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Jansen van Vuuren

The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.

If your gap year plans were put on hold, the summer months can be a great time to take part in summer volunteer programs, and make a positive impact globally. 

Not only do you have about two months off school, but the weather is great, which means you can use the time to make an impact in the world while enjoying the outdoors.

But who wants to volunteer in their own hometown when you could go abroad? Summer volunteer programs give you the perfect chance to spend time in another country and experience all there is to see and do. And volunteering abroad allows you first-hand insight into the culture by allowing you to work with local communities daily or learn about the environment from resident conservationists.

We’ve put together a list of our most exciting summer volunteer programs for college students. These programs are highly engaging, and based in locations all around the world, and you can meet people from every corner of the globe. 

These programs are also aligned to conservation and international development best practices. This means you can use them to add to your career portfolio, while still having great fun in a country abroad. Plus, every GVI summer volunteer program follows strict COVID-19 regulations on base or while travelling, which means that you can be sure you’ll have a safe summer travel experience.

Further reading: Why volunteer?

1) Summer bird research in Costa Rica

A bird perched in a tree spotted during the GVI bird research project in Costa Rica.

 

Costa Rica is known for its stunning bird life, with many eye-catching species calling this Latin American country home. In fact, although it is a relatively small country, there are more bird species in Costa Rica than in the entire North American area. Part of the reason for this extraordinary diversity is the range of habitats available for birds, and other animals, in Costa Rica.

The country features everything from swampy mangrove canals to mountainous forests. Wherever your journey takes you in Costa Rica, you’ll certainly spot several of these photogenic creatures, like the yellow-beaked toucan, bright scarlet macaw, or little flitting hummingbird.

Possibly the most ecologically significant of these Costa Rican natural treasures are those that frequent the river canals. They help maintain the delicate and valuable mangrove wetland ecosystems of rainforests. 

Wetlands are known to be the habitat that’s most effective at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and are essential for helping us build the Earth’s resilience to climate change. 

Help GVI with conducting surveys in Tortuguero National Park of the 30 waterbird species identified as key by the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment. In this way, you’ll be helping to protect not only Costa Rica’s fantastic bird life, but the environment as a whole.

2) Summer volunteer teaching program in Cambodia

A volunteer teacher teaching a class of young children in Cambodia

 

While you can visit Cambodia all year round, with a warm tropical climate, pristine beaches, lush hiking trails, and a laid-back atmosphere, the summer months give you an opportunity to really immerse yourself in the destination.

Spend your summer in Siem Reap – located in northwestern Cambodia – a gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park, which was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1992.

Siem Reap is home to medieval architecture, and lively local markets where you can immerse yourself in the culture of the city, and gain a deeper understanding of its past, present and future. You’ll also enjoy freshly prepared Cambodian cuisine (think lots of noodle bowls and sticky rice).

Further reading: Cambodian cuisine: ten unique dishes you must try

Our teaching project in Cambodia was launched in 2018. Taking part in the program this year is a matchless opportunity to see what international development projects are all about. So don’t miss out. Be sure to follow our journey on GVI Cambodia’s Facebook page.

3) Endangered turtle conservation and research program in Thailand

Volunteers cleaning turtles in the endangered turtle conservation and research program in Phang Nga in Thailand.

Volunteers clean turtles as part of the endangered turtle conservation program in Phang Nga, Thailand.

 

Thailand is another beach holiday destination. But why just lounge on a Thai beach sipping from a fresh coconut when you could also be working with baby sea turtles while you’re at it?

Travel to Thailand’s Phang Nga to work at turtle nurseries. Here, the mission is to ensure that baby sea turtles grow up to be healthy adolescents. Once they reach their full size, they are released back into the ocean.

You’ll be helping to apply anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents to the young turtles, cleaning turtle ponds, and learning all about the ecological importance of these sea creatures, as well as the threats they currently face. 

Further reading: Eight reasons why you should volunteer in Thailand

4) Summer coral reef research program in Fiji

A diver doing an underwater survey of a coral reef off the coast of Dawasamu, Fiji.

 

If you’re not content to simply stay on the shore, why not dive in to learn more about life underwater? And where better to do it than in Fiji, an Australasian island surrounded by the warm, clear turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean.

