Monday, December 18, 2017

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SDSU student Nicole Garcia playing with children while volunteering abroad. SDSU student Nicole Garcia playing with children while volunteering abroad.
 


Volunteering Abroad Gaining Popularity Among SDSU Students

Volunteer work is an option to satisfy international study requirements.
By Michael Klitzing
 

“I’ve definitely seen that many of our students want a different type of experience. They want to be more independent and gain hands-on experience in their field of study.”

Nicole Garcia and a classmate from San Diego State University arrived in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in January ready to embrace the unknown during a two-week volunteer program. That’s when Garcia, a public health senior, spotted something familiar: the sorority bag of a fellow volunteer.

Halfway around the world, in a small city just south of the Myanmar border, Garcia had found a fellow Aztec. Then to her amazement, she met a second.

“There were students from all over the world there in Chiang Rai, including the Philippines, Australia, Morocco and Germany, and four of us were from SDSU,” Garcia said. “That really shows how many people are going on these programs from our school.”

Indeed, volunteering abroad is becoming increasingly popular with SDSU students. In summer 2016, these programs, which serve as alternatives to studying at a foreign university or traveling abroad with a faculty member on an SDSU course, attracted only 18 students. This summer, 222 students participated in volunteer experiences focused on teaching, public health and social service.

“I’ve definitely seen that many of our students want a different type of experience,” said Roxanne Riedel, international programs coordinator in the College of Health and Human Services. “They want to be more independent and gain hands-on experience in their field of study.”

Something different

Garcia initially considered fulfilling her major’s international requirement via a more traditional study abroad program, but ultimately elected to travel to Chiang Rai through International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), one of three companies whose volunteer programs are offered at SDSU.

The experience allowed her to play with sick children at a Chiang Rai pediatric hospital and venture into the countryside to teach English to the hill tribespeople, often conducting lessons inside their huts.

“It’s made me want to do more volunteer work,” said Garcia, who interned over the summer at the San Diego Food Bank. “It made me think, ‘If I could do that there, what can I do here to give back?’”

After spending the summer in Madrid, Spain, also through an IVHQ program, Lorena Chavarria felt similarly. The SDSU nursing senior taught vocational skills and computer literacy to people with special needs.

“Being able to be a part of their lives for three weeks was really rewarding,” Chavarria said. “I’m really passionate about helping people and I want to do it in my future career, so it couldn’t have been a better experience for me.”

Flexibility and choice

Convenience and cost have also fueled the popularity of volunteering abroad. IVHQ operates programs in more than 30 countries each year with flexible dates.

“These programs offer a diversity in location, time and price, which really means students get to build their own program,” said Inemesit Williams, associate director of the SDSU Study Abroad Office. “And since many of these programs don’t require you to be a student to sign up, our students are often able to go abroad with a friend, a family member or someone from another school.”

Volunteering abroad is often a significantly less expensive alternative to traditional study abroad. Most programs work with nonprofit organizations in communities where the cost of living is low. Also, accommodations are typically in dorms or home stays, with home-cooked meals provided.

Garcia, who recently received an IVHQ scholarship, is now planning to teach English in Costa Rica during the upcoming academic year.

“I think students started coming back and talking about how cool and affordable it was,” Garcia said. “When I went, I could have spent nothing if I didn’t want to. They provided us with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the hospitality was amazing.

“Everyone is just so nice in Thailand,” she added. “They call it ‘The Land of Smiles’ for a reason.”