Gap Year Volunteering: How You Can Give Back While on Break

Malia Obama’s year off from school before attending Harvard cast gap years into the limelight in 2016. An up-and-coming trend for American students, a gap year is a semester or year away from college either domestically or abroad aimed at “increasing self-awareness, learning about different cultural perspectives, and experimenting with future possible careers,” as defined by the U.S. Gap Year Association. And while there are many reasons to take a gap year, nearly half of American students in a recent survey cited a desire to volunteer as a main factor driving their decision. Interested in taking a volunteer gap year yourself but aren’t sure where to begin? Keep reading to learn about the key benefits of gap year volunteering, find expert tips for planning your volunteer gap year, see which organizations have the best gap year programs for your volunteer interests, and much more.

Meet the Expert
Marion Taylor, MSW

Gap Year Advisor

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Marion Taylor is accredited by the Gap Year Association and a current board member. She has been working for 10 years as a gap year counselor combining her social work background (MSW), her parenting perspective (all four of her children participated in gap experiences), and her own gap year experiences pre- and post-college and throughout the course of her adult life, both as a gapper and as an advisor vetting gap program with visits in the field. She serves as keynote speaker at high schools, colleges, and gap year fairs and enjoys working with students of all ages from all economic backgrounds and orientations.

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Why Take a Volunteering Gap Year?

Gain life experiences

In a 2015 survey, 92 percent of gap year alumni cited the opportunity to grow personally as the most significant reason to take a gap year. Volunteering gap years take students out of their day-to-day routines and into a whole new set of circumstances and experiences.

Get a break from the academic track

Dedicate your time to worthwhile projects

Travel and experience other cultures

Discover new interests and skills

Key Questions to Ask When Planning Your Volunteer Gap Year

There’s no perfect way to take a volunteer gap year. Everything from where to go, how long to go, and what type of volunteer work to do are up for debate. Before and during your research process, it’s helpful to take a step back and consider what factors are most important to you and how you can make your dream volunteer gap year a reality. Here are eight questions to ask yourself while planning your gap year:

Volunteer domestically or abroad?

The notion of a service gap year typically conjures up images of far-off destinations. But it’s entirely possible – and more affordable – to spend a gap year volunteering in your home country. Students who choose this option may have an easier time with the adjustment and potentially keep a part-time job. On the other hand, international volunteering opens you up to a different culture and way of life, and possibly the chance to practice a foreign language.

How long do I want to volunteer?

Where and how am I needed?

What type of volunteer project interests me?

When should I take a gap year?

Does my college or university allow deferred enrollment?

What’s my budget?

What do the program fees cover?

When is the Best Time to Go on a Volunteer Gap Year?

Taking a break from the linear path can be enriching at various times in your life. Though most people think of gap years as a year off between high school and college, this isn’t the only time you can choose to veer from the beaten track. During college, between undergraduate and graduate school, or even before launching a career are all great times for service gap years. Determining when to take a gap year is a personal decision that involves looking at your professional or academic path, financial situation, and desired outcomes from the break.

Before undergraduate studies

The most common time to take a gap year is after high school and before starting an undergraduate program. The timing feels like a natural break for students to reset and reenergize for the next chapter in their academic careers. Most colleges have deferred enrollment policies that allow admitted students to reserve their spots for the following academic year.

Pros

Excellent time to discover new interests and skills

Return to school with renewed motivation for academics

Studies indicate higher academic performance after taking a gap year

Cons

Some financial aid and loans require starting school right away

You might not yet have the skills or knowledge for your dream volunteer role

During your undergraduate or graduate schooling

Though not as common, it’s certainly possible to take a gap year during the course of your undergraduate or graduate studies. Depending on your school and financial aid or loan situation, a gap year in the middle of college can be trickier than when you’re not enrolled. Nonetheless, there are schools that allow breaks without fully unenrolling – though they may only allow one quarter or semester off.

Pros

Gain clarity regarding your academic path

Avoid burnout while in the thick of school

Cons

Readmission can be tricky at some schools

Student loans and financial aid may not allow time for a gap year

Before graduate school

Similar to after high school and before college, taking a volunteering gap year after undergraduate and before graduate studies – law school, medical school, master’s programs, and the like – is another natural break time on the academic track. Likewise, many universities allow deferred enrollment for admitted graduate students just like they do for undergraduate.

