Are summer service trips really “worth” it?


Grace Fay and Gigi Wade


Embark and serve.

Despite recent criticism of service trips, they remain invaluable for teenagers and the communities alike.

     Volunteering away from home is a popular way for students at ETHS to spend their breaks. Whether through the school, religious groups or companies like Rustic Pathways, students spend weeks immersed in a different community and culture, offering a wide range of assistance and getting invaluable experiences.

     Students often leave these journeys with three important takeaways; a habit of service, an appreciation for a different culture and respect for people different from themselves.

     These three skills are immeasurable today. In the past few years, the United States has seen what a build up of ignorance and selfishness can do. It has made neo-Nazis and KKK members feel secure enough in this country to hold a hate rally without masks on, and still have their actions justified by the president. Ignorance and selfishness have also led to extreme distrust between rural and urban areas, damaging and reducing our national unity.

     The only way to combat what seems to be ever encroaching greed and hate in America is to promote these values of intercultural appreciation and a sense of service that come from volunteering in a different setting.

     Now, I’m not talking about the blatant basic wealthy tourism. I’m talking about programs that are designed to truly enrich students lives.

     For example, many religious organizations in Evanston take teenagers and young adults on trips to places like Appalachia and the rust belt. Volunteers build homes and schools for people whose extreme poverty is often ignored by many of those in power. Here, students not only make an enormous difference in a community, but they also help bridge a gap between two very different areas with very different ideologies (West Virginia, for example, voted for Trump by almost 70% according to The New York Times, while Hillary Clinton got almost 90% of the votes in Evanston, according to Evanston Now). If a bunch of teenagers can help fix an “irreparable” divide, then we should be encouraging and supporting the programs that allow them to do so.

     The argument against so-called “voluntourism”, though, is less centered around national trips. International ones often have larger scale issues. Volunteer trips internationally are often in places like Central America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. These regions are still trying to conquer the lasting effects of colonialism and western supremacy. So when students, often white, take service trips here, there is a risk of re-instilling the ideas of western superiority and the white savior complex, both of which are contributors to larger institutionalized racism in our country and the world. An added strike against these trips is they are arguably not that helpful to the communities they are volunteering for. If there is an orphanage in Uganda, for example, that students help out with during a paid trip for two weeks, and then leave, it can leave lasting emotional damage on the children who they came to see, and who often see this happen so very often.

     Yet, those arguments cannot overshadow the necessity of these trips. It is of the utmost importance that we explore new ideas and cultures while we have the chance to do so.

– Grace Fay, Opinion Editor


Know your place.

     Volunteer trips have long been a popular summer activity for high school students, but it seems that many students are not reaping the full benefits.

     This summer many students embarked on journeys to exotic countries like Fiji and Thailand through service programs. I know this because I saw the copious amounts of photos on social media featuring my peers and young children or some form of terrible appropriation of a local culture.

     This isn’t a new trend, it’s a rapidly growing industry, and there’s a name for it. Voluntourism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the “practice of doing volunteer work as needed in the community where one is

vacationing.” Merriam-Webster is being generous with this definition; the work that students do on service trips is not always needed.

     While in the countries, voluntourists trying to build infrastructure or engage with local children can do more harm than good. Most teens lack the experience necessary to properly carry out what is asked of them which means that members of the community have to compensate. Worse, volunteers prevent skilled, oftentimes poor workers from completing paid projects. Not only do service trips fail to yield benefits, they can be a setback to progress within the community.

    Further, according to a 2013 study by the Center for Social Development, 87% of the one million Americans that volunteer abroad every year are white, with 93% coming from higher income households. This probably has something to do with the fact that the cheapest high school service trip costs around $2,000.

     Only the most privileged groups are able to go on these trips, which has two damaging effects: first, affluent students are able to add their program to their college applications, earning them an advantage over those that couldn’t afford to buy into voluntourism. Second, a white savior complex is created when predominately white tourists operate with the understanding that they are ‘fixing’ a community.

     This complex is worsened when students return from service trips with a sense of self-fulfillment that defeats the point of the altruism that they claim to have been taught. So, wealthy, white teens pay ridiculous amounts of money to go overseas for a short period of time, achieve little in the name of change, and return home to applause from admissions committees and their peers. Volunteering should never be about what the volunteer gains from the experience, rather it should be about what meaningful change is brought to the recipient.   

     To those that have done these trips: I’m not saying your intentions are bad. I believe that Rustic Pathways really is “committed to creating a world where travel is a model of sustainable development and all people are connected by a shared humanity,” but a two week intrusion into a society with pre-established customs and divisions of labor certainly isn’t the way to meet those goals.

     Voluntourism is, at its extreme, a form of modern colonialism that we condone because we are too naive to reject it. Think about the entitlement that permits you to go on service trips and be willing to question that through an ethical lens–you might be surprised with what you find.

– Gigi Wade, Opinion Editor