It is not uncommon to hear about your classmates and friends choosing to go on service trips, or opportunities to volunteer abroad. There are programs, such as Rustic Pathways or Global Leadership Adventures, which give high schoolers the opportunity to volunteer in places across the world for a week or a few either over spring break or during the summer. Students and friends I’ve known have taken trips to Costa Rica, Nepal, Peru, and Taiwan, among others.
Often, these programs and trips aim to improve some aspect of the community the students travel to — some build houses, some teach children, and some trips aim for students to gain an understanding of social issues present in the community. Naturally, these trips are costly, but there can be significant benefits. In this article I will outline the pros and cons of taking a service trip!
For some, the biggest benefit of embarking on one of these volunteer abroad trips is that they can be very culturally enriching and rewarding. It can be an extremely cool experience to immerse yourself in a country’s culture even for a week and to get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in poverty or a situation completely different from your own hometown.
For example, one Global Leadership Adventure offers a 14-day trip to Ghana: here students will be able to “gain exposure to modern and traditional medicine in Africa, examine public health issues facing the community, improve local health and living conditions through volunteer initiatives, journey down the Volta River, and explore African dance and percussion” in order to prime those looking into the medical and public health fields as well as help try to solve the problem of “persistent poverty”. Service trips can be an interesting way to help yourself gain a wider breadth of knowledge on a topic you are interested in pursuing in the future, such as learning about herbal or alternative medicines if you are interested in becoming a doctor.
Another cool program is the Rustic Pathways trip to the Dominican Republic which focuses on eco-service:
“Explore mangroves, reef formations, and marine wildlife at Los Haitises National Park and Samaná peninsula. Get your hands dirty as you work on ecological restoration projects and learn from experts and communities about the efforts to maintain the extensive biodiversity of the region. Swim in hidden caverns to see ancient Taino cave paintings, and raft down the white water rapids of the Rio Yaque del Norte, the longest river in the Caribbean.”
The beauty of these programs is that they are short-term, give you the opportunity to do service, and offer a glimpse into something new such as an issue you didn’t know existed or a way of life you weren’t familiar with, while providing fun experiences like white-water rafting.
Another perk is that these can’t hurt your college applications. Though, for some, this is the only reason they choose to partake in a service trip.
The obvious disadvantage of these trips is that they usually cost X,XXX dollars, and parents may not be willing to pay this much.
Another issue that needs to be addressed concerning service trips is that they have absolutely become a way for students to try to gain an edge in the college admissions game. In essence, you’re making your parents pay thousands of dollars for you to go do service in a place all the way across the world simply so that you can list it on your college applications. This hurts your parents’ bank account, cheats the people you’re traveling to help, and gives you an unfair advantage compared with other students applying to college whose parents weren’t able to pay a ton of money to give their child a boost. However, the largest problem here is that colleges almost encourage this type of competitiveness, and we willingly play into it because of how darn competitive colleges have become. How often have we heard admissions officers pose the question: What sets your application apart from the rest? Why should we choose you?
Some, it seems, choose to go on a service trip in order to set themselves apart. Not to discredit those who do go on them and make some sort of a resonating impact, but one week in a poverty-stricken country teaching English to a group of children does not add much value to the children’s lives, but rather adds value on to your college application. I think it’s great to go on a trip if you have the money in order to enrich yourself about something you are passionate about such as ecological restoration, but if you’re in it to make your application look sparkly, then that’s a bit convoluted. In no way am I saying that everyone who chooses to go on a service trip has this mindset, but I feel as though many do.
There is tons of service you can do locally without going on a fancy trip to the Dominican Republic or India. As long as you are invested in what you are doing, you should not worry.