Students pay to volunteer in far away places even as others question whether such trips are worthwhile

March 14, 2020 — by Vicky Bai and Nicole Lu

Despite questionable ulterior motives, students who participate in voluntourism learn lessons of a lifetime.

A group of kids gathered together at the airport, waving and crying as they hugged each other goodbye on Jan. 7. Before he left, sophomore Garrick Zhang and his friends from Southern California promised to meet each other again and embark on a new destination together the following year.

Under the guidance of IvyMax, a college counseling and tutoring center, students like Zhang have the opportunity to travel to destinations such as Nepal and Costa Rica to volunteer. No matter where they go, the goal is the same: to teach underprivileged children English and to help out their communities, whether through beach cleanups or mural paintings.

“Despite the air pollution, my experience in Nepal was intriguing because I got to see the Nepalese culture, while also renovating the local schools by painting murals and teaching students American culture,” Zhang said. 

Voluntourism has become a popular phenomenon here in the Bay Area. Many of these students gravitate toward college counseling organizations, such as IvyMax, so that they can use these volunteering trips to boost their college applications. 

According to IvyMax’s website, their “Global Philanthropy Leadership internship programs attract high school and college students with leadership potential to experience the life of ‘the underserved population’ and learn from professionals associated with prestigious companies and organizations.”

These counseling organizations provide students with specially procured internship programs including learning about microfinance in China, reusable energy in Costa Rica and the seemingly most popular one, experiencing the lives of the underprivileged in the community of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.

According to The Borgen Project, the best way to understand and appreciate something is to experience it, an opportunity that voluntourism provides. While allowing students to discover a variety of cultures, voluntourism, mostly done sustainably, can also help alleviate poverty and promote local economies. By putting services to where they are needed and valued, volunteers are encouraged to put their skills and services towards a cause that needs them.

For sophomore Carl Shi, another voluntourist, college counseling drew him into voluntourism.

“The advertisements for these volunteering trips convinced me to go, and I heard nice things about the trip from previous people that went,” Shi said. 

Despite voluntourism being portrayed as purely ant act of kindness, critics have taken aim at it.

According to The Conversation, voluntourism spreads the misconception of a “desperate” developing country like Nepal needing the help and support of the West.

In the case of many Saratoga students and Bay Area kids, voluntourism is often perceived as an efficient and effortless pathway to college admission. 

“Because many colleges consider community service when evaluating applications, I do believe that some students are motivated to complete service for college applications,” said school counselor Monique Young. 

However, many students begin to appreciate the atmosphere of the places they go to, even though the trip may have started off as just another item to put on their college resume. 

“People started to actually enjoy the experience of helping the local schools there,” Shi said. “There were even people who went for the third or fourth time.” 

Like Shi, sophomore Anya Liu took on a similar volunteering trip to Nepal, but she perceives the trip differently. 

“Volunteering doesn’t end with just one good act. It’s a lifelong commitment of helping others who aren’t as fortunate,” Liu said. “For that reason, I would go back another time if I were given the opportunity.” 

Despite positive feelings by volunteers, critics say voluntourism has all the hallmarks of the White Savior Complex that was at the heart of Colonialism. 

White Savior Complex refers to the situation in which a privileged person acts to help other groups of people who are perceived as “lesser” or “inferior.” 

“There definitely is a situation in which this syndrome does appear to be true, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal because the underprivileged people don’t mind,” Zhang said. “The underprivileged people just see us as friends, rather than helpers.” 

Due to the benefits that perceived benefits voluntourism brings to the college admission process and less privileged students, many students are still enticed by such opportunities despite the criticism they may endure.

Other students choose to volunteer a different path entirely. 

Senior Ashvin Maheshwar has taken up teaching kids computer science during the school year under his organization No App-Maker Left Behind (NAMLB), which teaches app development using MIT App Inventor, a platform that utilizes block coding to help people easily create apps. 

His general target audience is kids of age 8 to 10 years old around Saratoga, as opposed to the audience for voluntourism. Students choose to volunteer locally due to issues like the lack of exposure to technology, but even so, Maheshwar believes that his organization may have served better in countries  like Costa Rica, where having app developing skills could be a ticket to a better life. 

“Over here, technology is truly a career one can pursue, but for some of these other countries, kids are just trying to survive each day,” Maheshwar said. “It definitely would’ve been exciting to see how those kids respond to my organization’s work,” Maheshwar said.

Ultimately, volunteering impacts are evident whether in an entirely different country or a block away. 

By working with kids locally, Maheshwar learned to exercise self-awareness and patience, while students like Liu learned to be independent and make friends from many different backgrounds.

“If serving one’s community is important to a student, I feel that it doesn’t matter where the service is completed,” Young said. “It should be meaningful and have a positive impact on both the student and the people involved in the event.”

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