The Urban Legend

Who are you helping?

Diego Lopez

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Imagine an Instagram picture of an Urban student surrounded by a bunch of small children in a third world country, the caption reads: “So thankful for this trip, these kids changed my life”. These service trips to exotic impoverished areas around the globe, also known as “voluntourism”, have become a popular way for the affluent of America to spend their summers: they give up  the ocean view under a cabana to help out an underprivileged community. According to an article published in the New York Times, these trips and their supposed transformative properties have become so commonplace in high schoolers’ lives that “the running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rainforest” said Ángel Pérez, Trinity College admissions officer.

  People in affluent communities want to help other people while experiencing another culture  There is a Western ‘messiah complex’ which, according to Psychology Dictionary, is a belief that you are destined to save others. According to the independent consultant TRAM (Tourism Research and Marketing), in 2008, roughly 1.6 million people from the US spent between $1.7 billion and $2.6 billion on voluntourism activities. Voluntourism is not always just about wanting to help a community in need. For some, it’s about padding a college application, hoping to help themselves stand out in the sea of qualified applicants.

  I am not here to judge the motives of the trips, but rather to ask about the impact. Why should a group of high schoolers with little or no experience with physical labor be building a school? If your goals are truly altruistic, why not pay local laborers to do the work you would do? There are two actions you can take in relation to these service trips. Firstly, you can stop going on them or choose to go on cultural exchange programs instead. Secondly, you can research the organization you are volunteering with to ensure that they are really dedicated to helping the community in long run, not just giving you something to do during your summer.

  “Go and do cultural exchanges versus service trips”, said Director of Service Learning, Amy Argenal, “you can do a homestay… and if they are working on something, be able to partner and contribute.” These cultural exchanges are very similar to the popular voluntourism trips but these focus on learning about a new culture and are not a façade of helping out another nation’s poor while in reality, having less altruistic goals. These trips still benefit impoverished areas because you would be staying with a family in a village and spending money – but instead of it going to an outside organization – it all goes to the place you stay. Cultural exchanges are very good at facilitating real connections with the community you visit. Jade Barnblatt(‘18), who went on a voluntourism trip to Fiji said she went,“because it was a homestay … that was probably one of the biggest factors for me, because staying in someone’s house is super Americanized.” Barnblatt became close friends with one of the boys who she stated with and “whenever he goes to Nadi … where there is electricity he will Facebook message me.”

These cultural exchanges give everything that a service trip promises without the questionable “service” aspect.

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The School Newspaper of The Urban School of San Francisco
Who are you helping?