We all have that classmate who went to Nicaragua or some equally obscure place over the summer to help the under-privileged by forming a sustainable hygiene model or teaching then basic math and English skills. It makes a good topic to write on for college essays, and besides, for all we know, he may actually have found the experience worthwhile and fulfilling.
Whatever his motives, it is not a solo act. Several non-profits and even tourist organizations offer the chance for high school students to go to a developing country over the summer and do their bit in helping the world, one English word at a time. For students who do not have a sustained record of volunteer work in high school, this is often the perfect opportunity to beef up their resume before application season.
Yet these visits may in fact disadvantage the very people they are trying to help. Case in point: the Himba tribe of Namibia. They often receive tourists in their settlements, and while these tourists do not volunteer, they do provide the advantages of tourism. But then we wonder, these traditional dances that they perform for us, do they do it every night, or are they simply age-old traditions revived for the benefit of the tourists, all for the sake of a few dollar’s worth? If it is the latter, then the newer generations of the tribe will also attach only superficial values to their cultural norms and we will have lost out on the depth behind an entire cultural phenomenon. Another African tribe, the Masaai, do take money from tourists, and this may easily be the motivation behind the full, scheduled itinerary.
An unnamed non-profit writes on its site: “Donation gets you a recycled PVC pipe bracelet made by women of the Namibian Himba tribe!” But a bracelet made by them does not give you insight into their values and culture. It trifles the idea of substantial contribution. There has been no enrichment of your ideas on diversity, simply a pipe bracelet in your jewellery box that you may never even wear.
English skills are of no use to someone who will probably live in a village only speaking the local dialect for the rest of his life. In a few years, he will have forgotten the words too, and the entire visit would have been an exercise in futility. But if you teach those same English skills to a child at the local orphanage who may have some practical use for it at whichever government school he is sent to, then your contribution may have the potential to make a concrete difference.
That aside, two weeks or even one month is not enough to really understand the deep-seated issues or make a significant contribution to a cause. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and matters as serious as world hunger should not be taken with a trifling attitude because the student approached it in his school life as a necessary evil to get into college. If every student does it, the next generation will not be able to grasp the gravity of these realities.
As the short time duration is one of the main reasons behind my opposition against these volunteer ops, a viable alternative would be taking a gap year. While it would obviously be a larger time commitment, it is also a substantial character (and resume) building route. Several gap year programs are offered through channels such as TeenLife. Not only would you have more time to immerse yourself into the cause, but you will also be able to take initiative and start smaller projects of your own, because you will have much more time to work for the cause after having been trained. In the case with the smaller summer programs, they barely work for a month after they are trained, which may provide wasteful for organizations like non-profits, as the resources employed to train them may have been put to better use in the meantime. Gap year programs are excellent options for students who are not sure what they want to do, or students who want to avoid college burnout. Recently more and more universities, such as Harvard have started to actively encourage students to take a gap year. In fact, on the letter of admissions for the lucky students accepted at these institutions, they suggest deferring for a year for the sake of mental development and maturity.
If you really want to give back to your society, volunteer at the animal shelter down the block. If having a multi-cultural aspect is important to you, start a society that teaches the ethnic maids of your neighbourhood basic life skills in the suburbs (or wherever it is you live). It will even leave you enough time to volunteer elsewhere, or take part in summer classes, or even just laze through your summer vacations. So next summer when you see a flyer advertising amazing volunteer opportunities fly like the wind. Not to the other continent, but away from that flyer.