Making ends meet around the world

For the fiscally concious globetrotter, working abroad is a cheaper way to see the world

Caroline Cox
Caroline Cox

After finishing her exchange year in Scotland, Caroline Cox, ArtSci ’09, was considering ways to stay in Europe for the summer when she ran into a common problem. She ran out of money. Deciding against the classic phone-call-to-mom strategy, she chose to take advantage of the chance to help children improve their language skills while practicing her own. She spent the month of July in the Basque region of Spain teaching English immersion to students five to 12 years old.

“I’m a Spanish minor and an English major and I was only taking English courses last year and I didn’t get a chance to practice my Spanish and I really wanted to get to Spain,” she said.

Cox found a job posting in the career services office at St. Andrews University and headed to Spain to meet her host family.

“I didn’t meet them until I got there, but they were wonderful,” she said. “They mostly speak Basque at home but they would speak Spanish to me or English to me.” The program, requiring no specific qualifications, was meant to create a fun environment for the kids.

“They’re learning English through interaction with native speakers as they make crafts and play games,” she said.

Cox helped plan lessons and run activities, working in each classroom of the school with different teachers and students. Her only regret, she said, was not having more responsibility.

“I really wanted to have my own class but no one dropped out of the program, none of the teachers dropped out, so I didn’t end up with my own class,” she said. “But I still had a really great time.” Rowena Selby, education abroad advisor at the Queens’s University International Centre, said the logistics of working abroad are often the most intimidating for a student, especially one travelling alone. Before heading off for a summer or a short stint after graduation, students must obtain a Working Holiday visa, arrange for health insurance and vaccination requirements and figure out what to do once they land.

“The main issue with that is that generally people don’t find the job before they go. Not every student is willing to cope with that,” she said.

To make the process simpler, many students use the Student Work Abroad Program (SWAP), an organization that handles the bureaucracy of working abroad. They can also provide job tips and offer ready-made acquaintances in groups all travelling to the same destination. Whatever method they choose, Selby said, students need to be flexible and realistic.

“Many people dream of going to London. London is also the most expensive place in Britain,” she said.

“People need to think outside the box on this one.” A different and increasingly popular option for cash-strapped travellers is WWOOFing, a modern-day version of singing for your supper. The term is an acronym that stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a program that connects willing hands with farmers in need of some extra help, exchanging labour for room and board.

With organizations in 40 different countries, WWOOFers have no shortage of options when it comes to locale. In Canada alone there are close to 1000 host farms, and every province is represented.

Co-ordinator of WWOOF Canada based in British Columbia, John Vanden Heuvel, said WWOOFing’s popularity has taken off in the last 10 years.

“I think one of the reasons why WWOOFing is so popular is that there is such a broad, eclectic collection of opportunities where they can go and help,” he said.

The program began 30 years ago in England as Working Weekends on Organic Farms, then moved to New Zealand and Australia where the name was changed to Willing Workers on Organic Farms. In 2000, the name was changed again to Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

Vanden Heuvel said there are myriad reasons people want to work on organic farms, including improving language skills and learning the ins and outs of organic farming. But around half, he said, do it for the travel experience.

“If you want to go spend a month in Italy, you can spend 10 days at one host and travel for a day or two and spend 10 days at another host. Rather than pay $30 a night for a hostel room, pay for the list and go WWOOFing for 30 days.”

He said the duration of a stay is up to the host and the guest to decide.

“Some hosts prefer a minimum two-week stay or whatever, but generally you are free as a volunteer.” Vanden Heuvel said the organization does encourage WWOOFers to spend at least a week with a host to get the fullest experience.

WWOOFers pay their own initial travel expenses and WWOOF Canada is sustained by the membership fees it receives.

But, Vanden Heuvel said, WWOOFing is not without its risks.

“It’s not all wonderful,” he said. “There are rotten apples who are hosts and rotten apples who are WWOOFers.” He said complaints from either side are acted upon promptly.

“We say, ‘Hey, the accommodation that you’re providing is not adequate.’ If they hem and haw, we say, ‘Ok, goodbye. You’re not a host anymore.’ Same thing with volunteers.” Vanden Heuvel said he dealt with an incident recently in which a WWOOFer was caught stealing from his host family. The thief was blocked from the WWOOF website, preventing him from going WWOOFing again.

Vanden Heuvel said the experience is not just education but cultural as well.

“Rather than going from a hostel in London to a hostel in Paris to hostel in Munich, Germany, you’re living with a family from England, a family in France and family in Germany,” he said. “It’s a whole different, unique lifestyle.”

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