There are tons of things to do during a gap year after high school. When Eric Chambers first considered taking one, he thought he would spend his days working a full-time job at his sister’s business or traveling around the United States to visit his friends at their campuses. He wanted to make his time off a break from classes and a way to sneak in some adventures after 12-plus years in a classroom.
What he couldn’t predict was how far that journey would take him. “Seven months ago, I couldn’t tell you much about France or where Burgundy was on a map. But now I’m here, and it’s amazing. I don’t want to leave!” he says.
Like many young adults his age, Chambers is participating in an international program. But instead of just living on a campus and going to classes, his classrooms are the fields of France, where he’s learning about conservation, winemaking, and agricultural business. The best part, however, is that he’s making money while doing it.
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What Are Work Abroad Programs Like?
Chambers is one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of young Americans completing work abroad programs.
In exchange for a work visa, food, boarding, and a small stipend, Chambers works side-by-side with a vineyard owner as a paid intern.
His day consists of waking up at around 4:30 a.m., assisting in field work, eating meals with his host family, giving tours to English-speaking tourists, and helping the business build its website and online store. Chambers, like all French workers, receives generous holidays and vacation time, which he's used to visit Spain, Italy, and Paris. Once a week, he receives a paycheck of about $500 from his employer.
“I wouldn’t get this experience if I would have stayed in the U.S.,” Chambers explains. “Here, I get to actually learn about business first-hand while getting paid. It’s so much better than working an $8-an-hour job at a fast food place back in Colorado.”
What You Need to Know About Work Abroad Programs
Work abroad programs vary by the organization overseeing them. But in most cases, the program recruits qualified students and young adults over the age of 18.
In exchange for a fee (varying from several hundred dollars to several thousand), the work abroad programs assist in applying for and securing a work visa. Some will even place students with a relevant internship or job experience. These organizations may be nonprofit cultural exchanges or they may be the business in search of U.S. workers themselves.
Chambers advises doing some research before deciding to go on an international work trip.
“I have a friend who was scammed out of hundreds of dollars,” he says.
“They got her a visa to work in China, but they didn’t help her find a job. [The visa] expired and they took all her money.”
You should also make sure you understand situations like housing. While Chambers lives with his host family, others — especially those working in a tourist town — live in worker dorms. Yet others have to find their own housing and transportation on a very limited budget.
In addition, before you go, you'll need to sit down with a tax expert to discuss what you'll need to do to properly file income you make overseas.
There are alternatives if you can’t find the right international work opportunity. Caleb Hunter, 20, is in Costa Rica serving as a student engineer through his college’s international volunteer program. Because he receives college credit, student loans cover part of his studies. Plus, he's received substantial help with spending money and living expenses from scholarship funding.
Volunteer abroad programs, while unpaid, have more security. For one, there are more organizations that can secure volunteer positions all over the world because a work visa isn't necessary. Secondly, there is not an issue with taxes or work visas. And finally, because many volunteer experiences are done through churches, colleges, and professional organizations, there is much more oversight in case something goes wrong.
Like Chambers, Hunter is building up his résumé and getting a ton of real-world experience working within his field. They both also get to say that they traveled and experienced the world from a unique point of view: through the eyes of a worker.