Are you thinking of doing a community service trip, but aren’t sure if you should or what to expect? Despite what others may say, the community service trip option is certainly worth investigating, especially for the type of person that get’s a thrill from volunteering, giving back, and collaborating with others.

To Service or Not to Service?

This is ultimately a question where you will have to be completely honest with yourself. Why do you want to participate in a service trip? Are you a volunteer addict that can’t get enough of the feeling that you’re working for something bigger than you are? Do you want to some giving instead of receiving? Does the idea of traveling with a group of people and getting to know them really well excite you? All of these can be components of community service trips, and they are all imperative to keep in mind.

Service trips can be anything from working in a women’s shelter to going abroad. Eric Philips, a student at Davis Senior High School who traveled to Kenya last summer, says “I really enjoy helping others and making a difference. I also enjoy embracing other cultures through service” when asked why he decided to participate in a service trip.

Not too keen on going abroad? No problem. Service trips can be local as well. And you do not by any means have to have the same reasons for going as everyone else. “I mainly joined [my service trip] because of community service hours, but since my friends were coming I also thought it would be fun to join,” said Stephanie Jones, an editorial intern here at The Prospect, and student at Springfield High School. Stephanie is right. Friends can make something infinitely more fun just because you then get to experience the trip with familiar people. Whatever your motivation is, it is good as long as it is true to yourself.

When to Service

Service trips can take place at almost any time during the year, with the bulk of them occurring over summer break, and a couple sprinkled into the weeks after Christmas or during spring break. This gives you a lot of flexibility to choose when you want to complete a service trip. Most people complete them during the summer, when there is ample time on your hands, but some choose to sacrifice spring break in order to participate.

Global Leadership Adventures offers many programs that run during both summer break and spring break, and they have multiple spring break weeks to choose from so that it matches up with your school’s week off. Cassidie Bates, a student at Da Vinci Charter Academy, took part in GLA’s 3-week Peru program, where she said she learned that, “[You should always] work hard at all that you do. I was working with such a driven group of students and we accomplished so much. It was awesome to work with the people there and to feel so good about the work you are doing. The project was building a greenhouse and compost area at a local school in Cusco, Peru, and I loved being with the kids there and getting to know their way of life.”

Organizations may run programs throughout the school year during times when you are in school and can’t participate. However, trips run by your school or church will more likely than not match up to your spring break or summer break, for obvious reasons. Choose whichever option fits your schedule best, and make sure you run it by your school if you are going to be absent for a month or longer.

What Should I Expect?

Expect anything and everything! This really all depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing, but be prepared for everything from flying Nicaraguan ants swarming into your room to not getting along with your group, although the latter is far less likely to happen than the former. If you are going abroad for the first time, or going to a particular country for the first time, you can expect a little culture shock, whether its upon arriving to said new country or upon returning to your home country.

When Paul Henderson, a student at Jesuit High School Sacramento, arrived in Nicaragua, he noticed, “we didn’t get a ton to eat. We were all pretty hungry all the time…we ate everything at all three meals, ever last scrap. And compared to the native people, we ate a ton. Coming back [to the United States] and seeing people throw away halves of sandwiches in the airport was kind of astounding.”

Eric, similarly, felt some disconnect with his home country’s culture. “After seeing the conditions in which the people lived, and the hardships they endured all with a smile, it was hard to come back home. I mostly struggled with the change of attitude, people were much more positive and appreciative in Kenya,” he said. You also never know what kind of lessons you may learn.

Stephanie says, “I learned to be compassionate [for others] on my trip to a woman’s shelter, because you never know what someone may be going through.” If you’re going abroad, it is definitely important to keep an open mind about everything you are doing and experiencing.

Michael Januzzi, a new graduate of UC Davis, also emphasizes that, “[You should] always be friendly and flexible [when you are on a service trip].” When I traveled to Nicaragua this summer, I quickly found out that when you say you want to meet up at a certain time, you can expect people to show up anywhere from that time to an hour and a half later, and it is perfectly acceptable in their culture. In the U.S., people would be furious if you were an hour and a half late to anything, and my supervisors and peers included could have gotten very angry about instances of tardiness, but this would have further alienated us from the people we were working with and created unnecessary barriers between us.

When traveling abroad, be respectful of the culture you are experiencing. For me, this also meant dressing more conservatively, so as to respect the more traditional Nicaraguans that would see us walking around in their village. You may not be thrilled by the dress code, but it is so much more important to be respectful than to look “cute” in another country.

Should I Really Do This?

I can’t tell you what to do with your life, but I have been back from Nicaragua for a little over a week, and I am so grateful for the work I did and my choice to go on the trip. Not only did I discover a way of living that agrees with my philosophy of life, but also I became pretty close with my host family, made a lot of friends, and did work that I love. The trip turned out to be much more than just a way for me to give back; it showed me a passion for entomology, something I didn’t know I could ever have (we’re talking about someone who will literally jump 3 feet at the sight of a spider), and a possible place to take my career to in the future. It also solidified my love for the Spanish language.

If that isn’t enough to convince you of the value of going on a service trip, though, here’s some advice from the service trip veterans for people who are thinking of going on a service trip. Eric says, “Serving others is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have. If you are going to go on a service trip, keep an open mind and an open heart. It can change your life.”

Stephanie’s sentiments echoed Eric’s. “Be open and try almost anything, because you never know if you’ll like it.”

The Bottom Line

When it comes to community service trips, you have to be honest with yourself about your reasons for going. You’ll also want to be prepared for anything that could happen, and be at peace with that fact. Lastly, what you get out of the trip is what you put into it. Community service trips aren’t inherently life changing; its effects on you depend on your effort. If this opportunity is available to you, it is definitely one that you should closely consider being a part of, no matter what those grump college admissions officers have to say about it.

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  1. Lee on July 17, 2013

    You’re exactly right that someone should should do a service trip if they want to explore new environments and feel productive (plus earn a ton a service hours). But our college counselor warned us that service trips don’t usually make for great college essays since they’re often viewed as uber-cliched, especially the ones that end with something like,”I realized I learned more from them than they did from me.” So if you’re only going to Nicaragua to pad a resume or find an essay topic, you’ll have a hard time finding upside to flying ants, cold water showers, and no a/c!!!

    • Lauren Hartz on July 18, 2013

      Lee, I completely agree with you. I personally do not believe that one should go on a service trip just to pad the resume, as that isn’t really the reason that service trips exist, but what college admissions officers do not like about essays students write about their service trip is that usually these essays are just about the fact that they went on a service trip and it changed their life. However, writing about something like overcoming a hardship that you experienced on a service trip is not off limits. The service trip itself may not be unique, but the things that happen to you on one are. Like I said in the article, people shouldn’t let grumpy admissions officers persuade them to avoid the service trip altogether.

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