Some of you may personally know that the story behind IndieVolunteer was that I was a frustrated sophomore at USC who couldn’t see how my studies in anthropology would apply to the real world. I wanted to explore some career possibilities, and I wanted to travel. I had done an exchange program in Ecuador when I was in high school, and I had wanted to take a gap year before college, but none of my friends were planning on doing such a thing, and I knew that my mom would be completely against it. It took me two more years to gather up the courage, and to save up the money to buy some plane tickets and take a leave of absence from USC.
In preparing for my gap year, I realized how few global opportunities there actually are for young, socially-minded, spend-thrifty Americans. Every program that would cover accommodation and provide some sort of structure in terms of a project, a connection with an NGO, or a curriculum was either incredibly expensive or had an age requirement. Example: Global Citizen Year is a new org that targets high school grads who are interested in learning more about social justice issues and living in foreign countries. It provides a years’ worth of living in a foreign country, a social service project, and some classes & extracurricular activities to boot. It costs 28,500 USD. Example: Peace Corps recruits Americans and based on their talent, experiences and interests, sends them to a foreign country for 2.5 years to work in a local community. It only accepts college graduates. Example: Peace Brigades is an organization that defends human rights and promotes peacekeeping in zones of conflict. The age requirement is 25 (I actually agree with this though. Peace Brigades does some dangerous work in unstable countries)
When we look across the Atlantic, the dearth of global service opportunities for young Americans becomes even more obvious by comparison. For the United Kingdom alone, I have found amazing initatives and organizations that will not only facilitate young people into global service for a year or so, but actually provide them with a modest stipend on top of accommodation and a project. VSO is the best one that I’ve found; it’s highly reputable and its youth programme is perfect for high school grads. It has service opportunities all across the world, and like I said, they will provide volunteers with a stipend. This may be one of the many reasons why it is much more common for people from the UK to take gap years and to work on social projects than Americans. I have also found opportunities that exist for members of the European Union; it is not uncommon for young Europeans to take a gap year and to work on service projects, but to be supported by their national or local governments in doing so.
Which brings me back to my dilemma: how was I, as an 18-year old unskilled, unqualified American with two years of an undergraduate bachelors degree, going to take a gap year that involved service projects and living in foreign countries but one that wasn’t out of my budget?
After months of research and desperate conversations with people full of great ideas that I realized were not useful nor applicable to me, I realized: I had to make it myself.
That’s how IndieVolunteer was born. I decided: I’m going to be the one to design my gap year. I’m going to find the NGOs that were local and needed help and could possibly provide me with accommodation or at least a measure of safety. I’m going to choose the countries based on my interest and linguistic abilities. I’m going to search for the cheapest plane tickets, and decide how long I would stay in each place. I’m going to stay with locals in order to save money on accommodation. I’m going to pursue some professional interests and work in specific events or sites. And moreover, I’m going to share the process with as many people as I could, since I realized how difficult it was for young Americans to travel and volunteer on a budget.
So here it is: a financial & logistical breakdown of my gap year. Even if Global Citizen Year gave me a 95% scholarship, I doubt that it would cost less than how much I spent on my gap year total.
May 2010: Peru (one month) – plane tickets: $250. Personal expenses: $200. Volunteered at Colobrí, a Peruvian NGO that the local police started to shelter all the working kids that they saw in Cuzco. Made a video for them. A lovely NGO that gave me faith once more in NGOs.
late June to mid September 2010: France (bout three months) – plane tickets: $650. Personal expenses: $300-400. Salary earned: $600. I didn’t really come here with any plans; I just wanted to improve my French. I stayed with friends & acquaintances. I lived & worked in a famous bookshop. I worked as an au pair (nanny) for a French family for about 2 weeks in Antibes. I volunteered with Les Restos du Coeur, a mobile (rather gourmet) soup kitchen in Paris.
mid September to December 2010: New York. Worked a whole bunch, maybe made $2000 total. Not much, but I spent a bunch of that too. Living in NY is expensive. Plus I had taken a trip to Mex in late Oct & my ex-bf had come to see me in NY a couple of times. I went to the Millenium Campus Conference, a student run & student organized conference on the MDGs for the first time.
early January to mid April 2011: Colombia (bout three months, cause I took a side trip): plane tickets: $400. Personal expenses: $300-400. I originally came here to intern with La Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas but they were re-organizing themselves in the beginning of the year. I also realized that I wanted to take this sort of homecoming trip to Ecuador. So instead, I interned with Hay Festival Cartagena, a literary festival that took place at the end of January in Cartagena. It was an amazing experience, and I met amazing authors and journalists. I had this great conversation with Joumana Haddad (she’s quite the controversial figure in the Middle East, not the least because she has an erotic magazine and is against the hijab) and met Germaine Greer, Alessandro Barricio, Philippe Claudel, etc. Then I just kinda hung out in Colombia. I went to Carnaval, met up with some friends in Bogotá. Lived on a completely sustainable finca (farm) in Armenia, danced salsa everywhere I went.
