When a group of Dr. Peter Slowe’s students mentioned that they’d like to take a year off to travel and teach in Eastern Europe, he didn’t balk and tell them all to get “real” jobs. Instead, the geography professor at Chichester University in Sussex, England contacted some of his colleagues in Romania, set his students up with work opportunities, and inadvertently founded Projects Abroad (www.projects-abroad.org), an organization that since 1992 has facilitated trips for more than 25,000 volunteers worldwide.
We’ve now teamed up with Projects Abroad to send generous travelers Diana Nguyen and Tom Mitchell on short-term volunteer trips – but only if at least 5,000 people “like” us on Facebook by January 15 (help us out!). To understand the benefits of volunteer-based travel, we chatted with Slowe, who has taught English in South India, gone on bird counts in the Peruvian rainforest, and run a soccer tournament in Accra, Ghana.
What inspired you to start Projects Abroad?
I founded Projects Abroad in 1992 when a group of my students approached me about traveling and working in Eastern Europe. Because it was difficult to find opportunities for these students to volunteer and work in another country, I arranged for them to teach English in Romania, where I had some academic colleagues.
Why did you expand the organization?
There were so many committed and talented people who wanted to volunteer with us and so many obvious needs in the orphanages and hospitals in the countries where we already worked that we just put two and two together. Although English is the vital international language that everyone wants to learn, teaching isn’t for everyone, and there are zillions of other opportunities for volunteers. Our first venture outside teaching was to help kids in orphanages in Moldova and Romania.
How does working abroad change volunteers’ perspectives?
Volunteering in a developing country and staying with a host family fully immerses volunteers in that country’s culture, allowing them to gain a deep, worldly perspective. This is something that can’t be achieved simply by traveling abroad. By working alongside locals, teaching students, or caring for underprivileged children, volunteers can vastly expand their global point of view and see the world in a more educated light.
Do volunteers have to commit to months or a year away from home?
For volunteers who want to help but don’t have the time for a month or more of volunteering abroad, short-term, two-week volunteer placements are a perfect option.
These trips operate just like the normal, four-week or longer projects, but with a few adjustments so volunteers can make the most out of their time. For instance, we ask volunteers to arrive on Saturday or Sunday so they can receive a formal orientation to the area before they start work the next week.
Although two-week projects don’t always have the same impact as longer trips, volunteers can still yield lasting effects on the community by working intensely with locals and building relationships. On a personal level, this exposes volunteers to a certain degree of cultural awareness that tourists rarely achieve.