International Travel Social Work: Opportunities and Challenges

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Travel Social Work

Introduction to Travel Social Work

Working as a traveling social worker could be an exciting career for those interested in different cultures and ways of life. In the field of travel social work, you might be able to work in various locations around the world. You could help solve urgent social problems and make a difference for individuals, families, and diverse communities.

The purpose of this article: helping you understand travel social work opportunities

This article aims to provide an overview of what it’s like to work as a social worker in non-traditional settings, as well as tips on finding and pursuing travel social work job opportunities. Whether you are a seasoned social worker looking to expand your horizons or a student just starting out in the field, this article may provide valuable information on the world of travel social work.

Opportunities in Travel Social Work

International travel social workers apply their skills in settings worldwide. Like domestic social workers, they may identify and assist people and communities that need help with various challenges—such as illness, disease prevention, poverty, and mental health. However, the kinds of job opportunities for travel social workers might be a bit different, as these professionals typically work for international organizations in developing countries.

Travel social work job settings and locations

Travel social workers are employed by the following types of organizations:

  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs). An NGO is a nonprofit organization that operates independently from the government. NGOs typically have a social or political mission. For instance, they might help to address economic growth in a region. They may help to improve health and education. Or they could help countries that are recovering from disaster. Save the Children is just one example of an NGO that hires social workers.
  • UN agencies and entities. The UN system is comprised of a number of agencies and entities, each with its own mission. Familiar agencies include the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. Many of these bodies hire social workers internationally as case workers, case managers, coordinators, and specialists, among other positions.
  • Nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations perform similar work to NGOs. They typically have a social mission and provide resources and assistance to under-served communities. However, “NGO” tends to be the more common term for organizations that perform work internationally. For that reason, travel social workers may be more likely to see opportunities listed by organizations that identify as NGOs.

Not only could travel social workers potentially pursue opportunities with different kinds of organizations, but they could work in unique environments. These may include international settings—for instance, countries that are often served by NGOs and UN agencies include Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, and India.

Professional development and growth

Working as a travel social worker could be a chance to not only explore a new place but to develop new professional skills. For instance, international social workers could gain experience in skill areas such as:

  • Grant-writing and fundraising
  • Collaborating with local organizers
  • Adapting to different professional norms
  • Navigating bureaucracy
  • Learning a new language

Some of these skills may be required for a given position, while others might be learned or strengthened on the job.

Immersion in different cultures

Living and working in another country—or even in another state—is a lot different from going on vacation there. One potential benefit of working abroad as a travel social worker could be the opportunity to learn about another culture through direct experience rather than through a tour bus window. You could hone your language skills, make new friends, learn how to cook new foods, and come to appreciate what makes the local culture unique.

Understanding the population you’re serving is also key to doing your job well. Some of the important skills for social workers include compassion, communication, and interpersonal skills. The more you have a chance to learn about the local culture, the better you may be able to connect and communicate with the individuals and communities you support.

Financial benefits information for travel social workers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for social workers was $50,390 in May 2021. However, some job listings for travel social workers may post salaries that are higher than the median salary. Also, travel social workers might work in places with a lower cost of living than the U.S., meaning their earnings could go further.

Challenges of Travel Social Work

Travel social work could be a way to have the adventure of a lifetime while making a positive impact where it’s needed. But it’s far from the easiest social work career path. Yes, domestic social work jobs often come with their own challenges, such as large caseloads and stressful situations. But travel social work jobs may involve unique hardships—like a lack of the basic resources needed to perform your job or having to adjust to living standards that might be much different from what you’re used to at home.

For many, the rewards of the job may be worth the challenges. Nonetheless, it’s important to prepare for the ways travel social work could be different—and potentially more difficult—than domestic social work.

Adjusting to new environments

Living and working in a new environment could be one of the joys of travel social work, but it might also be one of the biggest challenges. You may have encountered the term “culture shock,” which refers to the difficulty of moving to a culture you’re not familiar with. Culture shock could be caused by the following factors:

  • A different climate than you’re used to
  • Different social roles, such as those of women in society
  • Unspoken rules and manners that may lead to social embarrassment
  • Unfamiliar cultural values, including some you may disagree with
  • Being separated from your friends, family, and community institutions

It’s important to both honor feelings of culture shock and be aware of any cultural biases that may be contributing to how you experience your new environment. For travel social workers, it may be especially important to be aware of how your new environment could affect your emotional well-being, since your mental health may impact how you interact with the people you’re serving.

Language barriers

Whether it’s Spanish, Hindi, or Arabic, learning the local language could be an important part of connecting with the populations you hope to serve as a travel social worker. But learning a new language isn’t easy—it could take time and effort. If your language skills aren’t yet up to par, you may find that trying to speak the native language acts as a barrier, making it harder to communicate effectively with others.