Pros

Return to school with renewed motivation for academics

Allows more time for applying to graduate school, if not already committed

Nice to volunteer and travel after gaining maturity and skills in college

Cons

Finances could be tight after the years spent in school

Finishing your graduate degree as quickly as possible may feel like the priority

Before entering the workforce

“Earn your degree, get hired” can feel like the next step in a conveyor belt of life milestones. But taking a year off to volunteer after so many years of studying can be a great way to reset and explore career paths before jumping into a job contract.

At the same time, having an undergraduate or graduate degree under your belt can broaden your volunteering opportunities. Similar to jobs, volunteer programs aim for match the right volunteers to the right projects. Applying your skills and knowledge from college to a gap year can mean more responsibility in the types of volunteer work you do.

Pros

Experiences gained during a volunteering gap year can boost your resume

Being a more skilled volunteer can mean more responsibility and greater impact

Ability to explore career paths through volunteering

Allows more time for job applications

Cons

Finances could be tight after the years spent in school

Working might feel like a bigger priority

10 of the Best Volunteering Gap Year Programs

Whether at home or abroad, for a few months or a year, students will want to spend time researching volunteer programs for their gap year. Finding a structured program planner will make for a smoother gap year experience, according to Ethan Knight, founder of the Gap Year Association. There’s a lot of variety amongst volunteer gap year providers in terms of dedication to their communities, services offered to volunteers, and duration. Here are ten of the best:

International Volunteer HQ prides itself on being one of the world’s most trusted and affordable volunteer trip planners. Over 100,000 volunteers have gone on trips through IVHQ in over 40 worldwide destinations. They provide a range of services like responsible volunteer orientation and fundraising resources, and they have options for volunteers under 18.

Program Locations

Europe, Asia, Middle East, Latin America, United States, Australia & New Zealand, Africa

Global volunteer placements through United Planet range from one week to one year. Their comprehensive long-term programs (six months or a year) include pre-departure training, travel and medical insurance, food and lodging in host countries, and language training amongst other benefits.

Program Locations

Europe, Asia, Latin America, New Zealand, Africa

AmeriCorps is a service organization supported by the U.S. federal government. Americans of all ages can apply to become an AmeriCorps member (about 75,000 Americans join annually!). As a member, you can contribute to volunteer projects for three months to a year and become eligible for some impressive perks like student loan deferment, college scholarships, living allowances, and health benefits.

Program Locations

United States

Projects Abroad affords volunteers a lot of flexibility in choosing their length of stay. Programs can last up to a year and typically have a minimum duration of one week. They have six categories of volunteer projects to choose from: conservation, childcare, teaching, building, sports coaching, and archeology.

Program Locations

Asia, Africa, Latin America, South Pacific, Romania

Volunteer abroad programs through GVI come in a wide range of unique focus areas, such as marine conservation, photography, women’s empowerment, and health promotion. For gap years, GVI recommends signing up for one or more one-month to six-month volunteer abroad programs. Where GVI really shines is in their commitment to ethical volunteering and the communities where they work.

Program Locations

Africa, Asia, Latin America, Fiji, Greece

Another great option for those who want to stay domestic for their gap year is City Year. Part of the AmeriCorps network, City Year focuses on supporting high-need schools by sending volunteers to help with students’ academic and social-emotional development. With proven results in 29 cities, City Year is a time-honored organization with meaningful impact.

Program Locations

United States

Global Citizen Year takes an apprenticeship approach to service gap years. Yearlong programs in the four destination countries include one to five apprenticeships in the local community with focuses such as teaching, social enterprise, and agriculture. The program includes training and language education combined with homestays for cultural immersion.

Program Locations

Brazil, Ecuador, India, Senegal

CIEE offers semester- and year-long service gap year programs accredited by the Gap Year Association. As a study abroad and gap year provider, CIEE is dedicated to academics and safety. Their service gap year programs emphasize language learning and cultural immersion through a combination of community volunteering and overnight excursions.

Program Locations

France, Dominican Republic, Ghana

Year On’s 15- and 32-week programs combine international volunteer time in one of five countries and skills training in San Francisco, California. The longer experience involves an additional phase of launching your own project, such as starting a business, taking a course, or working.

Program Locations

Mexico, India, Indonesia, Peru, Tanzania

Those who prefer to travel and volunteer as a group should check out Youth International. Groups of 14 participants aged 18 to 25 can join three-month-long programs that combine volunteering, outdoor adventure, cultural exchange, and homestays. Programs in each of the three destination regions include experiences in three countries.

