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Translating your international experience into a career

You've hopefully had the experience of a lifetime volunteering abroad; now it's time to translate your international volunteer experience into your career. Whether you plan to work with an international aid organization on foreign soil or an advertising agency down the block, read on.

What next?

Some people left flourishing careers to volunteer and are ready to step right back into them. Others took time off partly to reassess their professional path. Still others are looking to start university or graduate studies while some are fresh out of school and just beginning to build their paid employment résumé or CV. Wherever you are on this spectrum, you'll need to do some self-assessment to figure out where to go next.

Start by making a rough list of everything you learned during your time as a volunteer abroad. Include skills that you've both acquired and broadened. First, focus on skills of a physical or craft nature. For example, did you already know how to do basic construction but learned a few new tricks while volunteering? Or maybe you were introduced to organic farming methods for the first time? Perhaps you strengthened your foreign language skills or became conversant in another language?

Second, brainstorm those skills that are more social, interpersonal, or organizational in nature. For example, if you taught in a foreign classroom, you likely not only learned or expanded your classroom management and teaching styles but also honed your cultural competency, conflict resolution, public speaking, and presentation skills. Similarly, if you spent your time as a volunteer building a school, what did you learn from participating on—or possibly even managing—a team?

Be specific and detailed about what you've learned. This may be an ongoing list that you work on over a few days as you continue to review your trip and identify the different skills you were able to take away from the entire experience.

Next, brainstorm how you might be able to apply these different skills to specific careers you might be interested in exploring (for advice on identifying potential career paths, read Chapter 3 of the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers). The key concept here is the transferability (see Chapter 8 of the Idealist Guide) of your new skills. How might your strengthened cultural competency be an asset to a social services agency? How might these same skills be applied at a multinational corporation? Would you be interested in working with local immigrants from the country you volunteered in? Spend some time thinking about your career goals and translate how the skills that you learned and broadened during your volunteer experience can also serve you in future endeavors. Don't forget to also chat with those you've met during your international volunteerism experience, especially staff members of volunteer-sending organizations and fellow volunteers, as these folks may have additional suggestions and advice on how to best apply your skills.

When you're ready to start researching your next steps, here are some resources to help you learn more about options for continuing your education and building a career:

Graduate school

If you decide that you'd like to learn more about earning a graduate degree, be sure to visit Idealist's Public Service Graduate Education Resource Center. If you're specifically interested in pursuing a degree that will prepare you for a career in international development, consider reading these pages by Comhlamh Volunteering Options.

Career development

Ready to launch your career or re-enter the workforce? Read The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers for tips to guide your efforts. While it is focused specifically on nonprofit careers, many of the same tools will apply for a career search in the for-profit or government sectors. Also, please note that there are actually two versions of the guide: one for first-time job seekers and another for those seeking to switch careers.

Another good resource for returned volunteers entering the workforce is this section on careers and fellowships by the Abroad View Foundation.

If you're specifically interested in a career in the fields of international volunteerism, volunteer management, or international development and aid, keep reading…

A career in the international volunteerism field

Thinking about building a career in supporting international volunteers and host communities? With your on-the-ground experience, you should have a fairly good idea of what the work might be like. To get the full picture, though, be sure to set up a few informational interviews with staff members of volunteer-sending organizations or other volunteer abroad programs.

To learn more about informational interviews, as well as additional job search tools and resources, check out The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers; while the Guides are focused on nonprofit careers, many of the same tools can be used to seek employment with a for-profit or government international volunteering organization. Also, you may want to read this article on working as a volunteer travel advisor.

Lastly, to learn more about volunteer management as a career path—whether working specifically with international volunteers or helping local citizens connect with organizations and issues in their own backyard—click here to visit Idealist's Volunteer Management Resource Center.

A career in international development or aid

With experience as an international volunteer, you're a significant step closer to building a career in international aid or development. Your next move should be to sit down with individuals doing this work to learn more about the day-to-day realities of a career in the field as well as to determine which skills, experience, education, or other requirements you might need to acquire. To learn more about informational interviews, as well as additional job search tools and resources, check out The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers; while the Guides are focused on nonprofit careers, many of the same tools can be used to seek employment with a government international development or aid agency.

You might also want to read the following articles on working in international aid or development by and Comhlamh Volunteering Options.

Finally, once you're ready to begin your job search, be sure to check out the thousands of global nonprofit employment opportunities listed on as well as the diverse tools and resources offered in our Career Center.

Launching your career in another country?

As an experienced international volunteer, you're on your way towards launching your career in another country. Hopefully you used your time abroad not only to volunteer but also to strengthen your local networks, learn more about the nonprofit community, further develop your cultural competencies, and hone your language skills—all of which will assist you with your job search. And while, given your time spent in a specific community, it may be easiest to launch your career in the same area in which you served, it is possible to find paid employment elsewhere.

For tips to help you get started on your long distance job search, read Chapter 6 of the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers.