Washington University defines international volunteer service as “an organized period of engagement and contribution to society by individuals who volunteer across an international border.”
International volunteering opportunities are unique in the way they encourage students, in particular, to spend time abroad helping others. However, many students never dive deeper into these opportunities than to recognize that they have a positive impact and perhaps to look at the price tag that is inevitably attached to them.
On such a superficial level, these programs sound great, it is easy for participants to slip into an ignorant bubble, unaware of the consequences of their actions. Do these programs make a difference, or are they primarily to raise the confidence of students who consider who are forcing themselves upon the “less-developed people” who they believe to be in desperate need of help.
New Yorker column writer, Jamaica Kincaid published, “Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.”
Kincaid’s purpose was to say that when people travel they go to escape their life and its challenges, which the natives of their destination can’t do. Especially if their destination is a less industrialized part of the world. In short, many students use these trips as a source of entertainment.
Sophomore Julia Mckenzie claims “When I went on our trip to Mexico with my family we were serving but we were also having a lot of fun. It almost felt like a vacation.” Many students travel with these programs and trips with good intentions, but in reality many of these programs aren’t making much of an impact.
International volunteering programs, specifically those that have high student participation rates generally are very short. While students are there they may teach the people some things, help them with their temporal needs, but these people will teach them much more.
The real benefit to international service opportunities does not lie in the small amounts of service they provide to the native people of the destination. The benefits are primarily to the participants of the program, providing global exposure and self-discovery. It is important for potential participants to know who exactly is the beneficiary as they launch themselves as humanitarians bound on saving the world.