The world is one big oyster
December 20, 2012 4:16 AM   Subscribe

7 months to spare before starting med school – help me plan an adventure somewhere abroad.

23 year old female. I’ll be free from all commitments from end of January until end of September 2013. This is the longest stretch of stress-free time that I’ve ever had and I would really like to use it as a time to discover new things, experience new cultures etc before the rat race begins. I have about £4000 in savings (~$6500), which I’m prepared to use up, but beyond that it would be better to be self-sustaining. It doesn’t have to be one 7-month project either; I can break it up into 2-3 different things.

I don’t want to go ‘travelling’ in the backpacker sense. I’ve done short stretches of solo travel before, and I don’t find it fulfilling to go from place to place, or have no-one to share my travels with. I want to ‘live’ in a place for a while, make longer-term connections, and ‘do’ something beyond being a tourist – volunteering, taking classes, learning languages, working etc (I have EU and US citizenship). It would be ideal if it can be loosely related to my future career goals to work in global health, e.g. fieldwork in a developing country, but I’m not sure if I have enough time/experience to organise this. (I have a MPH, some technical public health skills (Stata etc), and some experience in global health policy, but no field or developing country experience.)

I did think of using that time to brush up on a language, specifically French, and thought about spending some time in a language school in Paris or something – but that’ll be quite expensive (even if I could supplement with part-time work) and maybe not as culturally eye-opening as I would hope. On the other hand, I don’t want to do a volunteering project abroad that ends up being a ‘voluntourism/gap yah’ type of thing with nothing to show (except nights out raving in Bangkok...).

Any suggestions, experiences, advice – general or specific – would be really helpful. The fact that I have hundreds of options and could literally do anything is actually overwhelming and makes me anxious that I must ‘get it right’ (yes, I know I have anxiety problems...!).

PS: not too keen on WWOOFing, and not China/Korea/Japan as I’ve spent some time there already. Otherwise, please shower me with suggestions.
posted by pikeandshield to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just in terms of a medical history type approach - if you do decide to go via Europe, can I recommend a couple of things. Firstly: the Galileo museum in Florence, with what must be the most terrifying selection of late renaissance waxworks about what can go wrong in childbirth. In London - visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum and The Pathology Museum.

I think it's worth remembering not to get stressed out by the idea of having this luxurious time that won't come again for a long time, but instead, enjoy it. Wander, investigate, and see beautiful things. If at all possible, yes do helpful things, but your patience/imagination/morale is like a bank, and you need to make a serious deposit.
posted by Augenblick at 5:41 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a company called Raleigh International that does volunteering stuff and its not all gap yah kids. Its up to age 24 but they also take on older people to work as volunteer managers (thats the bit i looked at) If you got in contact with them they might consider your background as suitable for a more mature posting. They also do bespoke programs so yif you contacted them and explained what/who you dont want and your experience then they might have some more info for you. I havent looked at them in a while but i seem to remember India and Africa placements and they had things specifically for health/research/social backgrounds and interests.

Otherwise, when i was travelling a few years back i met some people who were teaching Enlgish thorugh universities in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh/Saigon). You seemed to take a 3 month contract and if you liked it/they liked you, you could extend. (I taught in korea and it sounded completely different to that style of work and work/life balance, plus its cheaper and prettier to live in vietnam). You'd make money to live on and have your savings as back up for other activities. If you're in a Uni you would probably also get access to cheap/free courses there too so you could spend some time on your own language learning. And in southern vietnam you'll probably get access to some decent french language tuition.

Jealous and wishing i was you right now!

posted by moreteaplease at 5:47 AM on December 20, 2012

We get volunteers like you applying, and if you could commit to at least 4 months minimum in one place, you could be useful.

If you do plan to volunteer overseas, don't go through one of those volunteer placement agencies - they charge a bomb for very little extra value, almost nothing goes to the local partner and they have limited options. They're only effective for absolute neophytes who have never really traveled overseas before.

Pick a country you'd like to spend 4-6 months in, research local NGOs that are relevant to your skills and email them your CV (list all your skills - for instance, we have a choir program, so someone with a music hobby could wind up assigned to help there) and the timeframe. Only go with the ones that ask about references. Mine works with kids, so we have a minimum of a background clearance from your home country and two references, plus staff supervision to start. Absolutely expect to pay your own way, but if you're there for 4+ months, you shouldn't have to pay the NGO a volunteering fee. You probably will end up paying for your own materials if they're a shoestring local group.

Our more useful volunteers in a similar age/timeframe as you were the ones who were organised, tried to learn some of the local language to help, and who were paired with some of our local staff as assistants on projects to do things like help edit reports, suggest new ideas from their relevant work experience or do assessments to speed things up. Teaching english is pointless unless you have ESL training or teaching skill, or will be there long enough to train.

BUT especially in off the track places, the tourist dollar ethically spent can be better than short-term volunteering. Set yourself a goal - if I was you, I would want to do the trans-siberian railway because that is months properly done, getting on and off and exploring, and that region is so complex and relatively cheap - and set off for an adventure!
posted by viggorlijah at 6:21 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend working with Habitat for Humanity. They do an International Volunteer program. You get to be in a community doing amazing stuff, learning great skills and it's a pretty great thing all the way around.

More to your point, Doctors without Borders also has volunteer slots available.

Think about the type of things you'd like to do and where you'd like to do them, and there are tons of Long-Term Volunteer opportunities all over the world.

Have fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:35 AM on December 20, 2012

You could find some great health clinics to volunteer at in Francophone Africa (if you're looking to stay a few months). I highly recommend Senegal. Brush up on your French skills, get some developing international experience and you'd probably learn quite a bit of hands on work that might give you a bit of a boost in med school.
posted by raccoon409 at 9:45 AM on December 20, 2012

Thanks all for your responses!
posted by pikeandshield at 11:08 AM on December 21, 2012

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