Who are summer volunteering programs for? Is it for the student volunteering? Is it for the people in need? Or is it for college applications?
This question goes beyond the volunteering programs, but roots back to the very nature of community service itself. Altruistic ideas about community service and problematic practices, though well intended it can serve to dehumanize the people being helped and elevate the volunteers.
For example, many are asked to build structures or teach English, however, a high school student is not well-equipped to serve in these roles. “Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure” an author from the HuffPost explains.
However, this can often be an exploitative relationship. Many programs just make the student feel good for their work and absolve them of guilt for their comparative wealth and freedoms.
The Guardian suggests the real reason for these trips: “[it is a] condescending and superficial relationships that transform the (usually western) volunteer into a benevolent giver and the community members into the ever grateful receivers of charity. It makes for an extremely uncomfortable dynamic in which one begins to wonder if these trips are designed more for the spiritual fulfillment of the volunteer rather than the alleviation of poverty.”
A strong, healthy, privileged individual helping the needy, poor, and unhealthy culture: this should not be how we examine these relationships. The impoverished country is not truly needy; they have experienced hardship, war, or colonization – often brought on by the “helping” country – that has led to them being less fortunate.
One could say the same for the United States. If kids from Norway – a country with a global freedom score of 100 as opposed to the United State’s measly score of 83 as published by Freedom House – came and helped the needy and impoverished of America, we would see it as an insult. And yet, this is the same situation that faces current summer abroad programs.
Not all study abroad programs have to be like this, however. Many student travel companies prioritize a non-exploitative, lasting cultural connection. For one company, Global Routes, all travel programs are based on the ideas of sustainable and ethical travel.
World Packers, a volunteer travel company, highlights the ideas of mindfulness when exploring another country: “Ethical travel (or responsible travel) means being mindful of the consequences that being a tourist has on the environment, animals, and people. It is being aware of our stance as just a visitor but one that has the potential to either make a negative or positive impact.”
More than just understanding the beliefs of a culture, students on a study abroad trip should live the life of that culture. While transient, experiencing the life of another person is to see through their perspective. Immersion is crucial for learning: “We're not doing laundry every week. Sometimes you're washing your clothes in the river just like everyone else is in the community,” Kelly Moynihan, a director at Global Routes explains. They also choose to prohibit phones during the trip. Students experience their country in the present, wholly immersed with no lifeline to normalcy at home. Moynihan comments on the student’s opinions of the program being technology free: “It was one of [their favorite things]: being able to disconnect. Not being beholden to this little computer in your hands that has all the information in the world is constantly telling you things… you're just able to really immerse yourself in the program and appreciate it that much more.” Students also do not have the opportunity to post the people in the immersion community on social media until after they return home. The delayed time allows for reflection and makes the student question why they are posting photos of the experience: to exploit the community for likes on social media or to share their experience respectfully.
They also choose to lengthen their programs. The shortest programs they offer are two weeks because the mentality changes between a program that is 5 days and a program that is 30 days. There is no longer the ability to just get through it. The students must experience daily life, create routines and habits, and get comfortable with their surroundings. The length directly contributes to the life-long impacts of these programs: “we show up in ways where the changes to our mindset are more permanent” Aronovitz asserts.
Additionally, it is important to understand the concept of cultural relativism. When in another culture, one should not compare or judge a culture to the beliefs of their own country. This idea can help a student understand other cultures and expand their personal knowledge without judgment.
There is much to learn from other cultures. The pursuit of obtaining worldly status separates America from the wisdom of the past. Innovation is incentivized and culture is ignored. This country has lost many of the ideas that more ancient cultures continue to maintain. Adam Aronovitz, Executive Director of Global Routes, recognizes the importance of ancestral knowledge. He suggests how life has been lived for generations and we should respect not only the land we currently stand on but the people who have shaped current society.
However, the experience that the students have should not be prioritized more than the daily life of the people of the immersion culture. Adam recognizes the importance of respecting the nature and people of the country more than the comforts of the student. No destination will ever be more important than the workers' strike on transportation. No bikini will ever be more important than the coral reefs killed by sunscreen.
Organizations that focus on sustainable and ethical travel answer the question of who are summer volunteering programs for. They are for everyone: for the people who help and the people who are helped, for those who learn and those who teach. This mode of travel transitions an exploitative relationship into a mutually beneficial connection.