Please Don’t Volunteer Abroad for Your Gap Year

Your intentions are good, but please don’t volunteer abroad for your gap year (or spring break or summer travel). International volunteering as part of tourism (or “voluntourism”) often causes far more harm than good (see Leila de Bruyne’s recent Huffington Post article). If your goals are to live in a community, have a meaningful learning and cultural exchange experience, and be socially responsible, there is a far better way than voluntourism.

The concept of volunteering and service is noble. We want to give of our time, energy, and sweat to improve the lives of others. In theory, it provides an opportunity to get to know people and cultures through an exchange based around our generosity. In many ways, it is billed as the socially responsible way to travel, and it is a key offering of many gap year programs.

Why Voluntourism Doesn’t Work

But, the problems with voluntourism become clear when we ask two questions:

  • What skills or expertise can I bring that are not already present in the community? — At any age, it is important to consider the limitations of our skills and abilities. Gap year students don’t yet have meaningful training in medicine, teaching, or even manual labor. They haven’t had a chance to learn the local customs and social systems well enough to know how to tailor our work to ensure it aligns with the existing culture of the community (this usually takes years). By attempting to meet a local need with sub-standard work, we run the risk of creating problems rather than making contributions.
  • Is the outcome of volunteering something done for or to the host community? —  What one perceives as a need in someone else’s community may not actually be needed or even wanted. It is rare in the voluntourism industry to find projects initiated by a community seeking foreign volunteers. Far more often, a company approaches a community and offers to bring volunteers to paint a school, teach English, or engage in an environmental project. In a majority of cultures around the world, turning away a gift like this when it is offered is rude, even if it is something that you don’t want to accept. While we want to do something for the community, we end up doing something to the community.

Even with all of the best of intentions, voluntourism runs the serious risk of doing harm to the communities we hoped to help.

But, fear not! There is another way.

Thinking Beyond Borders has developed a model of partnering with organizations abroad to provide service learning opportunities for our gap year programs. TBB recognizes that our students will only solve these global issues if they learn about the details and complexities during their gap year and college, then commit their careers to applying that expertise. What makes these partnerships unique? We approach organizations seeking partners that want to share their local expertise on critical global issues with students who are passionate about learning and finding solutions. Rather than create a project for TBB students, our partners invite them to shadow and work alongside their expert staff in the field. Each day in the field includes an opportunity for TBB gap year students to do meaningful work, allowing them to learn through direct experience. Our students do make contributions, but the focus is on the learning in the field that will prepare them to start college in search of the knowledge that will help them innovate solutions.

The key to successfully learning abroad through service is this: Focus on the learning. If we’re serious about wanting to work with communities to solve critical global issues, we have to first develop expertise to bring to the process. Communities facing challenges around the world generally haven’t solved them because they are difficult to solve. If it were as simple as picking up a shovel, someone would have done it already.

Travel. Learn. Engage with the world. Seek solutions. But, we have to do these things with humility. We have to assume that others, no matter how “poor” or “in need” they may seem, have endless amounts of knowledge and wisdom to share. When we recognize this, we are on our way to being able to doing something with other communities rather than to them.