Blue Bridge Project,Elizabeth Leonard

Why Volunteering Abroad as a Teen is Crucial

International Student Volunteer Opportunities

Please welcome my guest author, Elizabeth Leonard, founder of Blue Bridge Project. Her organization helps high school students get placed in international hands-on service projects to help them with future endeavors like getting into the college of their dreams. 


When I was 16, I spent four weeks living in rural Costa Rica. I lived with a family, helped out on their farm, learned how to make tortillas and spent weekends visiting their relatives in nearby towns. I left as a different person. I had a greater understanding of the world and saw a space for myself in it. I developed self-confidence knowing that I survived (and thrived!) in a small home with no running water. I practiced my Spanish daily with my host family and even started to dream in Spanish! Inspired by that trip, I led students around the world on similar programs and started my own organization to ensure that more students have access to these types of programs.

I am convinced that volunteering abroad as a teenager provides rich and irreplaceable opportunities for personal growth. Students gain 3 key qualities when they travel abroad:

1. Perspective

The lives of high school students are hectic and often stressful. Between school assignments, extracurricular events and the college admissions process, many students feel overwhelmed. Traveling abroad to live in a community where none of these concerns are apparent is a healthy break. On trips that I’ve led, students adapt to their new environment after just a few days and are fully immersed in the communities where they live for the duration of the trip. They return home with a new perspective and a fresh start.

2. Tolerance

Students are forced to confront some uncomfortable situations while they are abroad and this pushes them towards a greater self-awareness. The transportation is slower, the food is different and shower water comes from a bucket instead of a tub! In a group setting, it’s important to stay positive and embrace all these new experiences. As a result, participants leave these experiences with more tolerance for trying situations and have honed their ability to manage expectations. Students learn to be more tolerant when plans don’t go exactly according to their expectations and they carry this quality home with them!

3. Self-awareness

When I read applications at both Dartmouth and Penn Law, it became clear to me that one of the most important attributes students should demonstrate on their application is self-awareness. A student who clearly communicates who she is, what excites her and what her dreams are will excel in the college application process. Traveling abroad allows a student to explore a different side of her personality. For example, a student who struggles with time management during the school year may realize that he excels at an impromptu organization of a baseball game for local youth. This student can use his successes at quickly planning games and activities as an example of his particular strengths. Getting a student out of his environment allows him to really explore other facets of his personality.

These are just a few of the many positive qualities that students explore within themselves when they travel abroad. We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get students out of their regular environment. That’s where the magic happens.

Blue Bridge Project,Elizabeth Leonard

Elizabeth is the Founder and President of Blue Bridge Project. BBP is the first international travel program to partner with local non-profits and offer post-trip guidance to help high school students apply their summer experience to their individual goals and future endeavors.

Elizabeth has worked in high school student travel for over 8 years and has led students on trips around the world. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College, where she majored in International Relations and Spanish, and Penn Law School where she pursued public interest law. Elizabeth was the first recipient of the Penn Public Interest Fellowship and used her funding to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities as an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates.

In her spare time, Elizabeth can be found on her yoga mat, experimenting in the kitchen, or romping with her Labradoodle Walter.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. Giora

    I also like to go to Costa Rica and learn to make Tortillas. It’s a good program with many benefits for the high school student, but seems to be expensive to the majority of parents.

  2. Steve Elliott-Gower

    I’m sure this is a good program for those that can afford it, but, at almost $5,000 for 28 days, it’s also another way for rich, private school kids to pad their resumes and college applications.

    • Hi Steve,
      The wealthy certainly have an advantage when it comes to giving opportunities to their kids, there is no doubt about that. Luckily schools like Harvard, my alma mater, look to see how much a kid accomplishes given what life has given the child. So a kid with all the advantages in life has to really show something pretty amazing compared to another child who is less impressive on paper but had much less of these kind of advantages in life. For example, I’m told a middle class African-American boy who spoke fluent Chinese, had excellent grades and scores plus lots of activities just didn’t have enough given his advantages to get into Harvard. He ended up going to Georgetown.

  3. Magic and Mayhem

    Sigh. I was convinced too, until I visited the site and saw the $5k (and more) price tag for 28 days, not including the cost to fly them there. My 14 y/o has been talking about wanting to do something to contribute, find more meaning and help others. With five kids and limited resources, that cost is just not an option.

    I would love to hear of opportunities for good kids from working class families to make a difference in ways like this too.
    Magic and Mayhem recently posted…Fiona at 12 MonthsMy Profile

    • Hi Magic and Mayhem,
      Try local churches to see if they have international volunteer programs for teens. Some YMCA sleep away camps also have this as a camp option. I know Chimney Corners, a YMCA camp, in Massachusetts has a program but I am not sure of the pricing. Our high school also offers a scholarship to help low income kids travel abroad. It was started by the principal. There might be scholarships to win for this as well. Check Rotary club and International Friendship Club. Sometimes your city’s sister city, if you have one, might offer something.

    • Blue Bridge Project

      Thank you everyone for your comments. We are committed to providing this experience to students from a variety of backgrounds and recognize that the cost is burdensome for some families. To that end, we offer limited scholarships and help students fundraise for their trip through our partner Volunteer Forever.

      Magic and Mayhem (and others) please contact me directly at to learn more about our scholarships.

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