Spending extended time abroad on a gap year or a working holiday is often seen as "kid stuff," reserved for lucky, fresh-faced graduates who haven't yet entered the workforce or taken on real responsibilities. But that outlook is shortsighted: Even a brief stint abroad on an exchange program can transform your perspective and benefit your career at any stage of the game. It's easy to make excuses, but going abroad has never been easier -- the problem is narrowing down your options. To choose an adult-friendly exchange program, think about how you'd like to spend your time abroad and what the experience's key takeaways should be. Most people's plans will fit within these three categories: cultural or language immersion, working holidays or volunteering.
Language or Cultural Immersion Programs
Dreaming of living "la dolce vita" in Italy or perfecting your French in Paris? A language immersion program will be right up your alley. Many programs will match you with a host family, which will allow you to understand cultural customs in a way that just isn't possible if you live alone or with other foreigners. If you want an intensive approach, programs such as Language Vacation (languagevacation.com) allow you to live with a private tutor. Depending on the structure you choose, you may be able to focus on taking classes, or you might be placed in a hands-on environment doing volunteer work with native speakers -- a surefire way to enhance your skills and learn local slang. Programs like Education First (ef.edu) can connect you with language schools in 40 different destinations, while programs like United Planet (unitedplanet.org) can place you in Central or South American orphanages, hospitals or construction sites, allowing you to develop your Spanish skills and contribute to the community. Quest International offers options that combine a bit of everything, including traditional "exchange" opportunities and the unique chance for educators and their students to swap places with a class abroad.
Working holidays are a popular way to see more of the world without emptying your wallet. Through programs such as Workaway (workaway.info) or Help Exchange (helpx.net), you can find farmers, hotel proprietors, gardeners and countless other individuals or organizations looking for help. With the Workaway scheme, you are provided room and board in exchange for lending a helping hand for four or five hours a day, doing anything from washing dishes to picking berries to au pairing. If you're more interested in paid work, you can get certified to teach English with programs like Language Corps (languagecorps.com) or CIEE (ciee.org/teach), and staff will then assist you with job placement. Figuring out the obstacles and immigration laws involved can be difficult, however, so consult with program staff and consular authorities about how to proceed. If that sounds too messy for your liking, look into more competitive, government-backed programs like the various Fulbright fellowships. Younger adults can apply to work as native English teaching assistants, while people of all ages may be eligible for research fellowships. Special exchange opportunities are also available for journalists, educators and other professionals.
Whether you're hoping to make a difference in a struggling community, pad your resume with an international experience or simply have fun working on a meaningful project, doing volunteer work abroad won't disappoint. "Volun-tourism" is a popular phenomenon and a great way to give back to the local culture that you're living in. It can also be a fantastic way to build your language skills, even if that's not the focus of your stay. Programs such as Cross Cultural Solutions (crossculturalsolutions.org) offer opportunities specifically designed to boost your career or help you discern whether you want to pursue a new professional track. Travellers Worldwide also offers opportunities tailored to mature volunteers, people taking breaks from their typical 9-to-5 duties and retirees.
Whether you're going abroad through a government-sponsored program or simply coordinating with a friendly couch surfer, researching visa requirements for your stay is essential. Many programs will help with organizing any necessary paperwork for you, but you might have to provide documents such as bank statements or health insurance cards. For United States citizens, rules vary greatly depending on reciprocal agreements and a number of other factors. For example, U.S. passport holders who plan to stay in any of the 26 countries in the Schengen area of Europe for up to 90 days do not need to apply for any type of visa, but even a short trip to India requires a tourist visa. Requirements may also vary depending on your age and whether you plan to study, work or travel in multiple countries. It's best to check directly with the embassies or consular authorities for the countries you're interested in visiting.