Projects Abroad Lets Teens and Adults See the World While Giving Back

Many people have goals to see the world and also to make a difference by helping others. Projects Abroad is making it possible for participants to do both at the same time.

What started as a small organization founded in the United Kingdom two decades ago to help university students find opportunities has grown dramatically with the boom in “voluntourism.” It is now among the leading international volunteer placement organizations and brings together volunteers from around the globe by giving them opportunities to work on hundreds of projects in 28 destinations.

Some of the programs are specifically aimed at teenagers between 16 and 19 years old. These High School Specials, as the programs are called, last between two and four weeks throughout the summer. There are also a few weeklong sessions available in March for students wanting to volunteer on spring break.

Christian Clark, deputy director for USA at Projects Abroad, says that the cultural exchange that occurs during projects is one of the most valuable benefits for volunteers.

“We love to see young people traveling and getting to know people from different backgrounds,” Clark says. “It is very beneficial for them to experience the world in a positive way and bring back home with them a more global and positive outlook and commitment to service, both at home and abroad.”

Volunteer projects cover a variety of areas, from building to care and community (which includes working with children) to journalism to medicine and healthcare. Volunteers come from countries around the world.

Students stay with host families and are put into groups of at least two and as big as ten, depending on the accommodations the family can offer. Clark says that staying with host families is an important part of the organization’s structure. Host families are often relatives of Projects Abroad staff in the country or principals of schools and doctors at hospitals where the volunteers are working.

“We want people to be as immersed as they can be as there are so many benefits to that experience,” he says.

In addition to the volunteer work, Projects Abroad provides travelers a chance to learn about the culture in the country they are visiting. They might take salsa lessons in Argentina, drumming lessons in Africa or attend a Bollywood movie in India. Cooking classes are also popular.

Of all the destinations available through Projects Abroad, Clark says Ghana is the most popular across the board. Some of the most popular among American teenagers are Nepal, South Africa and Argentina, where students can also practice their Spanish. Clark says projects in the medical field are particularly popular with students who want to be doctors.

“The personal benefits of boosting a resume for college applications and beyond is a motivation for students and families,” Clark says.

While educational goals may influence the decision to participate, the trips also offer opportunities to learn about the field in which they are working, the country they are visiting, and also about themselves.

“A lot of people are surprised by how much they learn about themselves through the experience,” Clark says. “They go expecting to do something great and learn about another culture, [and they] end up looking back on their own culture and perspective.”

Projects Abroad is not just for high schoolers. Clark says there are also projects for adults of all ages, and that Projects Abroad is seeing an increase in the number of retirees volunteering. Families can volunteer together, and Projects Abroad offers a 27-week gap year program as well. Program costs start at $2,100 and vary based on length, program and destination.

Projects Abroad encourages those interested to start researching possible trips months in advance. Clark recommends applying three to six months before start of a program and notes that peak program application time is January through March.