In our world of growing interconnectivity, each day it becomes easier to find opportunities to work, live, and teach abroad.”
For the cash strapped full of wanderlust, teaching abroad has become a perfect opportunity to see the world without having to spend years ahead of time saving or without breaking the bank in the process. Find a job online, interview, take care of the paperwork, get on a plane, arrive to your classroom and start receiving a salary. Though that is putting it simply (since we all know there are usually a few more snafus that come in the process of moving anywhere) it’s a relatively secure path. I decided to go a bit more of an untraditional route. Instead, I decided to forgo a salary, and actually pay to teach as a volunteer. Why would paying an organization and sacrificing a year of incoming salary be a good choice? Who in their right mind would do this?! For me, it made total sense. Here’s two reasons why:
1. I made an impact, off the beaten path. Many of the overseas teaching jobs you’ll find online are at international schools in large, well-known cities. They are in places with developed ex-pat communities where the longings of home (peanut butter anyone?) can be easily bought. The students are wealthy and have had a good life. They’ll probably go on to pretty good universities and likely get good jobs. So how was what I did as a volunteer different? The $5000 I paid to teach abroad was actually going directly to supporting me for a year and placing me in a school where the local government couldn’t afford or locate another teacher. I was in a sense, paying my own salary for the year in one lump sum ahead of time. And this is how I was able to make an impact. If I hadn’t made that financial contribution, and I wasn’t there that year, my students wouldn’t have had an English teacher. Though English was a required class for all students their age across the country, they just simply wouldn’t have received instruction in that subject area. My students lived in a rural area, already marginalized by neglect, and without English language skills (which their peers in larger towns and cities were already learning) they weren’t even given the opportunity to be competitive. While developing competitiveness may be a compelling argument most of us, I certainly had my work cut out ahead of me to convince my 7-12 year old students that they should want to learn English. You aren’t thinking about your career or competitiveness at 7 years old. So I planned, created class materials out of nothing, sang, dance, entertained, unveiled the mysteries of English grammar, and tried to iron out the pronunciation of “beach” so that it didn’t sound like the word synonymous with a female dog. It wasn’t easy and not every student loved learning English but then again, what student loves every classroom subject? I know that I thought that I could do without math when I was in elementary school. But you know what? Some of those students loved English and they excelled at it. This month, one of my star students is taking the college entrance exam. If she does well, and attends university, she’ll be the first female from her community to do so. And though I certainly can’t take the credit for all of her successes, I have in some small way, contributed. Teachers everywhere influence and inspire their students, but having the opportunity to do so in a community that was so small, so bereft of resources, so hard to get to, and so marginalized made that impact ever more important and deep.
2. It was a good use of $5000. Think of all the things that you can buy with $5000. You could pay half a year’s rent to your landlord with $5000 and with what investment? Sure you get a roof over your head for the time being, but when you walk away from that apartment what are you taking with you from all of those payments? You could take a vacation with $5000. Maybe for two weeks, maybe for a month, maybe you could stretch it out for a few months if you are seriously frugal. You’ll see the sights, meet other travelers, take lots of pictures, eat wonderful food, and then go home. My $5000? It got me the support of an organization that had been placing volunteer teachers for 20 years. It got me international airfare, a visa, training in teaching methodologies and foreign language lessons, a room in the house of a wonderful host family, rice & bean meals for a whole year, and health insurance. And those are just the tangible, tactile aspects of it all. There were all these other benefits that $5000 bought me too. I became fluent in another language, versed in the ins and outs of the new culture I was living in, and skills from the classroom that are transferrable to the career I’m in now. I have memories and friendships and a host family that treats me like a daughter of their own. I don’t think that $5000 would have stretched that far for a year in the United States. And I don’t think that I would have had such a culturally immersive and independent experience had I taught at a school that could afford to pay me a salary and probably employed other foreigners. Though $5000 seemed like a big investment at the time, in retrospect, it was quite small given the magnitude of the things that I got out of it.
If your study abroad experience has left you with a yearning to find another way to go abroad, I urge you, to not rule out volunteer opportunities even if you have to pay. Being a volunteer isn’t for everyone and not every volunteer organization is created equally. Do your research. Find out how and why you have to pay if you do. Honestly evaluate yourself. What kind of lifestyle will you be comfortable having while abroad? As a volunteer you’ll need to live humbly. Can you do without hot showers, reliable Internet connectivity, and nights out on the town? Make a decision that is best for you. All choices in life have drawbacks and advantages, and like your teacher always told you, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Having to pay to volunteer is not a questionable decision that many make it out to be. It may just be the best decision of your life, like it was for me.
Cara Abel graduated from Ithaca College in May 2007 with a BA in Culture & Communication. During college, she studied abroad in Australia for a semester and in Ecuador for a short term summer trip. After graduation, and some hard work to save up $5000, she headed to Costa Rica to be a volunteer teacher for a year with WorldTeach. Probably the best investment she’s made in life so far, the experience opened a career path for her in the non-profit world. Through her work with WorldTeach she’s visited countless rural Costa Rican pueblitos, welcomed over 60 volunteers to Costa Rica, helped more than 100 others find their path to programs in American Samoa, Guyana, Colombia, and Costa Rica, and now works as the Director of Communications & Marketing.