Both volunteering and interning abroad offer great opportunities to travel to a new country, develop your skills and really immerse yourself in its culture and language. While the two options appear similar at first glance, there are some important differences that will influence your choice.
Service to the community
If you are motivated by serving a cause, whether that be helping other people or saving an endangered species, volunteering can be a powerful and effective use of your time. You will see first-hand the difference your efforts can make and form bonds of friendship that could last a lifetime. It’s possible to have a similar experience through some internships, for example a medical internship abroad, but most internships will be focused on working within a business and developing your own skills.
Skills for work
Often the classroom-based knowledge that you have spent years assimilating means little to employers on its own once you leave education. You need to prove that you are capable of utilising it in the real world. An internship enables you to demonstrate that you can work to deadlines, act on instructions and be a reliable member of a team. It’s possible to demonstrate the same skills through a volunteer project, but employers may believe that the demands placed on you were less than they would be in the workplace.
Whether you choose a volunteer project or an internship, by carefully investigating your chosen scheme you should be able to ensure that you will have the opportunity to gain and practice key transferrable skills for the workplace. A placement that doesn’t test your ability to cope under pressure is of little value in preparing you for the world of work.
Both internships and volunteer placements vary in their duration from a few weeks to several months or more. In practice, volunteer placements tend to offer greater opportunities for shorter stays, which may be an important factor to consider if you have commitments back home.
While most internships are unpaid in that they do not offer a salary, they can be less expensive to access than volunteer projects. If you do not have extensive savings this could be the key point that makes an internship an affordable option for you. Volunteer projects are obviously unpaid but for a large number of schemes in the developing world, you may even end up paying a project fee in order to participate. This could be a fee charged by a third party placement organisation or by the voluntary project on the ground.
Weighing up the options
The decision about whether to volunteer or to intern will depend on your motivation for living abroad, finance and choice of career. The most important part of your decision though will be which placement is right for you. Take the time to ask placement providers questions about your role and responsibilities as well as the support you will receive. Ensure you contact previous volunteers or interns too to find out what their experience was like. Armed with this knowledge you’ll make the choice that’s right for you.