Article by Robin Van Auken on Volunteer Forever

Looking for a travel experience where you can work hands-on with a global issue? One that enhances your cultural awareness, both personally and professionally? If so, consider an international service-learning project!

An international service-learning project is a structured academic opportunity that lets you combine study abroad with experiential education and community development. According to Global Vision International, a trusted international volunteer organization with numerous service-learning programs, there are three characteristics of each of these opportunities:

  1. You participate in an organized service activity that addresses a community’s needs;
  2. Your placement offers you practical experiences, interactions, and intercultural conversations; and
  3. It requires that you reflect upon your experience for a broad understanding and appreciation of your host country, your area of study, and relevant current issues, which all lead to you becoming a global citizen.

An international service-learning program differs from volunteering, internships, or even many gap-year placements because it’s specific to your unique academic needs. A service-learning experience places “intentional emphasis on critical reflection that connects the service to specific learning objectives.” You can earn college credit, as either an undergraduate or graduate student, and seek programs that are tailored to you. You also can use this opportunity to decide if you are pursuing the best major. Are you sure you want to teach? Or work in environmental sciences? Or, would you rather focus on gender equality or sports education? Students faced with declaring a major may be undecided, so if you want to be sure about your academic inclination, consider a service-learning program abroad that puts you in the fray.

Marine Biology student Samia, who sought a placement with Global Vision International, said, “I joined for the internship mainly because I wanted some first-hand experience on my path of becoming a marine biologist. What I gained most was the passion and love I have for the ocean and the absolute certainty that I’m on the right career path.”

A service-learning placement emphasizes mutuality. That means all participants – students, instructors, community members of the host country, and even the placement organization, should benefit, learn, and grow from the experience.


There’s a difference between volunteer community service and service-learning. Take a beach clean-up program as an example. With a community service effort, volunteers can participate in a beach clean-up in Costa Rica, and the community appreciates the assistance with litter removal and temporary beautification of the area.

With service-learning, volunteer students with an academic background or interest in environmental sciences can study waste collection and recycling as practiced by the host city, and then participate in clean-up project to learn about accessibility and use of these services in different neighborhoods. The community still receives assistance with litter removal and beautification, and they also are informed about recommendations on sustainable waste management. The student receives academic credit for their research and recommendations, and the community receives immediate assistance and responsible guidelines on how to better maintain their environments.

Service-learning also differs from internships in a similar way. An internship often provides an individual with professional skills and career experience in a supervised setting. Internships might not include academic credit, and interns usually spend a substantial amount of time at the site, working.

A service-learning experience also allows the student to acquire professional skills, and it can lead to a career, however, its goal is to translate academic subjects through real-world activities that have a positive impact on all participants. The time commitment often is less than an internship as well.


Need another reason to consider an international service-learning placement? It will reap rewards for years to come.

Earning your college degree isn’t enough to guarantee you a great job in the 21st century. There are literally millions of college students graduating each year, competing with you and having a comparable education.

That number is increasing each year. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that in 2017, there were 20 million students attending American colleges and universities – an increase of about 5 million since 2000.

How can you gain an edge over a similarly educated new graduate and land that coveted job?

According to Volunteering Solutions, philanthropic work tops the list of activities you can do while in college that will benefit your future career. And there are two major ways to accomplish this: volunteering and service-learning.

Volunteering allows you to give your time and service, and you promote goodwill and improve the quality of life for people, animals, and the environment. You can spend your college breaks or other free time volunteering.

Service-learning differs because it’s an amalgamation of studying and volunteering, each activity complementing the other. With service-learning, your altruistic and your academic efforts go hand-in-hand, benefiting you as well as the recipient, and allowing you the opportunity to reflect on the experiences of both.

You also have the ability to share your experiences – successes, and failures – in a classroom discussion, helping others with their own education.

Are you ready to learn more about international service-learning opportunities in your academic field?


Volunteer Forever  is a comprehensive online resource that helps volunteers find and fund their volunteer opportunities. It advocates empowerment through information and resources.  With Volunteer Forever, you can quickly create a profile and start fundraising right away. Volunteering abroad can be expensive, but it’s also a noble endeavor that your friends, loved ones, and communities will be happy to support. Learn more about Volunteer Forever here.