How do you volunteer?

February 24, 2014

What does it mean to volunteer in a meaningful way? How can a community service activity really be helpful to those you are trying to help? 

Service projects have long been deemed “valuable” and important to a student’s college application profile – they show that one is caring, willing to step out of his or her comfort zone, and can work well with others, in addition to providing quality fodder for the essay. Yet, not all volunteer/service projects are created equal. 

I recently stumbled on Pippa Biddle’s article “The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist,” a blog post about the limitations that high school students from the developed world have on creating real change in overseas, developing communities. While I cringe at her use of a racial framework in her headline (doesn’t this have more to do with class than with race?) Biddle’s main points address some key concerns.

I, too, did a couple of Tours of the Underprivileged during my junior and senior years. But while I taught an English class, helped construct a composting system, and learned a few words of Vietnamese and Bhasa Indonesia, my classmates and I effectively severed our ties with those we were trying to help the moment we stepped onto our return flight. Years later, I find myself telling my own students that it is not enough to just sign up for a school-organized week-long trip to Country X in South-East Asia. 

The section of the piece that resonates with me (and should resonate with my students) is the following: 

“I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries.”

High schools and college students on summer “Voluntours” are often ill-equipped and underprepared to build a school, raise sanitation levels, or implement a micro-financing system without any help. It is not the case that students from our privileged societies are counter-constructive or even unhelpful, but sometimes first-hand volunteer work is not the best use of our resources.

Here are some tips I would give to high schoolers looking for a meaningful community service activity. 

  • Make the project coherent with the rest of your story. If you are an amazing athlete, think about ways that you can contribute sporting equipment and physical education scholarships for others with potential. Engaging in a service project that clearly resonates with your own interests does not only sound more sincere, but will help you to care more deeply. 

  • Consider your own strengths. While teaching English seems to be the go-to activity for students travelling abroad, is it really something that you believe you can do better than anyone else? It sounds crass to talk about community service in the context of economic comparative advantage, but you should consider if your time can be better spent soliciting corporate donations, setting up a website, or training longer-term volunteers.

  • It’s ok to stay close to home. Community service does not have to mean serving a community in a developing country. Rather, there are always opportunities to stay closer to home and work on a long-term project that you can work on throughout your high school years and maybe even through college. 

College admissions officers do want you to go out and help save the world – what you should make sure is that you know how this world can best be saved. What other ways can college applicants really make a difference, to communities in need as well as their own college applications?

Sarah is a Consultant at Ivy Gate Learning Center in Hong Kong. 



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