medical school, volunteering, volunteering abroad, medical school admission

Is volunteering abroad mandatory?

When I first decided to apply to medical school, I thought that volunteering abroad was a required experience. Posters for reading-week volunteer trips to resource poor settings were all over my campus. Advertisements for summer-long missions to remote clinics and orphanages popped up all over social media. Friends and classmates packed their bags to join outreach programs all over the world. I’m not sure I would have felt the compulsion to go myself if it didn’t feel so … mandatory. I thought there would be a big gap in my application where “Volunteered Abroad” is supposed to go and I didn’t want that to happen.

I need to be clear: I am happy that I volunteered abroad. I think I am a better steward of my healthcare system, a better advocate for patients, and better prepared to work with others with different perspectives and backgrounds. I’m also just a better person for having gone. I am more appreciative, more patient, and more aware of my privilege and the responsibility that comes with it. But this is not to say that I have no regrets.

Where I went, I didn’t speak the language. I behaved there as I would at home. It took more resources to feed me and house me than I could repay in service. I lost touch with the friends I had made there. Almost every positive that came from this experience, every skill or quality that is helpful in my life and career, I owe to learning from the mistakes that I made when I was abroad. I’m still not quite sure I should have had the good fortune to have been able to make those mistakes, even if I am appreciative of their lessons.

For upcoming applicants, these reflections are also a common theme in medical school interviews: weighing the pros and cons of international volunteering. It’s not too hard to come up with (an albeit abbreviated) list of points for either side.

Pros of volunteering abroad:

  • Develop greater awareness of global health and health inequality
  • Develop adaptability in new and challenging situations
  • Develop skills that are helpful in any clinical arena
  • Develop connections with those with different backgrounds and perspectives
  • “Volunteerism” has economic benefits for communities

Cons of volunteering abroad:

  • The cost of international volunteerism creates a potential class system for participants in the experience
  • Volunteers often use human and technical resources that could otherwise be used by local staff
  • Volunteers can potentially take jobs away from local workers
  • Projects may not be sustainable
  • Projects from organizations outside of local communities may not have practices that reflect the values and beliefs of that community

International Volunteerism Primarily Benefits The Volunteers...

While the list is far from complete, it does point out that in my – and many others’ – circumstance, international volunteerism primarily benefits the volunteer. This is especially the case where the volunteer has limited experience or professional skills. That is not to say that international volunteerism is bad or unnecessary or selfish because I also believe there are admirable organizations doing valuable work in resource-poor settings. I say this because these pros and cons applied to my experience and are something I wish I was more aware of before going. These may be important things for you to think about as well.

However, whether you side more with the pros or cons of volunteering abroad, the decision to actually go is ultimately a personal one. To make a blanket statement, if you want to go, do your homework and go. If you don’t really want to or it doesn’t feel like the right time, it’s probably best to stay close to home.

I hope that answers the question you might have about whether of not you should pursue an opportunity to volunteer abroad. It doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether or not volunteering abroad is helpful for medical school applications. There are a couple of things to know. First, it is your description of the activity (where you discuss what you learned, what skills and qualities you demonstrated, and how this is helpful in medicine) that makes your application stand out, not the activity itself. A volunteer experience abroad is considered the same way that a domestic experience is considered and you will be evaluated on the impact you made in the activity, not where you made it. Further, medical school administrators are well aware that these opportunities can be prohibitively expensive and so not every applicant has the same opportunity to go. Considering international experience above any other experience would likely give favor to applicants from different economic backgrounds than other applicants. This is another reason why all experiences are considered equal – and why it is the description that makes the application stand out. Second, the skills and qualities that can be demonstrated in international volunteering can be demonstrated through activities at home. For example, volunteering abroad demonstrates a desire to learn about other cultures, and that you are open minded and invested in the world around you. You can demonstrate these things through activities at home like volunteering in an English as a Second Language program, fundraising for an agency that supports newcomers to your country, or collecting items to send and distribute to a foreign country.

Keeping this in mind and being honest with yourself will help you decide whether or not volunteering abroad or at home is the right choice for you. As many wise people have told me: all health is global health. Working towards a better and kinder health care system anywhere in the world improves health care for everyone.


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About the author:

Dr. Natalie Lidster is currently an anaesthesia resident at McMaster University and a senior admissions expert at BeMo. She has a nursing degree and an M.D. from McMaster medical school and has been involved as a CASPer test evaluator at McMaster.

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