If you’ve watched the documentaries Blue Planet II or Chasing Corals, you’ll know that coral reefs are a vital part of the marine ecosystem. You’ll also know that a phenomenon known as coral bleaching, a result of global warming, is endangering their survival.

On this GVI coral reef research program in Fiji,  you’ll engage with marine conservation authorities like marine biologists, conservation organisations, and local communities to learn more about these environments so that we can all work together to find out how to protect them better. They are also vibrant underwater environments that are known to hide highly admired pastel-hued South Sea pearls.

5) Summer reptile and amphibian diversity research in the Costa Rican Rainforest  

An iguana lying in a tree, spotted during the reptile and amphibian diversity research in the Costa Rican Rainforest.

 

Other than its birdlife, the Costa Rican rainforest is also known for its variety of herpetofauna – that’s frogs, snakes, and lizards, to those not in the know.

They seem a little terrifying to some people, but they are fascinating. Not only are tropical rainforest frogs some of the brightest out there, but some are also rare. 

Amphibians are some of the creatures most severely impacted by pollutants, habitat loss, invasive alien species, and climate change. One way of measuring how resilient an ecosystem is or how quickly it’s recovering from a damaging event is to keep track of how many frogs call it home.

Snakes make up the majority of the reptile population in Costa Rica and are admired for their spectacular beauty. If you’re hiking through the rainforest, keep an eye out for the mellow mustardy-yellow eyelash viper, the sleek and slender bright green vine snake, and, of course, the baroque-patterned boa constrictor.

But don’t forget the iguanas. You’re also likely to spot at least one large, red-crested creature lounging in the trees above the trail.

Do days spent in the jungle looking for these creatures in the Costa Rican rainforest sound like your kind of summer? Be sure to sign up for the program.

Further reading: How to take a gap year: before, during, and after

6) Summer rainwater harvesting and water security program in Fiji

A volunteer filling a water bottle from a rain harvesting water tank.

 

If you’re excited about visiting Fiji but aren’t keen on getting into the water, maybe you’d rather work with the communities to install rainwater harvesting systems in their villages.

Water security is important on an island like Fiji because the ocean presents a challenge for the implementation of effective infrastructure. Tropical storms are also common in this Pacific region and, being close to sea level, island locations like Fiji are some of the most vulnerable to damage caused by these storms.

In 2016, Cyclone Winston destroyed much of the infrastructure on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. You could help maintain one of the most essential parts of this infrastructure, by participating in our water security project in the community of Dawasamu on Viti Levu. In the process, you’ll learn about the  cultures of the Fijian people. 

7) Teaching with early childhood development in Ghana

A volunteer in a classroom with Ghanaian children dressed in traditional Ghanaian dress.

 

Maybe you think Fiji isn’t for you this year, and you’re more keen on seeing what the African continent has in store. With help from volunteers like you, we pioneered our first education project in Ghana in 2018.

We are stationed in the seaside village of Kokrobite, an hour away from Accra, the capital of Ghana. You will be working with schools, assisting  teachers by providing children with additional educational support in subjects like English, Mathematics and computer skills. 

On your time off, enjoy all that this West African country has to offer, including a shopping excursion to the local markets or a trip to explore the rainforest and savannah habitats of several national parks.

Follow our progress on this community development project on Facebook.

8) Rhino poaching awareness in South Africa

A rhino in a defensive pose, standing in the African savannah in Limpopo.

 

If you’re more interested in African wildlife, why not spend your summer with GVI in South Africa?

You could join our conservation volunteers in South Africa’s Limpopo province, in the Greater Kruger Park, where you’ll be able to assist park managers and safari field guides to prevent poaching of endangered rhinos in the private reserve where we operate.

South Africa is home to the largest population of rhinos in the world. Since the beginning of the century, rhino poaching rapidly increased throughout the country, peaking at 1,215 rhinos in 2014. Since then, these numbers have dropped significantly, and incidents of rhino poaching hit a record low of 500 in 2019. This is proof that rhino anti-poaching programs have been effective, and that we can all contribute towards bringing these numbers down even further. 

Poaching not only has an impact on the planet’s overall biodiversity, but is specifically damaging to the rhino’s habitat as well. 

