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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: ​Service trips good only for Facebook pics

With spring just next door and summer around the corner, now is the time for many eager students to sign up for travel opportunities.
Going abroad has the potential to shape students in countless ways; there is no better way for students to develop independence and increase their cultural literacy than to take a trip across the world. While studying abroad has always offered students the opportunity for growth, a new forum for international learning has arisen for those looking for a more “meaningful” way to spend their breaks: voluntourism.
Voluntourism — as it sounds — is volunteer tourism. It involves travelers who ditch the beaches and bikinis for volunteer work in other countries.
What could be wrong with young people using their time and resources to contribute this aid abroad?
The issue with voluntourism is that it allows organizations to capitalize on both altruism and poverty. Often, these companies cater more to the tourists than to the communities they visit — they offer the travelers a unique “cultural experience” and the local beneficiaries very little.
Critics of the voluntourist movement believe that volunteering abroad is often more of a way for a young person to stroke their ego than to actually enact a difference. One- or two-week trips founded under the premise of changing lives usually involve little more than the chance to snorkel and zip line while staging photo ops with unknown children.
The Onion article entitled “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture” mockingly illustrates the egotism. “As soon as I walked into that dusty, remote town and the smiling children started coming up to me,” the article reads, “I just knew my Facebook profile photo would change forever.”
While students who embark on these trips usually have the best of intentions, it is important for them to realize their true motives for traveling and the flaws in the industry they are upholding.
Altruistic students don’t realize that whether they are building a house in Nicaragua or distributing medical supplies in Malawi, their unpaid work can detract opportunity from local breadwinners who could have done that work more skillfully and for pay.
“In the case of orphanage tours … in Cambodia, the presence of wealthy foreigners wanting to play with parentless kids has actually … [created] a market for orphans in the town,” writes Richard Stupart for CNN. “A system has emerged in which parents will rent their children out for the day to play with gullible backpackers, creating fraudulent orphanages in response to visitors’ demand for them.”
Voluntourism will likely remain a compromised industry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that travelers should compromise their aspirations to do good.
Anyone hoping to make a difference abroad needs to be critical before embarking with a volunteer organization. Savannah Pearson, a sophomore studying molecular and cellular biology and public health, had reasonable concerns before volunteering in India with the International Alliance for the Prevention of AIDS.
“I felt like I didn’t have a lot to offer the program,” Pearson said. “I couldn’t justify … [volunteering] for something that someone in India could do more effectively. It seemed like wasting everyone’s time and resources just for me to get a ‘cultural experience’ and have some cool Facebook photos.”
However, Pearson and Suhitha Veeravelli, a biomedical engineering sophomore who contributed to the same project, realized that under certain stipulations, volunteer projects could be effective and meaningful.
Veeravelli said the program participants underwent extensive training before volunteering. They studied the HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness material as well as the most effective ways to deliver it before undertaking any work. Unlike most volunteer trips, this program lasted eight weeks and worked in conjunction with experienced locals to ensure effectiveness of the outreach.
“It was very powerful when you were able to see that the kids really understood [the stigma of] HIV/AIDS … and that they have the power and ability to educate everyone else with the information we just gave them,” Veeravelli said.
Under the right circumstances, with extensive training, collaboration and the ability to offer resources actually lacking in a local community, volunteers can use their skills to make an impact.
If a volunteer can’t make those commitments, they should find another way to validate themselves. There’s no harm in traveling for the sake of travel — in fact, it’s entirely preferable to making poverty a novelty worth capitalizing upon.

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Hailey Dickson is a freshman studying public health and molecular & cellular biology. Follow her on Twitter.

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