Program Locations

Asia, South America, Africa

Spotlight on Colleges that Encourage Volunteer Gap Years

Students interested in a volunteering gap year before or during their studies have to pay attention to one key factor: their school. With the increasing popularity of gap years in the U.S., many colleges are revisiting their deferred enrollment policies to accommodate. Schools are not only allowing delayed start dates but also encouraging students to pursue gap years. Course credit for service learning, financial assistance for gap years, university-sponsored programs, and low tuition deposits are just some of the ways that colleges are promoting a break from the classroom.

These seven schools stand out for their gap year support:

Harvey Mudd College

Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California allows admitted students to defer enrollment for one year in most cases, according to their application FAQs. Students must submit a form with a written explanation of their gap year plans and pay the $300 tuition deposit. Likewise, the school’s admission policies state that for new applicants who apply after taking a gap year, this won’t affect their application.

Portland State University

Harvard College

Warren Wilson College

Middlebury College

Florida State University

Princeton University

How to Find Ethical Volunteering Gap Year Opportunities

Contrary to what many would like to believe, volunteering isn’t always ethical. Dishonest volunteering schemes and programs that exploit people or animals are sadly a reality that you’ll have to be aware of when researching for your gap year. For instance, research has found volunteer tourism in orphanages to be highly problematic and damaging to children involved. Know how to spot a responsible, ethical volunteer program with these tips:

  • Research service gap year programs thoroughly
    Finding a service program is no time to rush! Start narrowing down your list of ethical options with online research (then move on to the next three tips). Responsible volunteer organizations generally offer pre-departure training and at least a basic support system while you’re there. Their websites typically have some transparency around what they do to ensure their placements are not exploitative and are creating in partnership with local communities. If you don’t see these basic needs met, skip it.
  • Talk to past volunteers about their experience
    Reading reviews online or talking to past participants can give you a glimpse behind the curtain to see what it’s really like to volunteer with a certain program. Photos of smiling faces on a website may be comforting but hearing from someone who has actually been there gives you first-hand knowledge.
  • Ask pointed questions before committing
    Reach out via email or, better yet, phone to the gap year providers or volunteer organizations on your shortlist. Ask them as many questions as you need to feel confident in your own safety and their responsibility to the communities in which they work. What are the long-term outcomes of the volunteer work? Who is the local partner organization? How will my volunteer role benefit the local people?
  • Know where your program fee money goes
    This should be one of the key questions to ask a volunteer organization or program planner. A certain percentage of the fees should fund the services delivered to you (housing, training, etc.) and a portion should go towards maintaining a responsible service program in the local community. If an organization lacks transparency about fees, that’s a red flag for a scam or worse.
  • Find a volunteer organization through your school
    For those taking gap years during their studies or afterwards, take advantage of the resources available on your campus. Get in touch with the service learning or global offices to learn about organizations they recommend and see if they can fit into your gap year plans. If your school has a relationship with the organization, that means they’ve already done the research for you.
  • Say no to orphanage volunteering
    The complications with volunteering in orphanages abroad are numerous. At best, research shows that children undergo psychological harm when they form attachments to volunteers who must eventually leave. At worst, children who have families are exploited to be put in orphanages as a way to attract international volunteer tourists and donations.
  • Look for opportunities with a grassroots organization
    If you want to plan a volunteering experience without going through a structured gap year provider, be sure to connect with a credible, local nonprofit organization. Figuring out if a local organization in a foreign country is ethical can be more of a challenge; those who choose this avenue should schedule phone calls to ask lots of questions before committing.

Making the Most Out of Your Volunteering Gap Year

Volunteer gap years can be immensely valuable for both you and the communities where you choose to work. To get the value out of a service gap year, you have to put in the effort. Focus on ways to make the most out of the experience while you’re there as well as afterward:

Keep a reflection journal throughout the year.

Memories of your gap year will get hazy, so keep a journal that you can look back on after the year is over. Practice documenting your day-to-day but also your personal reflections: how have you grown, what challenges you, who has impacted you and how? Write out these reflections to get a better understanding of what you’re going through and establish goals for the remainder of your gap year.

Stay connected with the community where you volunteered.

A 2015 survey asked gap year participants about the most significant experiences they had. The number one response? Relationships. Staying in touch with homestay families, friends, mentors, and other community members from your volunteer work shows them how much you care.

Be ready to learn more than you teach.

A volunteering gap year is an opportunity to practice humility. Hone your listening and observation skills as a way to learn during your volunteer experience. Open your mind to learning from community members that you volunteer with: what can they teach you about life from their perspective?

