I’ve written several posts on this topic before, but I still get questions every so often about how I get to travel so much and live in foreign countries. Therefore, I’m deleting all previous posts about this topic and going to delve deeper into the topic as much as I can in this post.
I’ve spent a semester in China, a semester in Mexico, and now I’m currently living in Thailand for the semester. Whenever I travel out of the country, it’s usually with this volunteer program.
ABOUT THE VOLUNTEER PROGRAM:
The volunteer program that I go abroad with is called the International Language Programs. The program sends college-aged volunteers (18+ years old & you don’t even need to be a student in college!) to 10 different countries around the world: China, Mexico, Thailand, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Romania.
There are two different service programs you can apply for: an exchange program or a humanitarian program. So what’s the difference? For starters, the cost. When you sign up to volunteer in the exchange program, your program fee is $2,520. Exchange programs include: China, Mexico, Thailand, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland. Because of the nature of the work you’re doing in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Romania, these are considered the humanitarian programs. The program fee for the humanitarian program is $3,720 for Dominican Republic and Haiti and for Romania it is $5,470.
The second difference between the two programs is the service you are providing and the people that you are serving. In the exchange programs, you are teaching English (using the ILP teaching model!) to children who come from various socioeconomic backgrounds. In the humanitarian program, you are either working in an orphanage or teaching English to children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an English education. With the humanitarian program, you’re teaching in extremely impoverished areas.
WHAT’S INCLUDED IN THE PROGRAM FEE:
The program fee that you pay ($2,520, $3,720, or $5,470) to participate in the volunteer trip includes your round-trip flight to the country, your visa, language and culture classes, your food, and housing for the four months you’re abroad. One of the main reasons I signed up for this program specifically was because of it’s affordability.
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED IN THE PROGRAM FEE:
Although the program fee covers a big chunk of expenses, you’ll still have to save or fundraise money for a few other things that aren’t included. I don’t want this list to scare you, but I just want to give you an honest insight into what else you have to pay for because I didn’t realize it during my first semester.
- Luggage fees are not included. Depending on your airline that ILP books your ticket with, you may have to pay for your own luggage. For one semester abroad, volunteers usually bring two checked bags, a carry-on, and a personal bag. During my first semester in China, I had to pay $100 for my second checked back on the way there and then another $100 for my checked bag on the way back. However, for Thailand, I got both checked bags free. It’s just something to be aware of.
- Volunteers are required to bring one full suitcase of teaching supplies with them to their schools. The teaching supplies are the volunteers responsibility to either purchase or ask donations for. When I went to China, I spent $100+ in teaching supplies.
- A third expense not included in the program fee is all the spending money you’ll need for traveling abroad. Everything from a plate of noodles at the night market, your trash can and laundry detergent for your room, shampoo and conditioner for your bathroom, hostels, plane and train tickets, swimming with dolphins excursions, camping on the Great Wall adventures, taxi fares, entrance fees, souvenirs, etc… all of that comes from your own wallet! ILP recommends that volunteers bring at least $1,000-$1,500 extra in spending money, but I’d definitely recommend the higher end of $1,500 at least.
- Another expense is attending training. You have to be trained on how to teach, right? If you live in Utah, it’s pretty easy. The two-day teaching training is held in Orem and you can just drive there. If you don’t live in Utah, that’s when things can start getting expensive. You have two options: A. Fly or drive to Utah and rent a hotel room/ stay with friends or family in order to attend the training. or option B. Take the online training. Although they discourage it and recommend that you go to the in-person training if you can, I took the online training before I went to China and was perfectly fine teaching throughout the semester and understood the teaching method clearly. However, it was $100 to take the online training. Nevertheless, that’s still cheaper than a plane ticket or gas in addition to a hotel room would have been.
- Travel insurance is another expense that you don’t think about when signing up for the program and unfortunately, you’re required to have travel insurance. You can purchase travel insurance directly through ILP if you want, which is what I’ve done the past 3 times I’ve gone for $106.
- Aside from bills, the last thing that you’ll find yourself shelling out your own pretty pennies for are what I like to call pre-departure necessities. Pre-departure necessities include anything you might need to bring abroad that you don’t already have. EX: new Chacos or Tevas, a backpack for traveling, travel-sized toiletries, a portable charger, your favorite American food snacks, an external computer hard-drive, a camera, a hydro-flask or any of these top travel essentials that I can’t go on any trip without. The amount you spend is really up to you but I usually spend about $200 on pre-departure necessities.