April 2011: Ecuador (two weeks) bus tickets: $100 total, perhaps. Personal expenses: $100. I came here to see my family again. It. Was. Amazing. True homecoming in every sense of the word. I loved going with my host sister to her university; I felt like a student again, and I did pretty good on a quiz that they had 🙂
May – early June 2011 : China (one month and a week): my mom paid for the plane tickets. I cajoled her into taking me back to China since I haven’t been since I was little. She didn’t want me to think that I was “entitled” to it though (I’ve always said that China should do birthright trips just like Israel does… there are tons of Chinese living in the US, estranged from their culture!) so I paid for the visa. Which was hefty. Visa: $150. Personal expenses: $300. I was in Hong Kong for most of the time, and it was just ridiculous how expensive everything was. At the same time, I’m not going to lie and not say that I wasn’t eating out lots. My main goal for this trip was really just to learn more about Chinese culture, and practice my Mandarin. But I ended up volunteering for the 4th Annual Hong Kong International Art Fair that completely changed my life. I’m convinced that I’m going to work in art now, probably curating if I get the opportunity. Also, I fell in love with Hong Kong. The only thing that I don’t like about that city is the whole dorky white-guy/hot asian girl dynamic that seemed to be around me everywhere that I went. I definitely didn’t like being taken for a local there because of that. Anyway, I fell in love with the contemporary art scene in Asia. There are a lot of great Asian artists, and I think that the “West” should look beyond “Eastern” art as landscapes, porcelain aka traditional stuff. People from the Middle East, Africa, Asia are creating highly intelligent contemporary works of art that are filled with political and social symbolism. I love it.
late June to mid August 2011: France and Spain. Plane tickets: covered by a family friend. $1200. Personal expenses: $300? I came here cause I got a scholarship for a Francophone program in La Baule. It ended up being disappointing for me (the place, the level of French) so I left within a week. The family that I worked for last year as an au pair had this extra ticket with Air France for me, so for no charge I flew to Barcelona. I stayed with new friends, some of whom had worked for NGOs, and I attended this training for NGO members on 21st century conflicts & resolution strategies. I met this incredible woman from La Red de Mujeres Colombianas.
Total (approximate) expenses for the year: $3700-3900 USD. I got to do my own service projects, but also had really important intern experiences. Most importantly, I really learned in-depth about the culture in France and Colombia cause I stayed there for so long. I had amazing conversations with people from all around the world and perfected my language skills. I felt that I had truly become a global citizen because now my academic and personal interests ranged from reproductive rights in south america to Islamophobia in Europe to hyper-Westernization in China. Most importantly, I became very interested in girls’ and womens’ issues across the world. It was the number 1 thing that I took away from my travels: that in all the countries that I had visited, it wasn’t safe for me to travel alone. Why? Because we still live in a world where girls and women are vulnerable, and discriminated against. It became the #1 thing that I read about during my travels, and had conversations about. I want to dedicate the rest of my life to standing up for girls’ and womens’ rights to live as equal partners in a safer world and have equal access to education, healthcare, legal rights, political representation, etc.
It wasn’t a perfect year by any means. I would’ve liked to stay longer in any given country, but I always had to come back to NY for visa or financial reasons. That’s why I’m studying abroad in India on a student visa starting from January. I can commit a full 5 months to the NGO that I’m going to intern with there, and I won’t be moving around all the time. That being said, I wouldn’t take back my gap year for anything. I designed it myself, I made it work on my budget, and I took responsibility for my decisions. I would recommend it to anybody. And I would help anybody plan theirs; that’s why I created this website to begin with. That’s why the volunteer database is up there on the menu bar, and why I talk about how much I love traveling solo and the importance of learning foreign languages.
Each one of you can take a year to re-examine what you want to do with your life, and what is important to you. Money isn’t necessarily an obstacle. The obstacle is a lack of will, flexibility, and patience. This website is hopefully a tool to help you build all three of those characteristics. You’re not alone in trying to figure out how to make this all work on a shoestring. I was right there in your very position, thinking that it was all impossible in the beginning. But it’s not impossible. This blog is a testament to that.
I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the journey. I loved documenting it here on IndieVolunteer, and connecting with you all. Everyday, I am grateful that I took the time to figure out what I love. That’s why I’m more dedicated to civic service & the arts than ever before. I’m truly happy to share that with you all, and I look forward to any questions or comments.