Choosing a gap year program that’ll best feed your wanderlust and change the world seems like an exhausting task. And it is. Because taking an international gap year to do effective philanthropic work isn’t exactly as easy as it seems.
The issue starts in believing your year volunteering overseas will "change the world" -- it doesn’t work like that. , they sometimes impose assistance that was never desired to begin with.
How then do you do good in the world when it seems like there are so many ways to go wrong?
In order to do so, you must carefully evaluate programs that acknowledge this problem and focus on experiences that will teach you how to avoid it. To start, here are six questions that will keep you on track as you compare gap year programs:
1. What Do You Mean By "Change the World?"
Thanks to the media and growing "voluntourism" industry there are mixed views of what it means to change the world.
People inherently want to make a difference, and that's a good thing. But if we were completely honest with ourselves, we’d admit that some of us want the recognition too. The path to a Nobel Prize… the feel good essays that go viral… you know, that “western savior” stuff.
Be it disaster relief, the environment, human rights, or global health, the more we hear about needs around the world, the more we want to fly to an exotic new place with hopes of offering skills locals already have and values they don’t want.
Imagine changing the world and no one knowing you did it? How would that affect your desire to make a difference?
Ask yourself, do you really want to change the world or do you really want to feel like a good person? Because the first step in “changing the world” is realizing you cannot make a dramatic difference during your trip.
Shift your perception of what it means to change the world and understand that it is a complicated and delicate process, and you will take a crucial step towards preventing a self-serving and detrimental volunteer effort.
2. Are the Problems You Hope to Address Simple or Complex?
To casually hope a volunteer program will confront and solve an entire community’s problems would be to understate the complexity that accompanies deeply rooted issues.
It is important to consider the layers of cultural differences, political hurdles, and other roadblocks that are making what you’d think to be an easy fix, in fact quite difficult.
To effectively evaluate a gap year program and its provider, ask specific questions about the problems the program hopes to “fix:"
- Does the organization paint the issue to be an easy solution?
- Do they fail to mention that this gap year opportunity is only a first step?
- Or are they offering realistic expectations according to the current project scope?
When you compare programs, keep in mind that your tenure should be a small but essential contribution to an ongoing process. Any program that promises immediate change and ignores broader political, cultural, and economic context might risk further complicating issues.
Instead, the experience is meant to help you better understand needs that one day, upon gaining more experience and training, can benefit from your informed contributions.
3. Is What You Can Offer Valuable for the Problems at Hand?
A common misconception in voluntourism is the notion that "any help is good help." When evaluating the program of your choice and how it can help “change the world,” consider whether your assistance is actually needed.
It hurts to hear it, but what feels like a low blow to your ego is actually an effort to help local communities become self-sustaining.
For instance: is there a shortage of manual labor there? If no, do you really need to offer a helping hand in the program’s building project?
Be careful not to assume that locals are incapable because they do not share your academic resume.
A proactive way to search for the right volunteer program is to inquire about the unique expertise needed within the community. These are helpful, yet inaccessible skills and materials that can be introduced in an effort to leave well-trained locals to continue working toward a solution.
Gain a clear understanding by asking the program coordinator detailed questions about your daily responsibilities as a volunteer, phases of the program's proposed solution, and transition processes for locals who directly interact with contributors.
4. What Do you Hope to Learn During Your Gap Year?
By now, you have a clear understanding that making change in the world doesn’t happen in one fell swoop -- especially not with minimal training.
But you can learn how to plan for the long run.
What is so special about "do-good" gap years is that they offer the unique opportunity to shadow professionals, address the beginning of existing problems, and strategize possible solutions throughout your career before offering assistance.
While you compare programs, think about the issues that are important to you and intangible skills you’ll need to make the most out of your training:
If you are passionate about community sustainability in another country, for instance, you’ll want a program that will help you learn local languages and cultural sensitivities followed by hands-on training in sustainable techniques. This will provide a foundation that you can build upon throughout your career.
You’ll also want to remain curious, patient, and open-minded, leaving preconceived notions behind to help you become a better trainee, volunteer, and philanthropist.
You may be thinking: “Yes, I know these communities will not get things done as quickly. I am prepared to learn how to be patient with them.” Actually, this is actually about you.
Are you patient enough to grant yourself time to adjust to a new environment? Are you patient enough to take your training and growth one day at a time? Are you patient enough to focus on this experience knowing it is part of a bigger picture?
Are you willing to learn? Are you willing to learn humility?
Wondering what other qualities you shouldn’t leave home without?
5. Will the Programs You're Considering Provide Opportunities to Learn Those Things?
You might find it difficult to compare gap year programs that offer a wealth of information in their brochures and online descriptions.
Where do you begin?
When evaluating program details, consider the skills you want to learn (based on your passions) and how they will benefit related work down the line. Then choose a program that offers an itinerary on par with your goals.
You should feel comfortable asking questions up front and expect the provider to market the program as a training experience and essential foundation for future change-makers.
For example, Thinking Beyond Borders offers
Their programs clearly map out learning-focused curriculums that offer cultural immersion, language training, skill building, and the chance to work alongside staff members who dedicate their careers to changing the world.
Keep this in mind when making your final decision, as a program’s dedication to students’ learning is essential to your experience.
6. What Support Do You Need in Your Learning?
Prospective students often forget this very important question when choosing the right gap year program. This oversight can hinder your growth and perception of the program.
Think about curriculum and leadership components, and how it will affect your learning experience:
- Who will the experts in the field be?
- Who will lead your group?
- Is there a student support counselor?
- Will the program and training challenge you to think beyond basic memorization?
- Is there a follow-up program?
Research beyond logistical details like cost, schedule, and housing and learn about the faculty. Find out who is leading the program and how students are supported and challenged to think critically. Reading reviews from previous students may be helpful in answering this question.
This is your chance to create a foundation that will support decades of work, leadership, and yes -- change. Make sure you trust that your gap year program is focused on constructing strong building blocks for a greater future.