- BILLS. Not everyone has bills that they need to keep paying while they are abroad, but if you do that’s something you definitely need to save up for before you leave. In all three of my semester abroad, I’ve had to keep making car payments and phone payments. So that means I had to save up an extra $1000+ for my four months of car and phone payments. If you don’t have bills to worry about making while you’re volunteering in another country, consider yourself #blessed.
ILP is always trying to help people to save money: whether it be through money saving tips or fundraising ideas, they understand that it’s not easy for us broke college kids to come up with the money that’s needed to have the adventure of a life-time in another country. Luckily, they also offer program fee discounts! These only apply to some countries though, so you need to ask your ILP representative about the specifics.
- Refer A Friend Discount: If you and a friend are going abroad with ILP during the same semester (you don’t even have to be going to the same city or country!), you qualify for the “refer a friend discount” which means you both get $300 off your program fee!
- Flex Discount: Go to the country you are most needed in! If you opt to do the Flex Discount, you’re basically telling ILP that you’ll go to any country that you are most needed in (usually the place where they need more teachers or places that aren’t as popular) for $150 off your program fee. This is definitely a risk, but if you can’t choose where you want to go or you don’t really care, let ILP choose for you! Honestly you’ll have a total adventure where ever you go, so it’s not a bad deal.
- Pay In Full Discount: If you pay in full within the first couple weeks after being accepted, you automatically get $100 off your program fee! I think it’s within 2 weeks after being accepted, but again check with an ILP rep to make sure.
GO FOR FREE AS A HEAD TEACHER!
This is the best deal of all. All you have to do is participate in one semester with ILP and do a good job and you can apply to be a head teacher. A head teacher is the leader of the group. They are the person that the volunteers can go to for any problems, act as a line of communication between the volunteers and the ILP office in Utah or the program directors, train the teachers on the teaching method further when they get into their country, and have experience in the teaching method and traveling. You’re not necessarily teaching the kids when you’re a head teacher. You’re helping your teachers teach the kids. If you get selected as head teacher, ILP pays for your program fee! Which means that your round-trip flight, visa, housing, food, and language and culture classes are all FREE! Additionally, they give you a travel stipend. You can go to a new country every time you head teach! Loved your first semester in Russia, but feel like checking out what life is like in Asia instead? Apply to head teach in China! Then switch things up again and head teach in the Caribbean in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. It’s a pretty sweet deal that you’ll probably have an impossible time trying to find with any other program. I was head teacher in Mexico and now in Thailand.
RULES OF THE PROGRAM:
There’s a pretty extensive list of rules that you agree upon when you sign up for the program. It was made with the intentions to keep you and everyone else in your group safe, to know what to expect of one another, and to avoid awkward situations (like starting to date someone in your group then breaking up). You can read the full code of conduct here.
WHERE I’VE TRAVELED WITH ILP:
CHINA: Changzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, Beijing, Yangshuo (I’m totally trying to come back to China to head teach in the future!)
MEXICO: Celaya, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Puebla, Cholula, Leon, Mexico City, Xochimilco, Teotihuacan, Las Grutas de Tolantongo, San Miguel de Allende
THAILAND: Bangkok, Krabi, Railay Beach, Koh Phi Phi, Ao Nang, Wat Pha Sorn Kaew. And still to visit throughout the semester are more of the Southern Islands, Cambodia, Bali, Chang Mai and Bangkok again.
IS SPENDING A SEMESTER IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY WORTH THE MONEY?
Yes, a million times yes! The personal growth you go through, the things you experience, the adventures you go on, the people you meet, and the places you see are worth every single penny.
By volunteering abroad with ILP, you’ll not only be hiking around China, backpacking through Europe, sipping piña coladas on the beach in the Dominican Republic, and snorkeling in Thailand, but you’ll be making a significant difference in the world. You are there to teach English to students in these countries. You’ll form bonds, you’ll deal with the craziness of the students, and you’ll be teaching the kids an incredible skill that will undoubtedly help them throughout the rest of their lives.
Priorities are different for everyone. Some want to finish school, some want a career, and some want to travel as much as they can. In August 2015, I emptied my backpack of textbooks and notepads and filled it with some clothes, a camera, and my passport instead. Living in a different country is hard, inconvenient and confusing, but it’s also one of the most rewarding and educational experiences as well.