There are a few ways to hone your language skills if you want to pursue a travel social work career path:

  • Self-study. Language-learning apps and programs could be a good starting point if you’re interested in pursuing a career abroad. Of course, it’s important to have an idea of where you might want to work so you know which language(s) you need to study.
  • Employer-sponsored study. Some employers offer foreign language classes for expat workers.
  • Immersion. Using a language every day as you carry out your work and daily activities is a great way to gain proficiency. With practice, your language skills may grow stronger.

Navigating unfamiliar systems and laws

Domestic social workers may need to understand the laws, systems, and processes pertaining to their role, as well as the community and government resources available to their clients. For example, they might need to know how to help someone apply for food stamps or what to do in the case of child abuse.

But for travel social workers, much of this knowledge may not transfer. Working in a new place means navigating new laws and systems—or the lack of laws and systems you previously took for granted. It could be frustrating for travel social workers to contend with situations such as:

  • Slow bureaucratic processes
  • Too little government oversight and follow-up
  • Power imbalances
  • A lack of resources

When it comes to systems and laws in other countries, different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. But for travel social workers, it could take time to learn how to carry out familiar job functions while following unfamiliar rules and processes.

Maintaining self-care and boundaries

Like social workers in any setting, travel social workers may experience high levels of work-related stress. This could be compounded by being far from home—and away from the social support systems you may have previously relied on. The following self-care tips could help you avoid combat burnout:

  • Set limits. While many workers in helping professions are passionate about their jobs, putting in long hours without sufficient downtime could backfire. Sticking to a structured schedule whenever possible may help social workers recover from stress.
  • Set professional boundaries. Set realistic expectations for your clients by letting them know what is and isn’t OK. For example, maybe that means explaining that you may not be able to meet clients outside of office hours unless it’s an emergency. Being willing to say “no” when appropriate could help you prevent fatigue and burnout.
  • Take breaks. Resting, getting physical exercise, and doing things you enjoy are important for managing work stress. For travel social workers, making time to explore your surroundings may also be the key to adjusting to your new role.
  • Talk to your colleagues. As a travel social worker, you might feel overwhelmed by many of the new challenges you’re facing—from culture shock to confronting complex social problems. Likely, your colleagues understand what you are going through and have experienced some of the same challenges. Don’t be afraid to ask for support when you think you need it.

How to Pursue Travel Social Work Opportunities

So, you’re attracted to the opportunities for global exploration and cross-cultural connection that you could experience as a travel social worker. The next steps may involve doing more research, exploring job listings, networking, and making sure you have the necessary qualifications and certifications you may need to pursue this career path.

Researching job listings and organizations

Online job boards may be a good starting point for exploring travel social work career opportunities. You might also spend some time learning about NGOs and other types of organizations that may employ international social workers. A few such organizations include:

  • The International Rescue Committee (IRC). Founded in 1933, this organization helps people impacted by humanitarian crises. The IRC works in over 40 countries, helping to provide nutrition, healthcare, education, and more.
  • Save the Children. This organization works across 118 countries to respond to major emergencies and develop programs that protect and advocate for children.
  • International Justice Mission (IJM). This global organization serves people in poverty and helps to protect them from violence. IJM works in 17 countries and focuses on issues such as combatting human trafficking and violence against women and children.
  • The United Nations (UN). Founded in 1945, the United Nations is an international organization with the mission of confronting global problems and finding solutions that benefit humanity.

Networking and reaching out to contacts

If you know someone through your job, college, or university who has experience as a travel social worker, they could be a good resource. In addition, networking could give you a chance to learn more about potential employers and job opportunities. You might want to try some of these types of networking opportunities:

  • Attending job fairs at your school or in your community
  • Going to alumni events
  • Joining and using LinkedIn
  • Joining a professional association for social workers, such as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
  • Attending professional conferences
  • Volunteering

Gaining the necessary qualifications and certifications

Whether you plan to pursue a career as a travel social worker or domestic social worker, you need to pursue the necessary qualifications for your role. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, requirements could vary by the type of social work career you want to pursue:

  • Non-clinical social workers typically need to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. They may also need a license, depending on the state.
  • Clinical social workers typically need to earn a master’s degree in social work. They must also complete supervised clinical experience and earn a license from the state in which they practice.

Keep in mind that potential employers may have other requirements for travel social workers. These may include relevant experience, skills, and foreign language proficiency.


From traveling the world and exploring other cultures to making a difference for those in need, travel social work may come with amazing opportunities. But is it a good fit for you?

Should you consider travel social work as a career option?

Interpersonal skills, problem-solving, compassion—these are just some of the qualities social workers of different stripes may need to succeed in their career paths. If you are a compassionate adventurer who has the necessary skills and qualifications, and you’re up to the particular challenges that travel social workers face, this career could be just what you might have been looking for.

Next steps

If travel social work interests you, spend some time learning more about this unique profession. Talk to those who have experience performing social work abroad. Take the time to explore social work graduate programs that could help you take your career to a new level.

And then…be prepared to pack your suitcase!

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