The Pros & Cons of Paying for Work/Volunteer Placements Abroad

So, you want to travel abroad- maybe to volunteer, maybe for work experience, but you don’t know where to start. Companies or for-profit charities can be a good way of leaving your daily mundane life, and taking the first step out into the world. However, is it really worth to pay thousands of pounds in exchange for experience? This is what this post hopes to find out!

PROS

They sort everything out and it’s a safer option for travel scaredy-cats.

This has to be the main reason why you’d opt for paying for one of these placement services rather than just arranging it yourself. I paid around $900 (£550) for a 4.5 month internship, teaching English in Vietnam.

It was my first solo trip abroad (I was 19 at the time), and since I didn’t have enough money to go and backpack around South-East Asia, I needed to work. I had also just dropped out of university, so I wanted to do something that would look good on my CV and help in the future. Well, this placement was exactly that.

After I completed my 120 hour online TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), I paid the extra to put it to practice in the real world. If I had tried to find work straight away, I probably wouldn’t have found much success because teaching positions require experience.

So, Teach & Travel Vietnam, partners with I:toI:TEFL, arranged absolutely everything (except my flights). All the interns arrived together, so I actually met a lot of them on the stop over in Dubai. They picked us up at the airport and took us to campus where we’d do a week of training before getting put in a school etc.

This week was great because I felt very safe and culture shock was put on hold as it felt more like a school trip than the beginning of a move to South-East Asia. We went to class in the day and got taken to restaurants and bars at night. They also gave us some Vietnamese lessons.

When the week ended, we were told who was going where. I was off to Hanoi with about 13 others. The company arranged the flights (and paid for them). Everything they were giving me and helping me with really felt worth the placement fee costs.

In Hanoi they passed us to a 4th party organisation who ran a kind of teachers agency. They’d put teachers into various public schools across the city. While the idea was good, we did run into lots of problems, like with transport to and from the schools, or problems with the teaching assistants they were providing. But they worked night and day to resolve issues- basically they provided 24 hour support. Me and my wonderful friend and colleague Andy got horrifically drunk and lost- I called our boss and he somehow found where we were despite my terrible descriptions and got us a taxi back home. They even had a guard who sat outside our apartment literally all the time.

Then, when I had some problems with some of the teachers in one of my schools (they didn’t like the idea of teaching in fun and interesting ways and wanted the class to study in silence doing exercises from books… the kids were about 7 years old…) I started to hate going to the school because I felt at a loss of what I could do. I’d spend hours planning lessons which I felt satisfy everyone’s needs but ten minutes in the principle would come in and shout at us all. I had a meeting with management of the company and they contacted Teach & Travel Vietnam, and together we decided to move me to a new placement. They arranged (and paid) for flights back to Saigon and I was met by my new manager and colleagues and very welcomed into my new home and workplace.

CONS

The monthly salary (if you even get one)

This caused quite a bit of conflict within the company, since they had English teachers from all over, we soon found out what we could be earning if we weren’t “interns”. Regular teachers working in the same schools as us, but who had just come directly to the agency, were earning about three or four times as much as we were. The agency also supported them just as much, as a happy teacher means a happy school and it’s win win. They also had free accommodation, visas paid for, even a free motorbike!

I remember going to a house party in Saigon (the expat community there is HUGE) and I was overwhelmed by the fact that we were the only ones who had paid to be there. I knew I’d never pay for another placement service like this again.

And yet I see them EVERYWHERE: teach in Thailand for 6 months for £1500, work in Australia dream job as a waitress for 4 months, £600. I even saw ones which were essentially au-pair jobs (generally living with a family and helping with the house and kids), but the company organised finding a host family for you- and charged hundreds of pounds for it and didn’t offer a wage! I can’t believe people would go for that!

Then- the one that made me write this post, was a volunteer experience teaching English in Maldives. They charge from $1600 (£980) for 4 weeks up to $3400 (£2090) for 12 weeks/3 months. So, a person like me coming to volunteer will actually pay almost the same per month as I receive in monthly wages. Yes, this volunteering charity provides accommodation for free, so does my job! Yes, it offers 24 hour support, but I feel just as supported by my employers. They have been there for me no matter what, they even went down the police station and answered questions when one of our colleagues (accidentally) got arrested. In addition, my employers reimburse flight tickets, something most placement services do not.

