There’s a reason many people cannot differentiate between a service learning and a volunteer program. For starters, both involve contributing your time to a project without receiving any financial compensation. It is likely that during a service learning program you’ll work directly with a volunteer, making it more confusing. But there are distinct differences between the two, and understanding those differences is important to consider before choosing to volunteer abroad or enroll in service learning.

Let’s take a closer look at how these two programs differ.

Service Learning VS Volunteering


No doubt about it, there is a learning aspect to both service learning and volunteering. However, the education related to service learning is intentional and a main component of the program. Typically, there are assignments and classroom-like workshops related to service learning, while there is no such requirement for volunteering.

Students participating in a service learning program can petition for university credits through their college study abroad office or through Maximo Nivel’s official School of Record. The School of Record provides enrolled students with an academic transcript and credits are eligible for transfer into any 4-year university in the United States.

Required Skills

Since service learning participants are placed in programs related to their academic focus, they are considered skilled volunteers. For example, a nursing student can participate in a medical service learning program and engage in activities a casual volunteer might not be able to. This, of course, is due to their academic backgrounds and experience in this particular field, which allows them to provide direct knowledge and experience, freeing up resources for other matters. And since students tend to understand the value of experiential learning for their future careers, service learning programs can become quite competitive.

Time Commitment

Volunteer programs are flexible on the amount of time you care to commit; volunteering abroad might require up to a one-week commitment, but a volunteer opportunity back home might only require a few hours.

A service learning program typically requires a minimum of 60-hours, and as long as one year. The longer duration means that a participant will get to know the organization more thoroughly, and can begin to work more independently than a typical volunteer assisting the program for a short week. Again, this makes service learning participants more valuable to the organization and elevates your experience to a level where you are able to engage more deeply in your program, developing skills and knowledge related to your academic and career goals.

Career Development

Did you know that 40% of employers value community-based work in the same way they value paid-work? Having service learning on a resume not only proves your hands-on experience in a specific field, but also your value for community projects.

Working alongside professionals in an organization can also prove your competency, effectiveness, and professionalism in the workplace. It’s a wonderful opportunity to build your network, get noticed, and leave with an impressive recommendation letter.

Community Involvement

Maximo Nivel has worked hard to establish relationships with local organizations over the years, so placement options for various fields are available. Continuous placement of service learners and volunteers ensure a steady flow of qualified, reliable workers, helping to maximize positive impact on the local communities.

So, Which is Right For You?

Determining between a volunteer abroad or service learning program may be challenging but here are a few things to consider:

– Can you commit multiple weeks to an organization?
– Are you currently studying a specific field and want the hands-on experience?
– Would you consider doing study abroad to gain university credit for your work?
– Are you willing to attend reflection workshops and complete assignments?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, the answer is simple–a service learning program is definitely the way to go! Chat with your advisor or study abroad office about enrolling in a service learning program with Maximo Nivel. You can check out the options we have for students here, and we’re always happy to answer any questions you have about spending a semester with us in Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Peru.

On the other hand, if you don’t have the time or specific skill set needed to enroll in a service learning program, volunteering abroad is still a great option! Depending on your interest, you can make an impact on the community by getting hands-on with a construction project, protecting the environment through an eco-agriculture program, or providing your assistance to an indigenous community.

Both service learning and volunteer participants provide an invaluable service to our partner projects and organizations. Whether dedicating your time for 1 week or 1 year, your positive impact contributes to the development of the local communities throughout Latin America.