Written by Kat D Reading time: 5 mins
Volunteering with animal charities is an exciting and rewarding way to spend your time outside of university, and can really broaden your animal knowledge and skills. However, organising a trip can be overwhelming, and sadly, not all students have an experience that they would recommend.
So here’s my top tips for vet students, to help you find a volunteering experience that you enjoy, that is ethical and is the right fit for you!
1) Figure our your purpose for volunteering before choosing a program
There are a variety of reasons to become a volunteer. Even amongst vet students, there are many different things you might wish to get out of a trip. Understanding what you hope to achieve will make it easier for you to choose a program that will meet your expectations, and that will allow you to make a positive difference during your time.
For example, if you want to spend time learning about exotic animal husbandry, and are willing to help clean pens and prepare diets, you’ll want to choose an opportunity quite different to a student who is desperate to scrub into surgical cases. If you want to improve your foreign language skills in a veterinary clinic setting, your ideal program would like quite different to someone who wants to experience a large scale vaccination campaign on the ground. And if you just want some animal selfies to post alongside your beach vacation shots, perhaps reconsider if a commitment to a volunteer program is what you want after all (there is nothing wrong with wanting a holiday- but its better to know this before you commit to a volunteer trip!).
Either way, once you sketch out your priorities and goals for a volunteer trip, you’ll find it much easier to match them to a program, and to choose a trip that you will enjoy and get more out of.
2) Keep your expectations realistic
One of the most common reason I’ve seen for students pulling out of volunteer programs early is when they set their expectations too high.
Student volunteers can make a huge difference in a charity clinic- but don’t expect to be performing non-stop surgeries, or to be doing exciting new procedures all day long. Equally, don’t expect to be hands on with exotic species, or rescuing animals off the street yourself. The realities of volunteering are that you are going to help and to learn- and although your experiences will often be new and exciting, there will be lots of mundane parts too which are just as important to keep the charity running!
Also, keep in mind that animal charities don’t have a lot of spare money to spend on five star facilities, so you may need to prepare for living conditions that are quite different to those back home. Different culture, language and food can all come as a shock to new travellers, so try to be open minded and adaptable while volunteering!
3) Differentiate between genuine charities and paid voluntourism experiences
There is a whole spectrum of volunteer programs out there aimed at students, that vary from sustainable charity programs, through to expensive ‘voluntourism’ trips run by for-profit companies.
It can be difficult to spot the difference online- but it is important to tell what kind or organisation you are volunteering with, and where your course fees are going so you don’t get caught out when you arrive.
This is a huge topic, but head to TheRunawayVet.com for the guide on how to spot the difference!
4) Research EVERYTHING before you go!
You’ll have a much smoother and more rewarding time away if you are well prepared for your trip.
Make sure you research everything related to where you are going- from the travel rules and visas, to local customs, language and dress codes, to common animal diseases and husbandry. Not only will it help you pack and be prepared for the unexpected, but you’ll get more out of your animal placement (and impress the local vet team) if you know what you’re likely to encounter in the clinic and how to manage it!
5) Book your trip through a reputable network or trusted personal recommendation.
You’ll never know exactly what a volunteer placement will be like until you get there, but the best way to ensure that the program is what you expect is to book through a person or organisation you trust.
If you have classmates or contacts who have volunteered before, ask them about their experiences. Find out if they recommend a clinic or program, and probe them on the best and the most challenging parts of their trip.
Or, you can start your research through reputable veterinary volunteer organisations, and see if they have a program that meets your needs. Organisations like Vets Beyond Borders (VBB), Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS), International Aid for the Protection and Welfare of Animals (IAPWA), Mission Rabies and Dog’s Trust offer a variety of volunteer programs that are ethical and popular with a lot of students.
Or if you’d like to read reviews of charities that I enjoyed and recommend, head over to The Runaway Vet.com to read more!
Volunteering is an unforgettable experience that I would recommend to any vet student. I hope these tips can get you started on the right path to finding the best program for you, to meet your goals and make a difference!
All the best, the animals of the world are waiting!
The Runaway Vet.com