Each September, UCLA introduces a new class of excited freshmen. They’re brought here by stellar grades, extracurricular achievement, and for most, volunteer work. However, it’s far from clear who the beneficiaries of their volunteering work are.
Volunteering is seen as an integral part of college applications, since it coveys how involved you are in social issues. It shows that you have a big heart and are committed toward serving others. And what better way to prove that you have the biggest heart of them all than by traveling all the way to another country to volunteer?
As a result, international volunteering, sometimes known as voluntourism, has become something of a fad among high school students applying for college.
It has developed into a $173 billion industry, and in an industry this large, several voluntourism entities have risen, seeking to profit off the interest of students needing a resume boost.
If such students really want to make a meaningful difference, they should avoid glamorized international volunteering experiences because it is difficult for them to vet these programs for hidden motives, and it is unlikely they can make a substantial difference in the areas they choose to volunteer in.
Finding out a program’s motives isn’t likely to be a top priority for students. In an increasingly competitive admissions system, they’re more likely to pay extra money to get the most impressive-looking voluntourism experience and consequently reach their dream university. But this extra cost doesn’t translate into a high-quality, responsible program. Research by the Leeds Metropolitan University showed that the more expensive organizations tended to be more opaque in their pricing, in order to hide profits. In this way, students would assume an expensive program would help them improve their CV, when no such correlation exists.
Unfortunately, Western students tend to be quite unaware of the reality of the place they’re visiting. One woman discovered that reality in Nepal while volunteering at an orphanage: She learned that a girl at the orphanage wasn’t an orphan at all; the orphanage owner had forced her into the place in order to profit off Western voluntourists visiting and caring for the children.
And the numbers show that in Nepal, this is not unusual. A UNICEF estimate showed that 85 percent of children in Nepalese orphanages weren’t orphans. When oblivious high school students pay thousands of dollars to such orphanages, they’re only funneling money into a child abuser’s pockets. Sure, they might get an impressive boost to their college application, but in the long run these students are facilitating and funding child trafficking in popular voluntourism countries like Nepal.
Furthermore, voluntourism makes locals who receive aid dependent upon Western visitors. A volunteer in Ghana found out that communities there, instead of buying health insurance, were relying on the assistance of regular voluntourists. When voluntourists weren’t around, the people were bound to fall ill. In southern Africa, poor families sometimes send kids into orphanages, hoping that visiting voluntourists will take care of them. The underlying problems and their sources remain ignored, while a cycle of dependency is kept alive by visiting students.
Inexperienced high school students are often unaware that meaningful volunteering requires skills and training on issues such as local culture, language, domestic problems and medicine. Going into underprivileged communities without taking the time to learn the needed skills renders these students not qualified for the jobs at hand, whether they be construction work or education. Local workers from the same country should be performing manual labor, but instead, Western teenagers are taking employment away from them. Skilled volunteers, who take time to go through training beforehand, are better suited to provide meaningful assistance to local communities, as compared to amateur teenagers.
Some argue that there are many charities out there that genuinely help underprivileged individuals, and this kind of international volunteering can greatly help them. However, voluntourism efforts can only be significant if volunteers target the root causes creating the unfavorable conditions. For such change, they would have to create the infrastructure needed to make communities independent of Western voluntourists, which would require a volunteer to devote long periods of time toward their projects. Most high school students volunteer abroad for short periods of time, sometimes no longer than a week. With that kind of minor investment of time, it’s difficult to make any significant contribution.
The thing most students don’t realize is that volunteering in another country doesn’t one-up volunteering in your own locality. Stanford’s dean of undergraduate admission, Richard Shaw, told The Daily Beast that what matters is the meaningfulness of the experience. When students pay a large sum of money to volunteer abroad, it goes against the very values of dedication and community involvement that admissions officers want to see in them. A local, long-term volunteering project would be more helpful for a student’s college application, and would showcase their dedication to volunteering better. This is the kind of service students should strive for, instead of a costly, self-serving vacation.
If students really want to know how to show admissions officers how big their hearts are, the answer lies closer to home than a multi-thousand dollar voluntourism package to Africa would have them believe.