But, there is one thing that this volunteering charity does that a regular school or language centre doesn’t: it’s not-for-profit. It claims that 45% of the placement fee goes directly to the island (for what, I’m not entirely sure). Still, it’s true that there are islands here that are in need of English teachers and simply cannot afford to pay one. So if you have the money and want to do a good thing, I’d say volunteering for a not-for-profit company fits the bill. I’m actually signed up to volunteer with Agape-Volunteers next year to teach English in Africa- however the placement fee is incredibly cheap, and is really only necessary to pay for your board and food, not for the experience itself.

However, volunteering or indeed working for a for-profit company is an entirely different ballgame. These are companies like Go Abroad, Volunteer Base Camp, and any company that screams to teens going on gap years: Year Out Group, Journeys Are Made, Real Gap Experience and Frontier.

Although these companies will help local communities, support you and pick you up at the airport… instead of paying £600 to volunteer in Cambodia for 2 weeks, where a lot of that money will go to the other needs of the company, you could have taken that £600 and volunteered with not-for-profit charities for far longer than 2 weeks- I mean £600 corr, that’s accommodation and food for at least 2 months in somewhere like Cambodia or Thailand. These kinds of placements are much easier to find once you’re in the country, but a couple I’ve come across are New Hope Cambodia and Volunteer Work Thailand, not to mention sites like HelpX and Workaway which unite volunteers with host families across the globe, to exchange a few hours work for board and food, There’s also a bunch of sites like Work in Hostels which help you to find work abroad, as the title suggets, in hostels and hotels.

The other thing you should consider is if a short stay of a matter of weeks is really going to do much for the local community. I’ve been reading so much about the damages of voluntourism, so don’t forget about the psychological impact on the local people (especially the children) on having so many Westerners come and go.

Some very interesting posts on voluntourism…

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narccissism of Global Voluntourism

The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism

Gap Years: Voluntourism – who are you helping?

Anyway, it’s not all bad for voluntourism, and you can find lots of articles on the internet exploring all the wonderful things that volunteering has on communities (which is why I decided I will volunteer in Africa).

The important thing to remember is why you want this travelling experience, whether it’s working or volunteering. Paying for my “internship” in Vietnam was the best thing I ever did because without it, I wouldn’t have been offered this position in Maldives. They said both my experience in teaching as well as of living in Asia were crucial in their decision to hire me. They could trust me that I was ready for a move to Maldives and wouldn’t leave before my contract was up. Now my experience here has paved the way to my job offer in Italy. After that, I’ll have 2 years of teaching experience, will have lived and worked in 3 countries over a span of 3 years and I’ll only be 22 years old. Woah, I just had to re-read that sentence!

Now I’m at the stage where packing in a rush the night before or on the morning, exploring airports to find where my flight is taking off, letting go of English ways (all except a good cup of tea), getting lost, dragging my heavy luggage across countries, the first mouthful of a traditional dish, sleeping alone on an overnight train, or in hostels, meeting locals and fellow travelers and everything that comes with travelling abroad, are what makes up my exhilarating life. To me, a life without travel is like a room without windows. I hope anyone reading this and thinking about going off and out into the world will decide to go and do it, despite what anyone else says, whether it’s rational, feasible, sensible, or not.. go and chase the sunset.

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Hi! I'm Sarah. I dropped out of university tired with the mundane life I was living in England. Now I'm an aspiring ex-pat of the world, having already lived and worked in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives. I'm using this blog to document my experiences and hopefully inspire others!

10 Comments

  1. Hi Sarah!

    What a lovely post yet interesting to read!

    I have come to the decision that next year or the following year I will be traveling and try to live nomads while volunteering. However, I was puzzled with the idea of volunteerism as not so many of bloggers write about the paid volunteer experiences, not to mention the pro and cons. So reading your blog has helped me realize that not all volunteerism fits and is good for you. Paying that huge amount of money while volunteering gives your certainty and security as they will provide your basic amenities and help you out with the unexpected occurrence. However, having read your post, I realize that not all the money that we paid really goes to the needed ones.

    So, again, thanks for such truthful writing. Enjoy Maldives!

