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A year off to do international aid work?

July 17, 2017
Q. Hey Nick,
I am 21 years old and I have worked in Turkey and Vietnam doing physical/psychological therapy. I have backpacked, hitchhiked, and bused through 16 countries on 3 different continents now and later this year I will be traveling through Peru and Bolivia (Continent #4 :). In a couple years I will be finishing my undergraduate in Global Public Health and Biology at UC San Diego.
I speak basic Turkish and am learning Spanish. I plan on applying to medical school once I graduate but want to take a year off to continue to pursue work in international aid. What organizations would you recommend I apply to after college or even during college?
I don’t have any preference to where in the world I go as long as it doesn’t snow.
A. Hi Steven,
It sounds like you’ve had a pretty busy time in college – you’re doing all the right things building a resume of experience living and working overseas, but your question brings into focus a trend that’s been going on in international relief and development for a couple of decades now – that is it’s continuing professionalization.
It used to be that a lot of agencies would take folks without a lot of professional skills to work on relief and development projects. There are still a couple of these, but to be honest I’m not sure that I recommend them.
The thing is – while your resume is pretty interesting for someone your age, recruiters are not going to find it that compelling in terms of filling positions overseas.
It comes down to the demographics of aid agency staff – in most countries some 90-95% of staff are from the country in question – the foreigners (expats) make up 5-10% of the staff, and fill those positions that can’t be recruited locally, either very senior management, or some technical speciality like engineering, public health, or conflict management.
While your experience doing therapeutic work and your public health education is valuable, it’s not going to qualify you for positions that require an MPH or therapeutic qualification – imagine what you would think about a Turkish undergraduate showing up in California to help Americans – I think we’d be a little uncomfortable with it.
I want to encourage you to continue your engagement with this work, and explore it as something that might be a good fit for you later in your career, but not as something to do during a year off – its a profession, and is increasingly being treated that way by recruiters.
Good luck!
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