately joining the workforce, young college graduates are often opting for a gap year abroad instead.

Numerous organizations offer people in the U.S. the opportunity to volunteer overseas, either through large, funded volunteer groups or through cultural exchange organizations that charge small fees to coordinate the logistics. The Peace Corps has been one of the prime examples of overseas programming over the past 50 years. This U.S. government-funded agency reports that it currently has more than 9,000 volunteers working around the world, more than ever before.

Many more graduates are looking to find similar experiences abroad through organizations that facilitate volunteer programs with varying schedules as well as diverse professional development opportunities.

The Peace Corps recently released its list of the top colleges for producing international volunteers. Four different schools, topped by the University of Colorado at Boulder, sent more than 100 undergraduates to the program in 2011. George Washington University sent 78 students despite having a small student population.

Peace Corps' deputy communications director Kristina Edmunson explained that many students see the opportunity to volunteer abroad as an opportunity for personal development.

"… Volunteers come back with significant leadership qualities, language skills, and technical skills, " Edmunson told World Report. "They come back with really creative, innovative ideas that take them to that next step in their career."

The broad professional and personal skills acquired when volunteering abroad is perhaps the most valuable asset of such a program. Experiencing work environments and different cultures indicates a level of dedication that can easily raise a candidate's professional profile.

"I know it's funny to say something's a life-changing experience, but it was," Laura Howland, who spent two years teaching sustainable agriculture in Ecuador, told World Report. "You can't get this experience from just working or traveling abroad. It's very much a unique experience."

While the potential career benefits are substantial, they’re clearly not the ultimate point of volunteering abroad. The University of Florida News spoke with some of its Peace Corps participants and found many completely changed by the experience.

"You go into [this experience] thinking you’re doing one thing with your life and you come out with a completely different view of what you want to do," said 26-year-old UF graduate Jessica Childers.