The famous “gap year” volunteer—the student who wants to experience the world either before or during college—is a relatively new concept. The benefits of the gap year for young people are enormous. Many of them simply need time to grow. They need life experience and are excited for something challenging and bold, something different, beyond the scope of the familiar. Back in the early 1990s there weren’t a lot of formal opportunities for students wanting to further their experience and education overseas. Dr. Peter Slowe, a geography professor with some adventurous students, took it upon himself to find an international placement for them. Back then, there wasn’t an Internet full of volunteer organizations vying for volunteers. There weren’t thousands of great, sustainable volunteering non-profits out there for the average student. Instead, Slowe set up his students with some academics he knew in Romania. They took off to teach English and Projects Abroad was born.
Like many early gap year volunteering organizations, Projects Abroad started small. But with all of the interest in volunteering stateside and all of the international opportunity, it grew quickly. It’s amazing when a niche suddenly opens. I think often it’s something that’s just sitting there waiting to be discovered. There were so many international projects in desperate need of volunteers willing to donate their time to make a difference. And there were so many young students, eager to experience a new culture for the first time. Today the gap year is a familiar concept to most people. It’s a respected, viable option and more and more people are doing it every year. The gap year population has made an immeasurable difference in the lives of millions of people around the world.
Today, Projects Abroad is a very large organization. They have a 20-year history, have more than 500 trained staff members in a multitude of international destinations and have worked with over 40,000 volunteers. Today, their volunteer network reaches far beyond the college student demographic. They welcome high school kids and retirees, families, couples, and career-break professionals. Though, college-age adventurers still make up the majority of their volunteers. In Projects Abroad news, they just launched their first volunteer project in Samoa.
In addition to their robust presence around the world, Projects Abroad embraces a very high standard of volunteering. They work with local people whenever possible, supporting local economies by hiring local workers, a practice that must inevitably make Projects Abroad stronger. The people who live in the communities in which they operate have an intimate knowledge of local custom and culture, something Projects Abroad can offer their volunteers. Their model is focused on cultural exchange, education, and respect. This is a volunteer organization to watch.