Hitting the road

Getting overseas experience can strengthen your resume, enhance your education and be a lot of fun

When Kali Penney needed to strengthen her med school application, she had a choice between taking more classes and getting some volunteer experience. She chose to spend three months volunteering in Calcutta, followed by a month traveling around India. Her volunteer work looks good on her application, but the experience ended up meaning much more than that to her. “I would recommend going overseas. You’ll do so many things you’d never get to do here and meet people you’d never get to meet.”

There’s no better way to educate yourself about the world than to go out and see it. Travelling can be a great way to broaden your perspective, and doing it while you’re in school and you’re young can be great. Those old people in their fancy tour buses and their five-star hotels are probably enjoying themselves too, but that’s nothing compared to the freedom and the adventure you can have when you’re three decades younger and have a tenth as much money.

There are loads of ways to go abroad while you’re in university. If you do your research, you can find ways to go overseas without blowing a lot of money or adding semesters to the time it takes you to get your degree. You can even find ways to make your trip enhance your education and improve your future job prospects by building your resume — which is also a great way to justify a trip to your parents.

Studying Abroad

Going to school and living in a foreign country will give you a much deeper understanding of a place than just breezing through as a tourist. You’ll have the opportunity to learn the local language and to make friends with locals and other international students. Plus, you won’t miss any semesters and you’ll remain on track for graduation.

For some areas of study, going abroad can greatly improve your education. Overseas universities will offer courses not available at home, and the country you study in can offer opportunities you’d never have in Canada — for example, studying Spanish in Madrid, or Archaeology in Cairo. Most universities have exchange agreements with a number of foreign universities so that you pay the same tuition you would at your home university, rather than expensive foreign student fees.

The easiest way to be sure that the courses you take overseas will be credited through your degree is to go through an exchange program. Check your uni’s website for information, (for example, here is USask’s) but hurry; exchange application deadlines are usually early in the winter semester — meaning right about now.

Volunteering

Volunteering in a developing country can be one of the most rewarding (and challenging) experiences you’ll have in your life. Your experience will look great on a resume, particularly if it is related to your field of study, such as medicine, engineering, teaching or social work. It can be difficult, however, to find a volunteer posting that won’t cost you a lot of money.

It’s expensive for charities to sustain volunteers overseas. For it to be worthwhile to pay for one, the person has to be a motivated and highly trained individual who has committed to a year or more in their posting. Some organizations offer short-term postings to less-qualified applicants, but they can charge a fair pile of money for them — for example, we found a one-month posting doing orphanage work in Ethiopia that costs $2,900, or a three-month stint teaching English in Ghana for $3,900 — and that doesn’t include airfare.

An alternative can be volunteer postings run through your university’s co-op or international service learning programs (for example, here’s UBC’s). Your school might be able to defray the costs with a grant, or help you with fundraising. When Kali went to India, she did it through Simon Fraser University’s co-op program, which provided grants that saved her $2,200.

To get started, check USC Canada’s listing of organizations offering overseas volunteer postings, and CIDA’s list of youth partners.

International Internships

An internship can get you on-the-job training and resume-stuffing experience while helping you with your living expenses while you’re overseas. The two main organizations offering internships to English-speaking Canadian students are IAESTE, for engineering, science and other technical students, and AIESEC, for economics and commerce students.

Working Abroad

Canada has reciprocal working holiday agreements with 20 different countries. The terms of the agreements vary from country-to-country, but generally they allow Canadians under 31 to apply for one-year work visas, subject to various restrictions.

That doesn’t guarantee you a job, of course, but it does allow you to work legally, which is a pretty serious advantage. Unless they have special skills, most people on working holidays land jobs in the service industry or as unskilled labour. It won’t necessarily be an experience that will greatly improve your resume, (although it won’t hurt — some employers like to see that applicants have shown self-reliance and done something interesting) but it could allow you to make enough money to hang out in Sydney for a year, and see a bit of Australia while you’re at it.

If you’re a little bit leery of getting on a plane for a foreign country with nothing more than a working visa and a guidebook, SWAP is a program run by the Canadian Federation of Students that offers support to students on working holidays.

Another option for working abroad is teaching English. Native English-speaking teachers are in demand by schools all over the world. The pay varies greatly, depending on the country. Jobs in less-developed countries and countries that are more attractive to live in (such as Thailand) tend to pay less, but students have been known to earn enough money to pay off their student loans teaching in countries such as South Korea or Japan. Private schools across Canada offer English-teaching certificates, and all of them provide their graduates with help locating jobs overseas.

Backpacking

Backpacking is just like being a tourist, only with less money. Everywhere you go in the world, you’ll find budget travelers hefting dusty backpacks and haggling over the price of a cheap hotel. You could be one of them.

Backpacking isn’t exactly the best way to achieve your career objectives, but it is an impressively effective way of having fun. You won’t necessarily make deep connections to the places you go, but you can cover a lot of ground for not a lot of money.

The classic student travel destination of Europe has gotten a lot more expensive in recent years. They used to write guidebooks on how to do Europe on $5 a day — now you’d starve to death if you tried to do it on $50. Regions such as Southeast Asia and Central America remain startlingly cheap places to travel, however.

The best place to get started with planning your backpacking trip is a good guidebook. Popular choices among budget travelers include the Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Footprint and Let’s Go.

Backpacking and the other options listed above are not mutually exclusive. In fact, whatever you’re doing overseas, it’s a great idea to get yourself an extra month before or after your program to put on a backpack and take a spin around the place. You’ll be surprised at what you can find in this world if you look hard enough.




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Hitting the road

  1. This is the one thing I miss (besides my youth) about being an “older” student – much less opportunity for co-ops and study abroad programs due to responsibilities at home.

    I say take advantage of all the travel opportunities you can when it is possible to do so!

  2. Whether it be studying abroad or volunteering – traveling overseas as a University student is invaluable; not only does it add to your resume, but (not to sound TOO cliche) it’s an experience of a lifetime. As you’ve mentioned, many universities realize the importance of studying abroad and volunteering overseas, and as a result, they offer bursaries to help subsidize the heavy expenses.

    The McGill University Alumni Association has joined ship, and has created an organization – Seeds of Change – which raises funds so financial needs won’t stop students from travelling abroad to help volunteer in very worthwhile causes. Check out their mandate! :

    http://www.alumnilive365.mcgill.ca/2009/12/07/introducing-seeds-of-change-mcgills-newest-philanthropic-fundraising-group/

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