Volunteering abroad and high school exchanges are an excellent way for teens and high school students under age 18 to learn about other cultures, build new interests, and of course—do some good. I first learned about volunteer travel programs for teens in college, when my friend’s 15-year-old sister, Hailey, traveled to Costa Rica to study sea turtles. We’ll use Hailey’s experience volunteering abroad to learn about the process of finding a teen travel program, the importance of safety for teens volunteering overseas, and recommendations for specific under age 18 volunteer programs, including service trips to Cuba, which are becoming extremely popular now.
Hailey’s parents agonized over whether to allow their daughter to travel without them, and must have asked hundreds of questions to teachers, other parents, and the tour group before they signed her permission form.
Safety is naturally a big concern for parents who are thinking about letting their teens volunteer abroad and finding a program that caters to teens and has robust volunteer safety practices in place is critical in researching programs. A perfect example of such a program is International Volunteer HQ, which focuses on safety before and during your volunteer abroad program, with online safety training, onsite Risk Management Policy, emergency response, and lots of other resources to ensure a safe and fun trip abroad.
Another organization with a fantastic track record in safety is Global Leadership Adventures, whose Five-Point Safety System ™ focuses on secure housing, caring supervision, healthy meals and pure water, expert local knowledge, and safe and comfortable transportation; think of them almost as a “Peace Corps for Teens”.
After two weeks abroad with her classmates, Hailey came back thrilled with the work she accomplished, the new friends she made, and the opportunity to put her Spanish lessons to practical use. Given Hailey’s interest in expanding her Spanish language skills, an alternative option that her parents may have considered is Maximo Nivel’s Summer Spanish Camp in Costa Rica, which is a highly structured program to learn Spanish, participate in sports, explore Costa Rica, and engage in community service in a safe and guided environment (i.e. 24/7 chaperones).
Parents: whether you have a teen who is looking for a Peace Corps alternative and wants to volunteer abroad with a school or youth group, or if you’re looking for a new twist on family vacations, this article is for you.
Is Under 18 too Young to Volunteer Abroad?
Volunteer programs have different requirements as to how young a volunteer participant can be. For example, the Peace Corps requires that participants be at least 18 years old and most of their projects require a college degree. Some programs may also require an adult guardian to be present if the volunteer is under 18.
Plan My Gap Year is an excellent option for younger travelers. While the minimum age for most of their programs is 18, there are many opportunities for students aged 17 and up, including trips to Bali, Ghana, India, and more.
Global Vision International (GVI), a highly respected volunteer organization that has been sending volunteers overseas since 1997, is an alternative to the Peace Corps and offers volunteer programs for participants as young as 15. GVI offers 20 different types of projects for under 18 volunteers, ranging from marine conservation in Greece to learning Spanish in Costa Rica.
Maximo Nivel is another highly respected volunteer organization that accepts participants as young as 15 through its “Spanish Camp” program. Teens can participate in a Spanish immersion program and have the option to spend 3 to 4 hours each volunteering in the host community as well.
And Agape Volunteers offers lots of meaningful travel opportunities, including a wonderful music teaching in Ghana program, where you can teach music theory, how to play different instruments, and lots more to students.
Benefits of Teen and Under-18 Volunteer Abroad Programs and High School Exchanges
Let’s take a look at a few benefits of under 18 volunteering abroad or participating in an exchange program as a teenager/high school student:
Community Service Experience
Volunteering overseas lends a new perspective to community service, and for high school juniors and seniors, may help boost college applications. With increasingly competitive university acceptance rates, volunteering abroad—coupled with projects in your own community—has the potential to set one student apart from another.
For students who aren’t very interested in volunteering near home, coupling a service project with a vacation is just one way to inspire them to help those in need. I have friends who never volunteered (unless their parents dragged them along) until taking a service trip with their church or class. After that first project volunteering abroad under 18 years old, they were hooked: many of them changed the colleges they applied to or the majors they declared after volunteering in another country.
The other day I overheard an interview between a campus recruiter and a second-semester freshman. The recruiter needed testimonials for the university website, and the conversation kept coming back to, “I’m so glad to be in such diverse community.”
She’d never traveled outside of the Midwest, and when she made new friends from other countries, or who took vacations abroad on the regular, she felt the need to “catch up.” She valued their experiences, and wished she’d been able to build her own earlier. I would suspect a great number of students feel this way—and being able to do good even for a short time in a different community can make a lifelong impact.
How many of us have taken foreign language lessons in high school? And how many of us have applied those skills outside of trivia night?
Hailey, who I mentioned earlier, took three years of Spanish classes before ever needing to use the language outside of school. Traveling to Costa Rica gave her the opportunity to challenge herself, and she made a conscious effort to speak Spanish as much as possible. When she came back, she was obviously much more comfortable in her phrasing and I wouldn’t be surprised if her Spanish grades improved that year.
That’s just one example. Teenage volunteering abroad experiences also help with:
Time management: How do you make sure you get to the 8:15 bus in a place you’ve never been? Budgeting for getting lost, making it to your project on time, and being aware of how long you have to complete it help build valuable time management skills that will be needed later.
Navigation: Same question as above! If you’re in a community very different from your own—maybe one that’s in a rural area while you’ve always lived in a city—can challenge and grow navigation skills.
Communication: Even if your host family or the country you’re in predominantly speaks English, there may be cultural barriers to overcome. Learning to speak with people from different backgrounds is an excellent way to build and refine communication skills.
Teamwork: How do you complete a project with people you may not have met before? And how will you know what to do if it’s a new project, one without lots of clear instructions, or one in which you have zero experience? It can be a daunting prospect even for adults, and you can be sure teamwork goes a long way toward finishing the project (and doing it well!).
