Volunteer vs. Intern: The Difference


What's the difference between an intern and a volunteer?

We are asked this quite often. Basically, an internship is something that you choose to do in order to develop your skills in a profession. Volunteering can also serve this purpose, but the driving force is your desire to help out. So for example, a teaching program can be viewed as an internship by those who wish to develop their teaching skills, or as volunteering for those who are just looking to help out.

For years, the main tool for Americans to experience cultural immersion in another country was through the college “junior year abroad” experience. For all of its benefits, there are also some important negatives to this tradition. First, it provides nothing for the non-student. In today’s world, more and more people of all ages are looking for a more intense international experience. Second, study abroad puts the participant in an academic setting, which is clearly not the most effective way to know a country and its people. And third, most students on study programs tend to spend much of their time with other American students.

In recent years, we have seen the growth of new forms of tourism. In the nineties, eco-tourism was the rage. Here in the 21st century, there is more and more talk about “volunteer tourism” (voluntourism). Even the Today Show has featured this new phenomenon several times. In education, “experiential” programs have begun to gain favor. Internship and volunteer experiences seem to provide an appealing solution to the growing desire for an international cultural immersion experience.

But what, exactly, is the difference between the two? Are they interchangeable terms, or can a clear distinction be made? The answer is “a little of both.”

In general terms, volunteering is simply the act of “voluntarily” giving your time and energy to help a cause. Normally, the volunteer receives no tangible benefits from the work. Of course, there are exceptions. We call Peace Corps workers “volunteer,” but they do in fact receive a salary and benefits. It is certainly, however, not a commitment that is taken on for financial gain. More likely, altruism is the motivating factor behind the choice to become a volunteer, whether paid or unpaid.

On the other hand, an internship is work that we take on in order to learn more about a given profession. We generally work under the tutelage of someone who is knowledgeable in the field, and is qualified to give us guidance. Medical interns are probably the first group to come to mind, and in fact the word comes from the French interne, or “assistant doctor” as well as “a resident within a school.” But in contemporary English usage, the term can be applied to any profession, though the academic element is retained. A non-academic internship would more correctly be called an apprenticeship.

Universities have placed increasing emphasis on the valuable addition that an internship or “practicum” offers to an education. Of course, these tend to be domestic internships rather than international internships. Generally, college credit is available for such programs. Many universities and colleges have a special internship or “coop” (cooperative education) office to administer and monitor interns. In addition, the student will need to have a faculty sponsor who will require a written report at the end of the project.

Although the basic distinctions between volunteering and interning seem quite clear, there are many times when the two overlap. For example, imagine a student who receives internship credit for working as a volunteer in an orphanage in Kenya. There may be no professional aspirations motivating the student, but the credit received is welcome compensation. The college or university has determined (correctly) that this is a learning experience, and a worthy component of the student’s education. Most intense volunteer programs provide a great learning opportunity, especially in a foreign culture.

Just as a volunteer program may also be an internship, traditional internships may also be a volunteer program. In my travels in Guatemala, I visited a free medical clinic in the Mayan town of Santiago on Lake Atitlan. There was an American medical student from Harvard interning there, learning while providing a service to the local community. He was thrilled at the amount of responsibility he was given, but the community was equally excited to have an intern with a world-class education.

In that same clinic, I met several doctors from the U.S. They had years of experience, and would clearly be placed in the volunteer category. But they would be the first to tell you that they were learning from their experience, and that the rewards far outweighed the personal sacrifice. So whether you wish to call your international experience interning or volunteering, you’ll end up with insight into another culture that you could never have achieved as a tourist. What's keeping you?


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