Rhinos are grazers and help maintain the plant life of the savannahs where they roam. Wherever there aren’t rhinos, conservationists have been seeing a surplus of long grasses taking over the resources of other plants. 

The effect of this dramatic ecosystem change on other flora and fauna is complex and not yet fully understood. 

As a volunteer on this project, you’ll learn from experts in the field about what the challenges of preventing poaching really are, and assist the reserve’s management by tracking rhinos and maintaining fences around the park. You could also work with the community to increase their income opportunities, ensuring that they’re empowered through activities that conserve rhinos.

Further reading: Ten things you need to do in Cape Town

9) Big cat conservation research in South Africa

A male lion, lying in long grass in the African savannah.

 

More into big cats than giant herbivores? Spend your time in South Africa’s Limpopo province studying lions and leopards in their natural habitat.

These two cats are at opposite ends of the behavioural spectrum. Lions live and hunt in the open savannah in big social groups. The leopard is a solo hunter and likes to spend time in trees.

What they have in common is that, as apex predators, they both have a crucial role to play in maintaining the habitat’s biodiversity, helping to keep the antelope population in check.

Poaching and village clashes have seen both these creatures becoming endangered, and habitat destruction has reduced the amount of space that they have to live in. In fact, it’s much more common to see inbreeding amongst these big cats because of the reductions in their population sizes as well as their shrunken habitats. 

Conservationists have reported that inbreeding decreases the diversity of these animals, making them more susceptible to climate change, and putting the population at higher risk of contracting diseases. This has a huge impact on the well-being and survival of lions and leopards. According to this same report, it would take 70–100 years to gain back the diversity of leopard populations, and that safeguarding these big cat’s habitats is key in keeping them around for years to come.

You can contribute to their conservation by tracking and studying them in collaboration with park managers and independent research groups. You’ll also be involved in environmental education initiatives in the community to help farmers adopt non-fatal deterrents. 

Further reading: All about cheetahs

10) Giant tortoise and biodiversity research summer program in Seychelles

 

Africa isn’t all rainforests, wide-open savannahs, and expanses of desert. There are several archipelagos off the coast of this enormous continent featuring diverse wildlife and natural scenery.

On one of the tiniest islands, Curieuse, part of the island nation of Seychelles, you’ll find the modern dinosaur that goes by the name of the Aldabra giant tortoise.

These colossal creatures outlive most humans by about 100 years, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to kidnapping, poaching, habitat loss caused by climate change, and invasive species.

If you choose to spend your summer on Curieuse with GVI you could help conduct surveys of the giant tortoises found on the island, and contribute to restoring the endemic species found on the island.

Further reading: Top five reasons to volunteer in Seychelles

11) Teaching English in Peru

A Peruvian woman braiding another Peruvian woman's hair, both dressed in traditional Peruvian clothing.

 

On the other side of the globe, on the western coast of South America, the Peruvian city of Cusco sits on the precipice of the UNESCO World Heritage site Machu Picchu. Our team works hard to assist schools in the region on weekdays.

On weekends, volunteers will get a chance to try out Peru’s legendary surf spots, delectable cuisine, and learn about the wealth of ancient history. Would you like to join us to make an impact in Peru this summer? Learn more about this ground-breaking teaching project by speaking to one of our enrolment managers or follow the project on Facebook.

12) Tropical marine biology and conservation summer program in Fiji

Two volunteers in the marine conservation program surveying the ocean Off of the coast of Caqalai Island, Fiji.

 

Would you rather spend your summer in the tropical waters off of Fiji’s Caqalai island? It’s a tiny coral island off the coast of Viti Levu, and not often frequented by tourists.

The island and surrounding waters allow a multitude of marine life to flourish. The coral gardens just off the shore are magical to behold and fulfill an important biological function.

These reefs help restore the ocean’s fish population by providing the protection young fish need to grow to full size. The extent of the scientific value of corals is as yet, untapped. They have been proven to be useful in treating several diseases already, and we can expect that they will be the source of many new innovative medicines in the future.

Learn what this rare underwater wonderland is all about while helping to protect it for future generations by booking a GVI program in Caqalai this summer.    

Further reading: Five diving destinations you need to visit

13) Rainforest exploration and biodiversity summer program in Costa Rica

A boat travelling down a river framed by the Costa Rican Rainforest on either side.

