When I finished high school I thought the only way I could travel would be to get my bachelor's degree then apply for a master's, but it turns out that you have a much better chance at traveling as a student than you do once you've already graduated. On the flip side, being a student has its complications – the finances, getting your parents' approval, and all that jazz. But, for every problem, there's a solution.
So where do we begin?
The easiest and cheapest way to travel is to apply for a cultural exchange program, an academic scholarship, or a volunteer opportunity.
Applying for any of these grants requires lots of perseverance and dedication on your part; you need to be set on traveling, exploring the world, and learning new things. You won't get through the process if your driving force is just trying to escape. Another thing: don't take it personally if you get rejected. It doesn't mean your incompetent or inadequate – lots of people who seem entirely irrelevant to the goal of the grant get accepted anyway, so chin up.
WHAT'S A CULTURAL EXCHANGE PROGRAM, ANYWAY?
Write this one down – you'll need it for when your parents ask you 100 different questions. Cultural exchange programs are initiatives led by wealthy countries like the US, the UK, and European countries, and they're done so people from developing countries can go learn, gain experience, and get exposed to different cultures and lifestyles. There are also some health- and education-focused cultural exchange programs that head to countries outside of the US and Europe.
This is usually done within the framework of work – be it waiting tables, operating rides at an amusement park, being a camp counselor, or even working at cultural centers whose main goal is to educate the people of your host country on various cultures, how to deal with culture shocks, how to overcome language barriers, and so forth.
If the odds are in your favor and you get accepted, the entity you've applied through will take you under its wings and cover your expenses for visa fees, plane tickets, and accommodations. If you're lucky, some entities will take things a step further and even provide pocket money and wages for the work you do while on exchange, and will also cover your food, drink, and transportation costs.
What are the requirements for these programs?
Unfortunately your charm and good looks aren't enough to get you accepted; these people pay good money and pick the cream of the crop based on the following requirements:
- Most programs require a long and convoluted application form; be thorough, and don't be afraid to ask for help
- Proof of enrollment from your university (provided in English or translated through an official translation office)
- University transcript (provided in English or translated through an official translation office)
- Occasionally they ask for a motivation letter or a personal statement
- TOEFL or IELTS, with a score ranging from 5.5 to 6.5 depending on the scholarship
Great, so where do I find these programs and how do I apply?
The two most important websites for Middle Eastern students to constantly scour over for cultural exchange programs and academic scholarships are Marj3 and For9a. I've used both of these before to apply to lots of scholarships and got accepted into two, so there's no need to worry about them screwing you over in any capacity – you're in good hands.
Marj3 is a very thorough and well-organized website where you can find a list of both academic and non-academic scholarships. For each one, they tell you which of the Middle Eastern nationalities it's open to; requirements, deadlines, and the application process; as well as what the scholarship covers financially. You can also find Marj3 on Facebook.
For9a is also full of scholarship and exchange opportunities, but they tend to post them very close to the deadline so it's a little inconvenient. It's probably better to follow their announcements on Facebook since we spend more time on there anyway.
Other websites where you can find and apply for cultural exchange programs and scholarships:
Min7a: An Arabic platform that offers grants to all ages
Ostio: Academic scholarships to Germany
Hot Courses: Scholarships abroad
Hey Success: All sorts of scholarships, but some are only partially funded
Scholarship Positions: You can search by host country or scholarship type
Scholars 4 Dev: Not the most organized website, but they have good scholarship opportunities
Scholarships for Africans: Fully funded scholarships for African nationals
If cultural exchange programs don't float your boat, onto the next option: volunteering abroad.
WHAT'S VOLUNTEERING ABROAD, ANYWAY?
The difference between cultural exchange programs and volunteering abroad is that the requirements for the latter are much easier, but it also comes with less perks. What does that mean? It means that volunteer opportunities usually only cover accommodation and food/drink, but the rest of the expenses are on you – plane tickets, personal expenses, etc.
Volunteering abroad takes you to exciting countries across the globe where you get to stay with a host family and experience the country very authentically. This is in exchange for either doing unpaid work in the country or helping the host family with their daily needs (think: farming). You don't get financially compensated for any of this work, but what you're getting in exchange is the opportunity to walk a thousand miles in the shoes of someone from an entirely different culture, lifestyle, and background.
Where do I find volunteer opportunities abroad?
Marj3 and For9a
United Nations Volunteers (UNV): Offers plenty of volunteer opportunities, usually in support of refugees
Volunteer HQ, Volunteer Match, Global Volunteers, and Universal Giving: Non-profit organizations connecting volunteers to opportunities
Idealist: You can search by destination and type of volunteer activity
Hands on Network: What's good about this platform is that you get to read the stories of previous volunteers so you'll know what their adventure was like, what they benefitted from the whole thing, and what difficulties they faced
Workaway: Workaway gathers all sorts of volunteer opportunities from A to Z – be it volunteering on farms or animal sanctuaries to teaching children or working for NGOs
WWOOF: Volunteering at organic farms all over the world
Project Abroad: What’s cool about this one is that there are fields like medicine and journalism, which aren't really prevalent on other volunteering websites
Volunteer4Africa: In case you didn't catch that, this one's for volunteer opportunities in Africa
WorldTeach: Opportunities to teach children in South Africa and Latin America
Most of these websites require a subscription fee so you can get the details behind your volunteer opportunity and get connected with your host family; fees differ between one platform and the next.
PRO TIPS – YES, I'M A PRO
Now that you know what these opportunities are and how they're done, what's left is a few pro tips on overcoming the financial hurdles and convincing your parents that this isn't you just coming up with a ridiculous excuse to go off galavanting across the globe.
First, look for opportunities without complicated requirements and that cost little to no money, and look for opportunities that allow you to gain experience during your summer vacation so you can come back and put that experience on your CV. Then, nag. Nagging your parents works like some sort of sorcery, then follow it up with the kicker: "and you won't have to pay anything! It's a scholarship, I can't let it go! Mosta2bali beydee3 keda!" I've tried this strategy three times now and it's worked like a charm every time, after only a little bit of resistance.
Here's hoping you get your golden opportunity to do a cultural exchange or go on a volunteering adventure! If you do, shoot us an email so we can share your story.