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How volunteering abroad can lead to an international career

Updated: May 19, 2020

How I missed the opportunity

I sometimes think back on the time when I, however briefly, considered going on a 2–year, government-sponsored volunteer program in a development country (similar to the Peace Corps). The reason I even knew about it was because I told a colleague that I didn't know what I wanted to do after my studies, and she suggested volunteering abroad.

To be honest, I didn't take the suggestion very seriously.

I thought to myself: do I want to work in a some remote country for almost no pay for two long years? No way. I need a real job to prove to everyone what I’m worth. And I need to start making money to pay back my loans! I did a little bit of online research, but I pretty much dismissed the idea immediately.

What you get out of it

Looking back at it, I wish I’d known what I know now, after talking to numerous people who went through it. Volunteering abroad, especially if you do it for two whole years, gives you so much, including: solid foreign language skills; exposure to the world of international development and business; a chance to develop skills like teaching and giving helping small businesses; personality and confidence; and basically the most incredible experience of your life.

Some real-life examples

The first (former) volunteer I met was at the embassy in Nigeria, where she’d found a job as a local hire after living and teaching in a small village for two years. I could only imagine how rough life had been in a Nigerian village, so I asked her if it had been awful. She gave me surprised look and told me something I didn’t expect to hear. “I love Nigeria. I’m planning to stay at this embassy for a year and then start my own company in Abuja or in Lagos. Nigeria is an interesting place to do business and I have plenty of ideas.”

When I asked her if she didn’t miss her life back home she told me in no uncertain terms that her life was now in Nigeria and that she loved it. This happened ten years ago and not only is she still living there—she has a thriving business, a Nigerian husband, and adorable twins.

I also have a friend from Japan who left her country right after college to volunteer and never went back. She did the Japanese version of the Peace Corps, called JICA. Without knowing any Spanish, she moved to Central America to teach Japanese to the locals for two years. After that she lived and worked in Cuba, followed by embassy jobs in Chile and Uruguay. By the end of it she spoke fluent Spanish and English, which helped her get well-paid jobs with JICA in South Africa and Vietnam.

BIG leg up to get into the Foreign Service

I also know tons of diplomats who are former Peace Corps volunteers. Without a doubt, it’s a great background to have if you want to be foreign service one day. It helps them gain much of the knowledge and experience to be competitive during the entry exams, and it also makes the transition much easier. Living abroad as an expat after having lived abroad as a volunteer is a pretty nice upgrade.

Another friend did the Peace Corps and then landed a job at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as a foreign service officer. I always thought you had to have a PhD and serious work experience to be hired there, but she’s a great example for anyone who wants to have a varied and adventurous life and then have a “proper career” afterwards; she went from studying fashion in college, to Peace Corps, to being a Berlitz teacher in Syria (of all places), to doing another round of Peace Corps and cruising all over Africa, to… USAID!

It’s never too late

By the way, if you’re 30 (or any age) and you don’t have kids to take care of—you can even do a volunteering program mid-career. Some programs actually prefer or even require experienced individuals. You can get a lot out of it and I think that, although it may be difficult to give up some of the comforts you’ve gotten used to, it’s perhaps less scary when you’re more mature and experienced.

If you choose to volunteer later in life, of course it doesn’t have to be with the Peace Corps and it doesn’t have to be for two whole years. I have several friends, females in their early thirties, who have successful international careers and who sometimes do a short-term volunteering stint—helping with refugees or someplace and earthquake happened, for example—because they like it, and because they get to see a new part of the world and develop certain skills.

Personally, I also did a bunch of volunteering jobs abroad—some for fun, and some for developing my skills and having something to ad to my resume. Read all about it in my blog post called 7 international affairs do-good volunteer jobs I tried.

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