 

Do the sounds of the Costa Rican rainforest call to you? Do you dream of trekking through dense undergrowth while shaded under a thick canopy of leaves and vines on the lookout for the sight of some rare creature? If so, our rainforest exploration project in Costa Rica is for you.

You’ll be spending your summer at a remote base in Tortuguero National Park on the Carribean coast, conducting surveys of the surrounding forest. Some of these might involve canoeing down tranquil tributaries to spot the number of river birds in the area, or walking along a mammoth stretch of pristine South America beach to spot signs of jaguars and mother sea turtles.

We’re also involved in a butterfly monitoring project in Costa Rica in an effort to work toward the conservation of these creatures. You’ll also get a chance to spot howler and capuchin monkeys, as well as the three-toed sloths this area is known for.

14) Women’s empowerment project in Fiji

Two GVI volunteers standing next to a woman from Dawasamu in a plant shelter constructed out of wood and shade cloth.

 

Your summer break is the perfect time to fully immerse yourself in another culture. And if you’re looking to learn more about other cultures, you really can’t go wrong with experiencing the many cultures of Fiji.

GVI’s community development project on Viti Levu allows you to live and work in Fijian village communities.

One of the ongoing initiatives we’re part of is the gender equality project, which supports women’s social and economic empowerment through increased access to education. On this program, you’ll not only get to promote women’s leadership in these communities, but you’ll learn about some of Fiji’s best-known customs like the Kava welcoming ceremony, as well as the Meke dance.

Further reading: Six critical global issues: What are the world’s biggest problems and how can I help?

15) Elephant research in South Africa

What could be better than spending your summer observing herds of magnificent elephants in the South African savannah? Get a unique insight into the behaviour of these giants of the savannah by collecting data for researchers about their movements and impact on the South African bushveld.

You’ll be living with other volunteers in a private game reserve located an hour’s drive from South Africa’s best-known wildlife site, the Kruger National Park. Many animals, elephants included, are more mobile before dusk, so you’ll rise before dawn to ride out into the park and spot the herd.

Toward noon, as it gets warmer, you’ll return to the camp to log data, and then ride out again into the starry-skied bushveld evenings to observe the elephants, and take more notes. Your work will contribute to the study and protection not only of elephants but also that of the surrounding environment.

 

A young elephant walking into the distance in the wild.

 

Elephants are not only a graceful and magnificent species but important for the ecology of the savannah habitat. They are highly intelligent and during the dry season, they find underground water sources and use their tusks to dig out these new water holes. Other animals then come from far and wide to drink from the spring.

Elephants also help plants to spread their seeds by consuming tons of green grasses, leaves, and sprouts, and depositing dung rich in the seeds of this vegetation across the savannah. 

But elephants can also have a negative impact on an area. Wherever they travel, elephants damage or even rip out trees. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it gives new plants an opportunity to take over the cleared space, it can also disrupt the environment in a protected natural area. 

In a natural area with no boundaries, both animal and plant species have unlimited resources to expand into the unknown, seeking new opportunities. But in an enclosed area, space is limited and every plant or animal matters.

Add to this that invasive species threaten to overtake certain areas, and you can see why a close eye needs to be kept on resources. Elephants often interact with threatened tree species like the Marula, as well as rare bird species that might nest in many trees. So you can see why it’s important to track how much vegetation has been cleared away by elephants, and which tree and bird species are impacted.

Further reading: Four reasons why the environment needs elephants

16) Women’s empowerment summer program in Costa Rica

Women in Jalova learning English in a classroom as part of the womens empowerment program in Costa Rica.

 

The town of Quepos sits on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Known as the gateway to the massively popular Manuel Antonio Park, the town is a hub for tourism. But many women in this community cannot access the economic opportunities that tourists bring with them.

If you choose to join us in Costa Rica this summer you could assist these women in improving their professional skills, allowing them to seek better employment or even start their own small businesses.

Volunteers on this project assist staff in conducting English language classes, interview skills sessions, and business management workshops. On the weekends, volunteers get to live the pura vida lifestyle in this Costa Rican beach town. 

Further reading: Keeping girls in school: Contributing to gender equality In India through education

Take a look at GVI’s award-winning summer volunteer programs or our summer internship opportunities in destinations around the world.

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