    Love,
    Syifa

    1. Hello Syifa! Wow- thank you for a wonderful comment this morning!

      I admire your decision to travel and volunteer- just make sure you volunteer in an area you’re really passionate about, and have the much needed skills or experience to help the project move forwards. Paying for your room and food is acceptable, especially in deprived areas, but an in-depth search could find you some volunteering opportunities where room and food is provided in exchange for volunteering: check out a site called workaway, it’s perfect for someone wanting short-term volunteering projects while travelling around, especially in Europe where you can get around easily via the euro-rail.

      Thanks again for your comment, and have an exceptional time on your adventures!

      – Love Sarah

  2. I loved this! I am researching about traveling and teaching abroad once I get my certification and this definitely has helped me with my decision. I love your blog!

  3. Hi Sarah, this is a great and really helpful read. I’m currently considering doing the exact same internship you did as I am new to TEFL and feel it is a good way in and has the comfort of going with others which might make up for the lower pay. In your opinion is it worth it or would you recommend just trying to find a TEFL job in Vietnam for more money instead?

    Thanks,
    Faye

    1. Hi Faye, thank you! I’m glad it helped you out. Whether or not you should go with an organisation or just head out there solo depends on your past experiences, and your self-confidence and gumption! I think the internship is great for anyone lacking both teaching and travel experience. If you’ve travelled a lot, you won’t like being constrained- they choose where you live, the apartment, the school, etc. If you’ve dreamed of living in Hanoi, they might just put you down in Ho Chi Minh City. In this case, I would say look online at TEFL.com and search for jobs.

      I personally didn’t feel like I was being paid less, but then again I wasn’t paying rent. Going alone would give you more freedom to choose which age group is better suited to you, too. Then again, if you aren’t sure then it doesn’t matter. It was lovely having ‘instant friends’, we even met in Dubai waiting for the connecting flight! However, since then I’ve independently found work in parts of Europe and Asia and never had a problem meeting people and making friends– however, you might find that going alone you’ll have to actually learn the language in order to get by, whereas in a huge group of foreigners you’ll tend to just click together.

      I took the internship because I didn’t have a degree and I needed a ‘foot in the door’ so to speak. If you CAN find independent work, I’d probably suggest going for it. At the end of the day, all the organisation is doing is acting as a 3rd party- you have a contract with them, they have a contract with the school. Going alone just cuts them out, so what will you lose? Well, not that much. Most schools offer benefits such as free accommodation, or at least help finding it, there may well be existing teachers at the school (very likely) so there’s some instant friends, most schools offer free airport pick up (I’ve always been picked up in all my positions), and my bosses have been very helpful e.g taking me to hospital when I’ve been unwell, giving me extra support, organising free language lessons, etc. On the other hand, if the school turns out to be a disaster, you’re on your own, whereas if you go with the organization you simply send them an email, and they’ll either call up the school for a resolution or move you from it immediately and into a new set up. The same goes for problems with accommodation, colleagues, etc.

      Do let me know what you decide!

      Sarah

      1. Hi Sarah,

        Thanks so much for your response. I am lacking confidence with regards to the teaching to be honest, I have a degree in Education Studies and have volunteered in Africa teaching but it’s been 5 years since I graduated and volunteered and I’ve just worked in corporate office jobs since so I am really drawn towards the security blanket of the internship to start me off and give me some confidence and TEFL experience. I have also never done any solo travelling before.

        I will continue to research but I am really interested in the benefits of the internship and your comments have really helped. I’m at a point where I’m ready to leave my job and go for it which is scary but also exciting.

        As you say you didn’t feel like you were being paid less, were you on a comfortable enough salary on the internship?

        I’m so glad I found your website! I really love your posts 🙂

        Faye

        1. Aww Faye, you certainly have the credentials to be a TEFL teacher, just need some confidence! Teaching in Vietnam will certainly give you that- some of my classes had 40 or more students. Sometimes I had to use a microphone!

          The salary seemed enough I guess because food is so crazy cheap, and a beer cost about 10p, plus I had brought savings with me. Vietnam is a very different country, and I did suffer with some culture shock. I’d suggest having a look at programs in Europe, maybe Summer School to just have a go at it? You won’t regret the internship though, that’s for sure. You may decide not to go home after! Thank you for your kind words Faye. Let me know if you decide to go!

What do you think? Let me know!

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