Often times, (myself included) students will sign up for a study/volunteer abroad program based on a good feeling. They might see that the description on the program website best fits their desires, they might have been sweet-talked into it by a coordinator working for the program, or they might just figure that all companies are the same and they might as well just pick one and go with it. All of these sound like reasonable ways to choose an abroad program, but they have been known to backfire.

Over this last summer, I paid a good sum of money to volunteer in Costa Rica. I went for a few reasons: I wanted to improve my Spanish skills, I wanted to experience a different country, and I wanted to do something intrinsically rewarding, namely volunteering. At least two of the three goals were achieved. I went through a national volunteer placement agency who will remain nameless. They assured me that I would be volunteering in Costa Rica while learning Spanish all while getting the experience of a lifetime. I spent several hours chatting with the volunteer coordinator, and she had me convinced to cough up over a grand to volunteer for six weeks in Costa Rica. (This price didn’t include the flight, transportation, etc.)

When I arrived in Costa Rica, it didn’t take me long to realize that the company I thought was going to be there (the one I sent my money to) wasn’t really there. They were simply the middleman to a “volunteer organization” in Costa Rica. The organization was responsible for everything including my homestay, volunteer placement and support. The homestay was great, the support wasn’t bad, but the volunteer placement was virtually non-existent. I was placed in a clinic where they didn’t need my help whatsoever. I would typically sit in a room by myself while the doctors and nurses gossiped in a different room. I complained about my volunteer placement, so they decided to move me to a temporary kids camp, which was extremely unorganized to say the least. The kids camp ended with 3 weeks left for me to volunteer, so I ended up just hanging out with the host family the rest of the time.

One day, I spoke to the host mom and found out they were getting paid $70 a week for me to stay there. I quickly did the math in my head, and realized about ¾ or ~$900 of my fee went to volunteer placement. That just didn’t quite add up. They didn’t do a darn thing to get me placed anywhere. I spoke with other volunteers who felt scammed just as well. Some went through other middlemen who took an even bigger cut. There was also a large group of “Medical Intensive” students who paid a lot more for a shorter time, and ended up getting a worse deal than myself. They were promised several hours a day of medical-related volunteer work, along with medical Spanish classes, and the “volunteer organization” delivered about 25% of the time. A few people actually left early because they were so disappointed with the program. One girl is actually filing a lawsuit against her program.

The only guy that seemed satisfied with the whole thing did some extra research before signing up to the program. Instead of going through a middleman, he went through the organization in Costa Rica directly. He didn’t have to pay the premium of having a middleman, but also chose simply to be picked up from the airport and placed with a host family. He also negotiated directly with them to pay weekly, so he could leave anytime he wanted. He was more informed because he found a blog of someone who had gone through the program already, so he knew exactly what to expect. Too bad he was the only one.

It makes me sick knowing that these “volunteer organizations” are taking advantage of good people all over the place. Even though I know there are good programs out there, this experience has left a sour taste in my mouth. I just hope that future students and volunteers will read abroad reviews before signing up with a company. As long as people are falling victim to these shifty programs, they will continue to exist. If you had a bad experience, make sure to post a review, warning others to stay away. Together, we can help reform the industry and make volunteering what it is supposed to be.

Author's Bio: 

Author, Tom Noonan has started a study, intern and volunteer reviews website: http://www.AbroadReviews.com.