Volunteer Abroad

Selecting a Reputable Program

Although it often makes us feel good to volunteer, applicants must consider whether or not they have the skills and proper education to truly assist those they are hoping to help in an unfamiliar environment. International development work is complex and good intentions can translate into unintended and undesirable consequences. As a university student, you may not yet possess the skills and education most needed for successful development work. Look for volunteer opportunities that emphasize skill building for participants rather than overinflating the outcomes your volunteer activities may have. Seek organizations that place volunteers in sustainable positions and train their participants to complete specific tasks in cooperation with the community.

As volunteering abroad becomes more popular the possibility of resource mismanagement increases. For example, volunteers visiting a school or orphanage may in fact disrupt educational activities that would be more beneficial to the children involved. An organization receiving foreign volunteers may be willing to disrupt regular programming in the hopes that volunteers will bring significant donations that you are not likely to be offering. It is important that you look carefully at the organizations you are thinking about volunteering with.

Ask Yourself:

  • Is the project you’ll be working on sustainable? Is there a plan to complete or continue the project after you depart?
  • Will you receive the proper training and education to complete the project?
  • Does the organization work with the local community to decide which projects it selects to complete?
  • How do they use the money you pay to the program?  

A lot of the answers to these questions can be found by searching for the organization online and reading some of past participants’ reviews. Websites like www.GuideStar.org and www.CharityWatch.org rate and review nonprofit organizations based on the way they handle their funds and utilize their staff/volunteers, these can also be helpful in guiding your search.

These organizations evaluate international volunteer opportunities based on their own established best practices, helping students select reputable programs:  

As a participant, you should educate yourself about the drawbacks of this industry. Many articles written by trustworthy sources are available online and illustrate the problems some students encounter during their participation, here are a few examples:

Credit or Not-for-Credit?

Volunteer programs abroad typically do not offer academic credit.  If you don’t earn credit, you cannot use UI financial aid and are not eligible for Study Abroad scholarships. Independent study credit is an option, but you must talk to your academic advisor in order to pursue this.  If independent study credit is approved, you will pay both the volunteer program fee as well as UI tuition for the number of credits you’ll earn (but are eligible for financial aid and scholarships).

Service-learning, an increasingly popular type of course, is a combination of volunteer experience, reflection, and academic work.  Many study abroad programs include credit-bearing service-learning courses in their program options. A credit-bearing service-learning course would allow you to use UI financial aid and apply for Study Abroad scholarships.


*Register Your Travel: If you are not getting academic credit, we request that all current students volunteering abroad complete this application for insurance and travel registration at least 30 days prior to departure. You can turn in the application Monday through Friday from 8am-5pm at the Study Abroad desk located at 1111 University Capitol Centre. Insurance fees will be charged to your U-Bill at a rate of $1.15/day. More information about the insurance can be found here: http://international.uiowa.edu/study-abroad/health-insurance-information


Volunteer Abroad Resource List                                                              

Connect-123 Internship, volunteer, and service learning opportunities in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Dublin, and Shanghai. 

Cross-Cultural SolutionsHelp address critical global issues in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. Member of IVPA. 

Dream Volunteers: Spring break and summer service programs in Costa Rica, Guatemala Ghana, India and Vietnam. 

Experiential Learning Abroad Programs (ELAP): Structured volunteer placements in Latin America, Spain and England in a variety of fields. 

Habitat for Humanity:  Volunteer program that builds safe and affordable housing for low-income families worldwide.  

International Volunteers: UI student-led organization at the University of Iowa that focuses on volunteering abroad, gaining hands-on experience, and engaging with another community and culture. Open to all majors. Placements include healthcare, education, women's empowerment, work with infants and children or the elderly, and sharing professional skills.

Peace Corps: Volunteers live, learn, and work with a community overseas for 27 months, providing technical assistance in six program areas: education, youth and community development, health, business and information and communications technology, agriculture, and environment.  *Contact UI representative Meredith Gall in International Programs for more information.

UI Alumni Association Iowa Voyagers: Operation Romania: An annual two-week summer service trip to Barlad, Romania to help disadvantaged children.


Service-Learning / Credit-bearing Programs

Child Life Experiential Learning Program: 3 week program to Cape Town, South Africa that focuses on Child Life. Students work in a variety of healthcare settings and earn credit for related coursework.

CIEE Service Learning programs: Offers many study abroad programs with a service learning component. 

Iowa Regents Summer Program in Peru:  Study Spanish and engage with communities through service work in and around Cusco, Peru.

UI International Perspectives: Xicotepec Program: This not-for-credit service-learning experience provides discipline-specific service projects to improve community life in Xicotepec, Mexico in collaboration with Rotary International. Completion of specific credit-bearing coursework on campus is a prerequisite.