The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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Intention guiding action: Breaking away from harmful voluntourism

Bringing+participants+to+impoverished+areas+for+volunteering%2C+voluntourist+organizations+typically+bill+their+trips+as+a+chance+for+travelers+to+fulfill+their+philanthropic+desires+and+undergo+a+life-changing+experience.
Duy Bui
Bringing participants to impoverished areas for volunteering, voluntourist organizations typically bill their trips as a chance for travelers to fulfill their philanthropic desires and undergo a life-changing experience.

Some names have been changed to protect student privacy.

With nearly 10 million participants yearly, the $2 billion voluntourism industry has become a rapidly growing travel trend. Bringing participants to impoverished areas for volunteering, voluntourist organizations typically bill their trips as a chance for travelers to fulfill their philanthropic desires and undergo a life-changing experience. However, these trips come with numerous risks for local indigenous communities, potentially fostering aid-reliant relationships, maintaining damaging stereotypes and impairing local economies. Some private groups break away from this standard, though, organizing trips intended for volunteers to gain just as much from the experience as the people they aid.

In 2016, Special Education teacher Benjamin Krensky and Spanish teacher Rebecca Zatz organized a non-MCPS-affiliated private service trip to Ecuador. Following the trip’s success, the duo continued to lead private trips for students across Montgomery County through the company they created, Student Service Travel. Over the years, Krensky and Zatz have taken over 400 students across the Spanish-speaking world, from Peru to Costa Rica.

Intended to allow students to immerse themselves in the Spanish language and Hispanic culture, these trips also build leadership skills and friendships. Junior Virginia Caballero, who participated in the Costa Rica trip in the summer of 2022, appreciated that the trip allowed her to connect with new people and ideas beyond the classroom.

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“It definitely helped me better understand some of the communities that I’d read about, and also what some kids in other countries are learning about,” Caballero said. “Personally, it helped me see how I could share my own knowledge and my own experiences with them and also learn from them too.”

Students also participated in various forms of community outreach, including re-graveling paths, painting desks and play structures, sanding parts of an indigenous community center and teaching English.

Proponents of voluntourism argue that broadening global perspectives outside people’s typical bubble is an inherent benefit of the trips. For students, these experiences can directly translate into the classroom, allowing them to understand others’ perspectives and draw more nuanced connections between the real world and in-class material.

During trips where students taught English to elementary-aged children, Zatz noticed that students used their own experiences with learning a second language to teach, she said.

“When we got there, they were trying to think of ideas; they were like, ‘In language class, we do this and it really helps with my studying,’” Zatz said. “They were bringing stuff from class that works for them — study techniques — to the classroom.”

Within other organizations, it’s infeasible for the wide range of volunteers to meet one another before they head out. Student Service Travel, however, is unique in that it builds out time for volunteers to bond. Since the trips are limited to current and rising high school students in Montgomery County, Student Service Travel can host multiple meetings leading up to their departure.

The meetings allow students to practice leadership and ensure they are prepared to teach others. On previous trips, students worked together to create a curriculum for their in-class teaching with guidance from Krensky and Zatz. Then, they practiced giving lessons using the planned materials they made, working out any issues before they arrived at their classroom abroad, Krensky said.

“For Ecuador or Peru, where we’re going to be teaching English, we’ll be planning those lessons and getting practice on how we will do that,” Zatz said. “Last year, our students for Ecuador created all of the materials. It was really impressive.”

However, not all organizations are as dedicated to adequately preparing volunteers. Many boast of the chance to build houses for impoverished communities or construct schools for indigenous children, but they fail to teach volunteers proper building techniques. Informed members of the industry have reported instances in which indigenous people rebuilt tourists’ construction because their creations were structurally unsound. These native people unwound and corrected the work at night, ensuring the volunteers were unaware of this routine.

The students’ work with Student Service Travel is not of this nature, junior Camila said, who attended the spring Costa Rica trip in 2023. While there were times when the group built gardening beds and made changes to the community center, there was constant communication between indigenous people and the students, ensuring that students assisted in the areas locals believed could use help, not in arbitrarily chosen areas.

Sometimes, the presence of voluntourist groups can even perpetuate the issues they aim to solve. Surveys conducted during the early 2000s found that wealthy donors — often religiously affiliated — established orphanages following times of crisis in various impoverished countries, including Liberia, Indonesia, Ghana and more. However, across the board, over 90% of children in these new orphanages had at least one living parent; the parents placed their children there for better educational opportunities or simply because they couldn’t afford to raise them. These orphanages only stayed in business because of the constant donations and volunteers they attracted.

“Voluntourism, I believe, is a very harmful practice that gives people the wrong indication that they’re doing a direct good for a different community when that’s not the case,” Camila said. “They’re really only putting money so that they can feel better, not necessarily putting money somewhere or putting effort somewhere that will directly help someone else.”

The issue at the heart of voluntourism is that the industry has turned towards creating gratifying experiences centered around short-term solutions and ignoring systemic problems. Building a school doesn’t do much if thousands of other children are nearby without access to education because the local government isn’t prioritizing it. These well-intentioned voluntourist organizations can inadvertently create an environment where communities rely on foreign tourists and monetary aid instead of working toward self-sufficiency.

Despite these issues, the industry continues to grow, particularly among teenagers. College admissions officers emphasize their desire to see open-minded, engaged students who give back to communities. For many students, volunteering abroad is the ideal opportunity to do just that. In a structured environment, high schoolers can demonstrate their perceived global awareness, adaptability and selflessness. However, the essence of this mindset goes against the foundation of volunteering. Instead of helping others out of kindness, international service serves as resumé padding for some. 

Even voluntourists with good intentions can accidentally support the negative parts of the industry. Ella, a former Whitman student, joined a service trip separate from Student Service Travel in the summer of 2023. Her group volunteered in impoverished communities in Tanzania, constructing buildings and teaching children English. While she enjoyed connecting with people living very different lives and attending local religious events, she wished there was more intercommunication, she said. The volunteering activities were often surface level, generally impactful only in the short term, and, at times, entirely counterproductive to the goal of helping. To go, the organizers only required students to learn a handful of Swahili phrases. For the majority of correspondence, volunteers spoke through a Swahili translator. The translator made certain aspects of the volunteer experience, namely teaching English, much more difficult. However, Ella still believes these programs should continue because they ultimately help the community, she said.

When the ultimate goal is to learn, respect and connect with other cultures, voluntourism can facilitate meaningful experiences for those involved. Private trips advertised through schools like Student Service Travel provide a medium for students to connect, Camila said. For some groups, learning is the goal, not the byproduct, of volunteering abroad.

“The service that we do is based on the needs of that community,” Zatz said. “It’s based on this relationship and continuing this relationship more than anything else.”

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About the Contributors
Dresden Benke, Feature Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I wrote fake publications in elementary school, aptly titled The Dresden Press and The Dresden Times, and I figured I should make my journalism career official. What is your favorite song? Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Duy Bui, Online Production Assistant
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I joined The B&W in hopes of expanding my skill sets. If you were a candle, what scent would you be? A scent that no one likes so that I’d never be lit.

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