Pros and cons of going abroad as an EVS volunteer
In 2010, I came to Norway to work for a year as an EVS volunteer. I was living and working in a rural community, lost on the West Coast. I was successively a canteen assistant, a librarian, a café hostess and a face painting artist! I would like to share my experience with you, who might be considering taking a gap year abroad.
What is EVS?
European Voluntary Service is a European program where young people aged 18 to 30 can travel abroad for a period of 2 to 12 months and participate in voluntary activities coordinated by a host agency (usually a charity or a volunteering centre). The aim is to promote European awareness and all the European plus a few partner countries can participate.
The kindergarten I volunteered at...in the spring!
What can you expect?
There are written rules about what EVS is and the duties and benefits of both the volunteer and the hosting organisation that coordinates the project.
EVS is project based. It means that the work done should not consist of routine tasks that an employee could do. For example, if you work at a retirement home, you will be asked to play music or cards, sing, participate in the knitting club, deliver library books, but never to spend the entire day there, taking care of the patients like a student-nurse would. When I was working in the library, I sometimes sat at the front desk and welcomed patrons, but most of my project consisted in helping the head librarian update the catalog. I never performed routine administrative tasks and was never left in charge.
You will work full-time, be entitled to 5 weeks paid holidays, and receive a Youthpass at the end of your service, documenting your work and the skills you have learned.
In terms of training, you may be sent on pre-training, two volunteer meetings during your year (obligatory), and a follow-up meeting afterwards.
Your trips in and out will be paid for you, and you will receive a monthly allowance and a free language course. You will live in a flat, a shared house or with a family. You may receive a phone to be used during your project and a little allowance for it. You are covered by AXA insurance for the duration of your stay.
Mentoring should be provided and this person should be totally external to your workplace.
- Learning a new language (course financed by your agency) being immersed in a foreign culture. If the volunteer is given proper mentoring, it can also mean being invited by locals to share events in their life like birthday parties, a Sunday morning walk in the mountains, a football match or Christmas. It also means having the opportunity to travel around.
- You will feel part of a community, be welcomed in a workplace and hopefully have time and support to develop a project that will make your a better person, help others and stand out on your CV. Projects can involve working with a theatre company, helping out in a kindergarten, visiting the elderly, participating in the work of charities or churches,...
- You will have the opportunity to meet other volunteers from across Europe and gain an awareness about how life is in other countries close to yours. I remember talking in depth with an Armenian volunteer (Armenia is an associated partner) about the new law passed in France about the recognition of the Armenian genocide and I am always surprised to hear how popular Louis de Funès movies were on the Eastern side of the Wall. Those things I had never learnt at school and the opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and dialogue are amazing!
- You are covered by a very good insurance that will really help should anything happen to you. You are followed by your sending organisation, your national and local host agency, your mentor and your colleagues...you are pretty safe.
- By keeping contact with your sending agency, your mentor and your host country's National Agency, you have the power to make your project better for yourself and the volunteer who may come after you. Writing a final report to document your stay is an important responsibility.
- Short projects do not give volunteers enough time to learn the language and socialize. Depending on your location, language classes can be difficult to attend or nonexistent.
- For long term projects, it can be up to a year without income. Depending on the economy of the country you are staying in, the allowance received is barely enough to survive and you will have to stretch your budget on all occasions. For those who jump into EVS without having a little money put on the side, this is the year you will discover minimalism. Doctors and dentists also have to be paid in full before you can get refunded by the insurance company. One of my EVS flatmates once had an unexpected hospital bill and I had to lend her money to buy groceries until we received our allowance...Not a nice thing. Having no taxable income also means not earning pension for a year and not being able to claim unemployment benefits during your transition back to «normal» life. Your Youthpass also does not count as either a diploma nor a professional certificate.
- Though some projects give you plenty of room to breathe, older volunteers may feel bored while some others may be slaving away all year. While we cannot expect everything to be perfect at all times, some jobs volunteers are asked to do actually makes them cheap foreign workforce.
- Living conditions can be awful and you may not get along with your flatmates, who can be locals or other volunteers, and who may not master a common language well enough to allow you to communicate efficiently. It should be an enjoyable experience, not a sick social experiment where your host agency puts together people from different countries and religions and asks them to get along without any help. Personality clashes put aside, religious, cultural and class differences may make or break your year. You may find your prejudices reinforced, which is very sad.
- On the other side, there are volunteers working in remote regions who will experience isolation. Home-sickness may hit them harder and they will find it more difficult to socialize and learn if they are not given guidance.
- It is difficult for the locals to understand what you are going through and psychological support (or mentoring) is sometimes nonexistent. It is normal to have headaches at the beginning, be more tired, lose or gain weight or simply be moody. The body and the mind have to adapt to your new surroundings. After the honeymoon period, will come negative times, then integration, then an unwillingness to go back home and finally a reverse culture shock when you move back home. These stages should be acknowledged and worked on.
Learn about EVS on the European Commission website
- Youthpass - Youthpass in EVS - Step by Step
Some information about writing the Youthpass
- Search for associations here
The database of EVS accredited organisations
- Some information about the youth in action programme
An overview of what EVS is
Is it a worthy experience?
Whether you are a student taking a gap year or a young graduate or professional looking for an international opportunity, EVS can definitely be an experience worth trying. In terms of human growth and language learning, the benefits are numerous. On the other hand, some projects do not develop enough professional or just plain useful skills to justify spending a year without earning an income, a problem worth considering in this lukewarm economy. Depending on the length of the project and your tasks, it can be an experience that will profit you in the future, on all counts, but in many cases, a short-term volunteering experience through a charity of your choice or a professional internship within your field seem preferable.