Add your volunteer experience to your resume.

Quality volunteer experience can make an excellent addition to your resume/CV or future school applications. It gives people a glimpse into your interests (“Wow, she must be really passionate about the environment!”) and demonstrates that you’re driven enough to pursue them through volunteering.

Seek out service opportunities while earning your degree.

Who said volunteering and service-learning have to end after finishing your gap year? Keep up the momentum by finding volunteer opportunities through your school or in your local community.

Share your experiences with others.

Whether through social media, blogging, or simply telling stories to your peers, opening up about your experiences can be a great way to reflect and increase awareness of the issues you learned about. Taking a volunteer gap year may not make you an expert but be confident in the learnings you have to share.

Interview with a Gap Year Advisor

Marion Taylor, MSW

Gap Year Advisor

Marion Taylor is accredited by the Gap Year Association and a current board member. She has been working for 10 years as a gap year counselor combining her social work background (MSW), her parenting perspective (all four of her children participated in gap experiences), and her own gap year experiences pre- and post-college and throughout the course of her adult life, both as a gapper and as an advisor vetting gap program with visits in the field. She serves as keynote speaker at high schools, colleges, and gap year fairs and enjoys working with students of all ages from all economic backgrounds and orientations.

Can you talk a little about the increasing popularity of volunteering gap years for U.S. students?

Given the fact that over 3,000 colleges in America now allow deferments for a gap year, and that countless other universities now include a gap semester as part of their freshman year, gap year participation has certainly increased. However, European and South Pacific countries still seem to have a higher number of students taking a gap year over American students. The Gap Year Association saw a huge increase in gap year interest the spring that Malia Obama decided to take a gap year deferring her entrance into Harvard. Compared to 1974-75 when I took my own gap year, gap years are now considered more of an opportunity for growth through experiential learning rather than a “year off” or alternative option to secondary education. I credit my college for having the insight to encourage me to move forward with my gap year, as I was much more focused on my studies at college upon arrival and I am certain did much better academically. Interest in volunteering has also increased in high schools, due in part to the required community service hours and to parents identifying service as a way to augment and diversify their childrens’ transcripts for college. But I also think that young students truly want to learn and be exposed to other cultures through travel, community immersion, and learning service. As a gap advisor, I encourage students to live with a family in a homestay to truly understand how the majority of the world lives outside of the U.S.

What are some of the most common projects for students on volunteer gap years?

What advice do you have for students about planning their volunteering gap year experiences?

What tips do you have for students to make the most out of their volunteering gap year?

Recommended Resources for Planning a Volunteering Gap Year

For planning a service gap year and finding volunteer opportunities, turn to these additional resources:

Finding Independent Volunteer Opportunities

Idealist: Browse thousands of volunteer opportunities with organizations around the world. Filter by location, focus area, and more.

Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farmers (WWOOF): WWOOF connects volunteers with organic farmers around the world, blending volunteer work with cultural exchange through homestays.

HelpX: HelpX or Help Exchange lets you browse farms, homestays, and B&Bs that offer short- to medium-term accommodation in exchange for volunteer work.

Workaway: Create an account to get connected with families, farms, and local organizations that need volunteer work in exchange for room and board. International listings are included.

Volunteer Gap Year Program Directories

Go Overseas – Volunteer Abroad: Browse over 3,000 global volunteering gap year opportunities by location, project type, and time frame along with alumni reviews.

TeenLife: A directory of over 13,000 experiences for high-school students to volunteer at home or abroad and take gap years. Peer reviews of programs are included.

USA Gap Year Fairs: Organized annually by Go Overseas, these fairs bring together over 100 gap year program providers for families to explore opportunities.

GoAbroad – Volunteer Abroad: Platform allows you to browse international volunteer placements with alumni reviews, while also providing travel and planning resources.

GapYear.com – Volunteering: This British company updates a directory of volunteer gap year programs around the globe as well as inspirational blog stories and travel ideas.

Additional Resources for Volunteer Gap Years

Gap Year Association: With a vision to make semester-long gap years accessible to all high school graduates, this nonprofit provides research on gap years, accredits programs, and helps with financial aid.

Planning Guide to the Ultimate Gap Year: This in-depth guide from the Gap Year Association helps students plan where, how, and for how long to take a gap year.

International Volunteer HQ – Fundraising Tips: A respected global volunteer program provider, their website offers excellent ideas for how to fundraise for volunteering gap years.