At the expense of making myself sound pretty old, I’ll spill: I’ve gone on many international volunteering trips of different types, study abroad programs, and other opportunities more independently-organized for close to 20 years now. I wouldn’t be who I am now without these trips. I realize that these experiences have together lead me to my current path in Guatemala with my social enterprise Kakaw Designs, but after seeing mistakes made by others and myself, I’ve become a bit more critical. Specifically, I wonder about these popular “Service Learning Trips,” recommended as an activity for young adults by high schools and universities alike.
What is the true impact of a service learning trip?
There’s no question that an experience like going abroad and working on social impact can change a person. Sometimes, it just takes getting out of your comfort zone, literally. At the same time, I’ve seen groups arrive with their own agendas (without much consulting with local communities), and instead of working with other like-minded groups, fight each other for their territory in the nonprofit world. This has lead me to wonder how many of these projects actually have a positive impact for the local communities in the long-run.
hat’s why I signed up to be a leader on two such trips of university students from the US through De la Gente. I realized there were so many flaws within “voluntourism,” and I thought that maybe I could contribute to make them better for a handful of students. (And hey, I actually really do think that DLG is doing great work with coffee farmers in Guatemala.) First and foremost, I ended up sincerely enjoying my time with the two groups of university students. More importantly, I want to share a little bit of personal reflection to hopefully guide future participants of similar opportunities.
Three questions that I wish I had really thought about when I was in their shoes:
1. Who is the service learning trip going to benefit?
Are you going on the trip to help locals, or for a personal learning experience? “Service” implies that you have something to give to someone in need. Do you? “Learning” means that you have something to gain. It also means that the trip and the hosting community have something to share with you.
I’ve been on both sides of this. For my first volunteering trips to Mexico, I had the traditional attitude of “helping” people. This suggests that the participant is in a higher position, that there is something a teenager can teach a local community. Clearly, we were imposing our own “superior” views and by doing so, assuming that the local community couldn’t move forward on their own. I’m even embarrassed to mention that I was ever part of this kind of arrogant thinking. I often consciously leave these stories out when I complain about the armies of Americans walking through town wearing their colorful, matching T-shirts. Nowadays, I consider this an offensive attitude, a modern-day White Savior complex, a “feel-good” project for the participant but not necessarily for the locals they are meant to be working with. Sharing my culture with others: When I went as an exchange student to Spain and Argentina, I was there to learn. That’s what students do, right? Learn. I was there with an open mind, making friends, gaining perspective, and learning life skills. I was also there to be an ambassador of my cultures, whether I liked it or not. In Spain, I was the only North American at school. I was also the only half-Japanese person at school, and maybe also the only person born in Guatemala around, too. It’s only natural that people had questions, and we shared stories, too. We tried different foods (I still remember my friends’ shock when they found out seaweed was a normal ingredient in Japanese cuisine). We also shared our languages, customs, school systems… Normal stuff among friends, it was a natural exchange of cultural information.
Does your volunteer opportunity think this way, too? There’s so much to learn in this world, whether you’re an academic student or not. Gain insight, grow, exchange ideas, meet different people, learn how to do things differently. Think outside of the box. A trip abroad is an opportunity for you to practice these skills, wherever the destination.
2. Did the community actually ask for assistance?
Keep in mind that so many projects are actually imposed on developing communities by outsiders. who may be well-intentioned. It’s possible that the needs may not actually be real. For example, I worked at a public school in a small village in Guatemala during my NGO days. Because of its location right outside of Antigua, a hotspot for tourism, it was a popular destination for volunteer groups. These short-term groups went there to paint, to play with kids, to donate goods, and even to construct proper flushing toilets. The volunteers often chose to participate in a project that was outside their area of expertise, to get away from their routines back home. The local community didn’t necessarily ask for anything in this example, they were just approached by foreign groups offering their services for free – and really, who would say no to something that’s free? But accepting these “services” doesn’t mean that the community actually asked for them.
3. Whose idea was the service learning project?
In the case of the bathrooms, what a great idea, and something so basic – for children to have access to clean toilets, right? Well, it turned out that the village didn’t have access to running water for half of the year because the municipal water pump often went out. Half of the village had to go to the public pila (a sort of communal well where people also do their laundry) for their household water needs. So… what happened to the beautiful, state-of the art, bathrooms? They were not used. The doors was locked, and the administration just told the children to go home or relieve themselves outside. I don’t know who raised the money and constructed the bathrooms, but I’m quite sure they did not ask the community if it was a good idea, or they didn’t take the time to truly listen. You see, Guatemalans can be quite timid. They would consider it rude to contradict your idea, to say no, especially when the project is funded. It takes time to build up this trust so that people can feel brave enough to share their true opinions. Had this service learning group listened, the community probably would have suggested latrines rather than flushing toilets. (Or could it be that they had latrines to begin with, but were replaced by the toilets? I don’t even want to think about that!)
A look back on my volunteering trips abroad:
Looking back on all my experiences abroad, especially on organized trips, I realize that it took me some time to be able to really critically analyze each trip/project. But at the same time, they were safe ways to be introduced to the world, especially when I was younger.
Nevertheless, I still wish I knew these few questions to ask, to help me prepare for the kind of experience that is beneficial both for the participant and the local community.
After seven years in Latin America, I’ve actually decided to go back for my master’s in Sustainable Development. I’m currently studying in Europe, and bringing back lessons to Guatemala.