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How to Be a Gap Year Volunteer

Updated on January 23, 2011

Gap years have become a very popular option for those in transition- not only for high school and college grads, but also for adults in between jobs and careers. Gap years, simply put, involve taking a year off to do something off the beaten track - this can involve working, traveling, spending time with family, or volunteering and is often a mixture of more than one of these activities.

Are you considering taking a gap year? If so, congratulations! This could be an excellent way to find new passions in life, take a break from the drudgery of day-to-day life, refresh your perspective, and learn new skills. If you are interested in volunteering during your gap year, you also stand to make a wonderful impact on the environment, a community, or even just one person.

Perhaps you do not know exactly how you want to volunteer during your gap year - not to worry! We'll walk through a process below that will get you on track for a successful, functional, and enjoyable year off.


Determine Your Goals

There are several different types of gap years, so though you may know that you need a break before moving on to the next "traditional" stage of your life, you should also consider how you can best spend that break.

What are your goals? Do you want to see a new place? Develop your resume and professional skills? Volunteer and give back? Help your family? Earn money? Save for a new stage in your life? Relax? Party? Pursue an alternate form of education? Learn a new language? Discover different cultures?

Different gap year opportunities will serve different goals- some opportunities are a combination of all these things; others only encompass one or two.

Consider Alternatives

There are some major categories of gap years that make for popular choices - which ones interest you the most?

  • Volunteering with an organization: Many organizations are happy to take on volunteers for one, six, and 12 month intervals. Some are domestic; others international. If you want to volunteer with one of these programs, be sure to apply well in advance- they are very popular!
  • WWOOFing: WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF is an international exchange programs of sorts- a network that allows people to stay on organic farms around the world and enjoy education, food, and housing in exchange for some good old fashioned volunteering. If you like to be outside and are interested in learning more about farming and/or sustainability, this is the choice for you!
  • Volunteering with a local church or church program: If you are a person of great faith (or not!), perhaps a church program is the way to go! Some truly amazing church volunteer organizations have been established, and one of them might be based out of your own home town or city! The cool aspect of spending your gap year volunteering with a local church is that you can really get to know people in your own community - even if you get to know them in a place far from home like New Orleans, Haiti, or Guatemala.
  • Interning with a company: Perhaps you would like to develop some professional skills during your gap year - in that event, an internship makes for a great alternative. Many companies offer monthly stipends to interns, hence you get to work and live in a new area while not losing money or having to worry about paying your own way.  Though interning is not typically considered volunteering, it can basically be the same thing - especially if you are working for a nonprofit.
  • Working with a company: In some cases, you might find temporary work with a company or business that you find to be fun and interesting. Perhaps a temporary job is more recreational than than educational - maybe you have always wanted to work in a cake shop, or try your hand at television production, even if you know you want to do something else in the long run. Perhaps now is the time to try!
  • Studying with a program: Taking a gap year can be just the thing you need to delve into something you really want to explore - there all sorts of short-term academic programs you might consider - some of them vocationally-focused, others centering around certain cultures... This year could be a great opportunity for you to explore something new and refreshing - just for yourself for once.
  • Taking language programs: Have you been studying a language, but are not quite comfortable speaking it? Perhaps this gap year is your opportunity to become truly immersed and start using the language for real!
  • Teaching: Many people opt to teach during their gap year - in many cases, they teach English in foreign countries, or if they choose to stay local, they opt to help local schoolchildren become better readers and writers. If you are interested in becoming a teacher, this might be an excellent way to get your feet wet before making a full commitment to a teacher's long education and certification efforts!
  • Traveling: If you have the money (and to be honest, you needn't have much), you might just want to spend your gap year seeing the world! Many gap-year-ers go backpacking and traveling about various countries and continents. If you do not feel like traipsing around for an entire year, perhaps travel can be a nice way to break up a mixture of other activities such as volunteering and taking classes.

You may have noticed that not all of these are volunteering options - at least not obvious ones. But keep in mind that you can mix and match different activities over a year - perhaps you might take on a part time job so that you can spend the rest of your time volunteering!

Does one (or more) of these sound particularly attractive? If so, it's time for you to research specific programs!

Research Programs

Once you have a general idea of what you want to do in your gap year, and where you want to go, it is time to do more research to find specific, active programs that you might apply to or join.  If you have decided that you want to work independently, you will want to research potential employers that may hire you.  If you want to study, research academic programs or language classes that you might take.  

Some programs require a lot of lead time for applications, so the sooner you start your research, the better!  


Start Applying!

Once you have found employers, apartments, educational programs, volunteer groups, or some other place or organization that would work with your gap year, it is time to make a commitment!  Because you have been diligent about researching potential tracks for your gap year, you will know exactly what must go into an attractive application, and be sure to give each app and inquiry you send out the time and consideration it deserves!

When applying to various programs or considering commitments for your gap year, do not put all of your eggs in one basket.  Not every program will accept you; not every place you may want to visit will work out.  For this reason, it does not hurt to pursue several different options - and trust that things will work out for the best.

Make a Decision

Hopefully, every different program to which you applied has accepted you. Every different place you want to stay has a place for you. And every potential employer to which you have applied has accepted your application.

This means that you will have ample alternatives to choose between - at this point, consider your original goals and pick the opportunity that best fits with them.

When considering potential gap year activities, also keep your limitations in mind - can you afford all of the different options? From which ones can you benefit the most? Though your ideal choice may be attractive, if it is beyond your means, or if it is truly not the most healthy or useful option, consider something else.

Make the Most of Your Gap Year

Congratulations! You have decided on your gap year activity (even if your plan involves not having a plan, that's fine - you've committed to that, and that is all that matters!) and now you have nothing to do but enjoy it!

Even though the gap year is about taking a break from the hustle and bustle of what may seem like a single-track life, you should still do everything you can to make the most of it- just as anyone should be committed to living life to its fullest.

As you enjoy the adventures, trials, joys, pains, drudgeries, derailments, and victories of your gap year, be sure to make them count - document them, learn from them, and leverage them in such a way that can benefit your future.

Adequately Prepare for the Next Step

If it is indeed your plan to take a gap year, that period of time has a very clear ending, and to make that ending as stress-free as possible, you would benefit from preparing for it ahead of time.  Do you know what you want to do at the end of your gap year? Does it involve going back to school? Returning to your home town? Finding a permanent job?  

Whatever it is you have waiting for you at the other end of your gap year, be sure that you have it set up to catch you after your 365 days or so are up.  If you plan to find work after your gap year, make sure to build up your resume, and perhaps consider sending out some job applications before your year is up (I have a guide to applying for work here - it can be quite useful!).  If you would like to go back to school, make sure your applications are in order and that you have met all the deadlines.  

Preparing for the end of your gap year may not seem like a lot of fun, but planning for the future can prevent a lot of trouble in the long run.

One final note on preparing for the end of your gap year - perhaps you have found your volunteer work or time abroad is more rewarding and meaningful to you than you ever could imagine.  If what you have found really works for you- it if makes your life worth living or has turned into a thing in your life that has become more than what you expected, consider sticking with it for more than a year.  Hey- if you have found your real calling in your gap year, it is perfectly permissible for your gap year to transition into a more long-term stage in your life.  


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