Enough About Students - Let’s Talk About Your Own Volunteer Abroad Experience

Enough About Students – Let’s Talk About Your Own Volunteer Abroad Experience


Every year, over 1.6 Million people go volunteering overseas. Most are students with grand aspirations to change the world, though little actual skills to make an impact. Meanwhile, those with the skills, insights, and experience to actually make a sustainable impact are left with few opportunities, waving their students goodbye, and then welcoming them back only to hear complaint after complaint about their trials and tribulations of creating no change.

But what if these roles flipped? Globally, a lack of access to skills and expertise is one of the leading barriers to progress. I have yet to find one field organization creating systemic change that is wishing for a pack of unruly, wide-eyes students to get it over the finish line. However, I assure you there are inventors looking for engineers to help bring life-saving products to market, resettlement groups looking for researchers who can use data analysis skills to support refugees, startups searching for IoT developers to help develop products that serve the most underserved, and this list of needs goes on. While students may have unending enthusiasm, professors and other academic professionals have the real skills and know-how to actually empower local changemakers.


So if you’re a professor or academic professional, here’s how you can use your time away from students to make an impact, and possibly advance your career in the process:

1. Take Audit of Your Skills

Beyond teaching, research, and administrative work, you likely have skills in publishing, consulting, training, and more. The mark of a successful skills-based volunteering trip, otherwise known as “experteering”, is not what you can accomplish, but rather what the local teams and community can learn and achieve on their own with your support and experience. At the end of the day, it’s about your ability to effectively train advanced concepts.

2. Go Anytime, Anywhere

No matter your skills or availability, there is a local social enterprise, startup, NGO, or governmental group that could use your skills. You don’t have to limit yourself to academic institutions only.

One trend that we see at MovingWorlds is that, in local communities, universities and other professional development institutions are closely tied to the economic and social development of their regions. Take this social enterprise in Bogota, Colombia for example – Coschool is an academic institution and a certified benefit corporation working to develop social and emotional skills in young people. Colombia is in the middle of an exciting transformation putting their years of civil unrest behind and rapidly becoming a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. Coschool is supporting this transformation by strengthening Colombia’s education system training and shaping educators, academic institutions, and parents’ to create positive learning environments where students are empowered to design and execute real social impact projects that change their reality and their communities.

Heather Quinn (right) and the CEO and Co-Founder of Coschool in Colombia. Heather spent a week in Colombia developing a process for grant writing, grant application templates, and a calendar of activities to support Coschool’s grant program.

Other things that professors can easily do include things like:

  • Perform a needs-analysis or audit to make organizations more efficient: Regardless of skills, with your vast industry knowledge, you can help local organizations zero-in on more specific needs that they have. As an example, a nonprofit might think they need marketing help, but what type of marketing support exactly? Branding? Design? Strategy? Measurement? Digital execution? Marketing tools?
  • Teach skills and methodologies to make a long-term impact: By virtue of your vast peer network, being at a learning institution, and your experience teaching, you likely have a robust set of skills including familiarity with decision-making frameworks, that can aid local changemakers long after you’ve left. Beyond doing something tangible in the field, you can facilitate training, coach local leaders on new skills and tools, and/or set up action learning workshop to help a vast array of local changemakers develop foundational skills for long-term change.
  • Provide skills boost to accomplish what otherwise would not have been done. Use your subject matter skills to aid a local organization by providing skills they otherwise would not have access to. 

There is no shortage of ways you can help, and these ideas give a glimpse into the many ways that people with university-level teaching experience can contribute to projects around the world.

Andreia Mitrea (on left), co-founder of Avenor College in Romania, experteered in Ecuador with Sistema B. Drawing on her vast experience within educational institutions, Andreia supported Sistema B to map out strategic alliances with local universities bringing professors and students into the world of social entrepreneurship and impact as active change agents. 

3. Lay a Foundation, Create Connections, and Facilitate Long-Term Change

When you return, you’ll be able to support the organization by making connections to graduate student groups looking for stretch and capstone projects, industry groups that might offer other insights and connections, and of course, other professionals who have vacation and/or sabbatical time, but not sure how to use it.

So whether it’s vacation, winter break, or the hard-earned sabbatical, take a look at how experteering your real skills can make a long-term impact, and when you return, it’ll be you telling the inspiring stories of actually creating change. 


About the Author

Mark Horoszowski is Adjunct Faculty at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Leadership and Social Responsibility, as well as the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org – a social enterprise helping get expertise to the parts of the world that need it most while connecting those that give to life-enriching experiences. MovingWorlds runs the Global Experteering Network, as well as cohort-based programs with its Impact Teams, Institute, as well as custom programs for corporate sponsors.

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