Service Learning as a Component of Youth Volunteer Abroad Programs
Service learning is a growing movement to couple educational activities with volunteering. Teenage volunteer abroad participants and high school students gain a better understanding a subject while making an impact on their community and developing a sense of personal responsibility in their work.
Through service learning, students follow a lesson plan created by their school or other educational program, while having flexibility and creative input into a service project spearheaded by a community-based group. This hands-on approach to learning also engages teens in reflection and discussion about what they’d like to accomplish through their project, how they can change or improve along the way, and what impact their project had in the end.
At the end of this article is a list of volunteer abroad programs that include service learning. You also can learn more about service learning from the National Youth Leadership Council.
How to Choose a Teen Volunteer Abroad Program
Find Organizations that Specialize in Teen Volunteer Programs
There are literally thousands of volunteering abroad organizations in the world yet few specifically cater to under 18 volunteers. Be sure to stick with organizations that offer special programs for teen volunteers.
Global Vision International hosts thousands of under 18 volunteers each year and have an impeccable track records in keeping their young participants healthy and safe. So how do you go about choosing the right student travel program? In most ways, you’ll want to use the same checklist for any other volunteer project:
Set Realistic Expectations
This is tricky for teens and adults alike—what you want to do might not gel with what a volunteer organization needs. And because of age and experience, teens have far fewer options available. Service learning programs are built specifically to be age-appropriate and effective, while general volunteer programs that don’t require much experience—think painting murals or gardening—are perfect for families and groups. It’s also important to keep in mind that programs geared towards volunteering abroad for teenagers are short-term, learning experiences rather than intensive international development projects.
Set a Schedule
There are far fewer teen volunteer abroad opportunities than are available for adults, and many of them have set start and end dates—often occurring over winter, spring, or summer break. As you look at different programs, know any schedule constraints you may need to work with, and be sure to plan far enough in advance to coordinate school, work, or other activities.
Research Your Options
Don’t settle for the first program you’ll find in an online search. Large marketing budgets don’t always equate to the most valuable experiences or responsible programs. Look at a variety of volunteer organizations and find the one that makes the most sense for your family or group.
Volunteer Forever is the perfect place to start! Reading brochures and websites will only get you so far. Learning what other volunteers have to say can mean the difference between choosing an amazing trip and a letdown. Check out the end of this article for a list of teen volunteer programs and reviews right here on Volunteer Forever.
For an excellent list of questions you should ask any volunteer organization, click here.
A Few Notes about Safety for Under-18 Travelers
My mom still gets a little on edge whenever I travel. I’m not sure it’s something that ever goes away, but after years of solo trips to countries she knows as “The murder capital of the world,” or “Your dad and I had a friend who was killed there in the 80s” I’ve learned how to approach her most common travel fears (and hopefully yours as well). Below are some especially important considerations for participants in under 18 volunteer abroad programs:
“What if you get sick or hurt?” It doesn’t matter if your child is in perfect health and has never had a broken bone in his life—it’s still a legitimate concern and one you won’t shake until he gets back home. Three things to do:
- Check with the tour group to see how they address students’ health while abroad. They should have readily-available information about travel health insurance, local clinics or hospitals, and steps to take in case of emergency. As an example, check out Global Leadership Adventures’ Security and Safety page for answers to common questions about safety, security, and health. Be sure they have the most up-to-date information about your teen as well, including emergency contacts, health insurance provider, and any allergies or other information that could be helpful.
- If you have health insurance, don’t assume your provider will cover trips outside of the country—if it doesn’t, compare other providers and purchase the option that’s right for you. Be sure your teen, the tour group, and any emergency contacts have the most up-to-date information and can get in touch in case something should go wrong.
- Visit a travel clinic to learn about common ailments or injuries that might happen in the country your teen is traveling to, and how to prevent them. You can find a list of travel clinics here.
“What if you get attacked?” This one is tough, but the best way to allay those fears may be to talk it over with the tour group, with other parents who’ve sent their teens abroad, and if you can, with your teen’s host family or other contacts in-country. The chances of anyone on the tour being attacked might be the very same (or even lower) as in your home community, but be sure to do your research, and be certain your child knows how to avoid potential danger by staying with his group, by protecting his belongings, and by behaving appropriately for the community he’s in.
“What if you lose your money/bags/passport/other important items?” This piggybacks on the last point: be sure your teen knows basic safety practices while abroad. Things like not leaving his bag sitting on a table, or resting his cell phone on top of his belongings where it can easily be snatched. Make sure he knows who to talk to as soon as he knows something has gone missing—as with health info, the tour provider should have a plan already in place should someone’s items get lost or stolen.
“How will I know you’re ok?” This has always been the biggest sticking point for my parents. If they don’t hear from me at least once a day on my travels, they worry. And that’s been tough when I’m in the jungle or trying to scale the Great Firewall of China. I’ve gotten in massive fights with them over calling and emailing because here’s the thing: who the heck calls or writes email updates every day? Do you really need to use those minutes or text charges, and do you really want them to hunt down an Internet cafe for an email? Here’s a middle ground—just ask them to update their status on Twitter or Facebook, or text you on WhatsApp. Chances are they’re probably going to do that anyway, and by seeing Facebook photos and “Ziplining #thisisawesome” fly by on Twitter, you’ll know they’re doing fine.
Here are a few more resources to check out:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC has lots of information about traveler health, country-specific vaccinations and common illnesses, and ways to stay safe while abroad.
- U.S. Department of State – Travel: Here you’ll find information about passports, safety guides, emergency contact info, and more.
- Travisa: This is my one-stop-shop for visas, if I ever need them.
- Travelex: A good place to exchange money before travel.