College isn’t just about learning in the classroom; getting an education is more than tests, homework, and final papers. As a student taking on these challenges, you’re in one of the most flexible, adventurous points of your life. You have the chance to study near and far––learning not only from textbooks, but from people and cultures around the world.

So when you know you want to travel as a part of your schooling, you’ll need to decide how to make that happen. Should you take a gap year? Or maybe enroll in an international college for a semester through your study abroad office? You could also choose an internship route, opting for real-world job experience over formal courses. This is what we’re here to help you decide today, using Costa Rica as an example. This gorgeous tropical country has clean, sandy beaches, bustling seaside cities, and welcoming people. It’s no wonder so many of our student volunteers choose this amazing country! But before they decided to take the volunteer route, many of them were asking the same questions you are now: Should I volunteer in Costa Rica? Or study abroad there?

What Do You Want From This Trip?

Before you can answer, you need to determine your reasons and motivation for planning this adventure. If you set these goals now and clearly think through them, you have a better chance of reaching them! While your personal intentions are unique, we generally find that students fall into three different types of travelers. Which one do you identify with most?

You want to make a difference while getting real-world skills

Have you been focusing on how you can impact others’ lives when you travel the world? If you have been, then this type of travel is best fulfilled by volunteer abroad projects––where you can work with others to improve their lives while you work and experience another culture. This option can be related to your field of study while you serve and help others, so you’ll get lots of real-world skills and exposure to bring home. As a volunteer in Costa Rica, you can teach English, work with children with special needs, do community development, and more.

You simply want to travel

While making a difference is a great goal to have, you might fall more into this travel-focused category. If you want total flexibility and the ability to choose your own adventure every day, you should consider traveling in Costa Rica without a set volunteer or study abroad program for the whole time. Keep in mind that you’d probably have to take a whole summer or semester off school to backpack and explore Central America because there are far too many beautiful rainforests, beaches, mountains, and volcanoes to see in just a week or two. If this sounds appealing, but not for an entire semester, consider mixing travel types #1 and #2! You can volunteer abroad for a few weeks before or after you travel around the country, which will help you meet friends and get adjusted to the culture with the help of experience volunteer coordinators. Being a volunteer in Costa Rica can be a supplement to your travels.

You want to get full academic credits while studying in another country

If you want your experience to be more like an academic exchange, then you’re probably leaning toward a traditional study abroad trip. This is a very popular choice amongst college students, as it’s like swapping a semester at your school for one in another country. You get a normal amount of credits (12-15) while you live and study in this new place. While you’ll meet lots of students your age and keep up with your academic track, you may not have as much time to freely explore as travel styles #1 and #2. You’ll need to plan extra trips around long weekends and holidays because you’ll have an average workload in homework and academic commitments. Costa Rica has cities ranging from a few hundred to a few million people––so no matter what type of university setting you desire, you can find it!

Finding Compromise

how-much-language-should-you-learn-for-volunteer-travel-1So those are the three general paths that you can take to travel in Costa Rica. You might identify strongly with one as your main motivation for traveling––or you might want to combine them all in your own unique way. So after you’ve considered the diffrent ways you could explore this area of the world, you need to find your ideal situation. If you’re certain you want to volunteer abroad, you can move forward in talking to some companies who can help you do this in a safe, exciting way. And if you’re ready to talk to your study abroad office about the details of finding your perfect location, go for it! Many of you, however, will want to find a mix of these travel options to make an interesting compromise. The best way to do this is to talk to your professors or advisors at your school to see what you’d need to do to earn credits while traveling or volunteering. Can you take online classes or seminars? Or can you count your volunteer abroad project as internship credits? You could still get the best of all worlds, possibly with a part-time internship or some language classes. You just need to ask!


Costa Rica is a wonderful country with many opportunities for college students, but you could apply these methods of traveling to just about any country or culture you might want to see. Whether you want to visit Asia, Europe, Africa, or any other continent––you don’t just have to study abroad in the traditional sense. You can volunteer, work as an intern, backpack, or do a mix of everything. Hopefully these questions have helped give you a clearer picture of the path that’s right for you!

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