Infographic by Maryse Thomas

Considering your impact

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With reading week fast approaching and midterms in full swing, many students are—for better or worse—turning their minds away from their studies and towards their travel plans instead. Some students take spring or summer break as an opportunity to participate in a different kind of trip by volunteering abroad.

International volunteerism—in some cases known as ‘voluntourism’—serves as a unique opportunity for students to explore a different part of the world and immerse themselves in new cultures. Usually lasting one or two weeks, these specialized programs provide the chance to travel internationally, combining adventurous activities and ‘exotic’ locations with some sort of volunteer project. The programs assert that participants will be able to make a difference in the world and have a little fun while doing so. However, the debate arises around these assumptions about what kind of a difference these trips really make, and to whom.

Organizations like International Student Volunteers (ISV) run “educational volunteer and adventure travel programs for more than 30,000 students and young adults,” according to International Education Director Deanna Mathewson.

“Our program is unique in that it combines two weeks of volunteering as part of a team, followed by two weeks of travel through the most spectacular areas of the host country to experience the natural and cultural wonders therein,” Mathewson says.

90 per cent of ISV’s volunteers are students and recent graduates. According to Mathewson, although participants work in the host communities for just two weeks, a steady stream of new volunteers keeps the projects ongoing.

“While […] projects are only two weeks long, there can be anywhere from eight to 30 people in a group working towards a common goal, and there are successive groups at each project during a season. We build lasting partnerships with our hosts to ensure that the project goals are achievable and the efforts and progress made by each group are sustained,” she writes.

Other groups, like the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC), look for volunteers from a diverse range of backgrounds. However, their programs attract a younger demographic, especially those looking for experience in the medical field, according to Abigail Proctor, the FIMRC operations specialist overseeing the internship and chaptership programs. Proctor emphasizes the benefits for volunteers looking not only to improve their medical exposure, but also to engage in a cross-cultural experience.

“There’s a strong clinical focus but there’s also a very strong preventative focus as well through health education efforts,” Proctor explains. “What’s cool about our organization is that we’re able to host something for [the] professional development [of volunteers] in the medical field; they’re able to gain experience in the field of global health, but also culturally because they’re able to stay in homestays in the community.”

According to Mathewson, most of the feedback ISV receives from its participants is extremely positive, claiming “If they were to change anything it would usually be to stay longer,” which leads us to wonder: Why don’t they?

Does length of the program matter?

Rebecca Tiessen, an associate professor of International Development and Global Studies at University of Ottawa, has conducted in-depth research on international experiential learning, looking in part at the different lengths of trips in which volunteers can participate. She explains that the kinds of week-long trips that we’re used to hearing about really aren’t even considered short term by scholars.

“We looked specifically at a certain kind of program which we called ‘short term’ and those are three to six months,” says Tiessen. “The whole field has changed remarkably. People consider that long term now, when in fact long term is one to two years [.…] The one to two week programs, to me [are] ‘voluntourism’; that’s not volunteering abroad.”

“Six months—that’s enough time to really start to understand enough of a culture, about a place, about an organization; to fit in and start to be productive and feel at ease and have a routine and be able to be a good contributor in that community,” she explains.

FIMRC offers placements that can range from just one week to several months. Proctor explains the desire some volunteers have to remain in a community for a prolonged period of time.

“Obviously if you stay for a longer amount of time, you develop more in-depth relationships with community members, and you can take on special projects that can make a sustainable impact on the site long after you leave,” she claims.

Tiessen also draws attention to some of the issues with week-long programs.

“The exposure one gets in a week or two weeks to a culture—you’re not even hitting the tip of the iceberg in those cases, particularly when you’re traveling in a fishbowl,” she explains. “When you’re traveling with a group of other Canadians, what you have then is […] voluntourism. It’s a holiday—you might be building a school; you might be doing all sorts of things—but it’s an adventure holiday. It’s not cross-cultural immersion.”

Who really benefits?

Some of Tiessen’s work with Barbara Heron, director of the school of Social Work at York University, focused on interviews with participants from host countries who receive volunteers on a consistent basis. According to their findings, host participants argue that six months is the absolute minimum that a volunteer needs to commit to have any sufficient impact. Other findings showed that participants value the cross-cultural experience they take part in as hosts, as well as the energy and creativity of young volunteers. There were, however, some challenges that host participants identified.

“Some countries felt that Canadians and people of European descent came to their host countries and acted like the boss,” Tiessen explains.

“Before we send people abroad [we] often […] teach them that they’re going to experience culture shock.” She continues. “[Host participants] found that actually very offensive—that we’re preparing people to be shocked by their culture. But at the same time, they also made references to some of our cultural practices as being shocking, about how people dress, how people act, how people disobey widely-accepted rules within the organization.”

“The final criticism that they talked about was the lack of reciprocity,” says Tieseen. “And the fact that while they value the cross-cultural exchange, the one-way flow of volunteerism is incredibly disheartening and frustrating [.…] Sometimes we even use the language of ‘exchange’ when in fact, they’re not exchanges, they’re one-directional. [In] the host countries, […] the benefits accrue most significantly for the volunteers, and [the host partners] recognized that.”

Considerations before volunteering

According to Tiessen, research, planning, and critical thinking are all key components to a successful international volunteering trip.

“One of the things that I’m starting to explore now is the whole wave of young people who are going abroad on these programs in high school,” she says. “And the difference I think that makes for people who are under 18 who haven’t had the chance to develop a critique of privilege and inequality and social justice that one would get in university.”

Though age and the ability to think critically about global issues are not necessarily correlated, there are advantages to taking time to study these issues in a university setting.

“I think the lack of facilitated education that goes with those programs, compared to the sort of programs we offer in university [is clear],” says Tiessen. “[In universities], students do a course before they go abroad, where they read about post-colonialism—[that] challenge people to think critically about whether this is the right thing to do, and […] whether they can justify their experiences.”

According to Tiessen, students and prospective volunteers can best prepare themselves by simply reading before they make the decision about what kind of trip they’re going to take.

“[International volunteer programs have] become increasingly privatized, so a lot of organizations are doing this for profit,” says Tiessen. “We can’t really reign it in, so […] I think we need to inform young people as best we can about how they can make the most of their experience both for themselves and for the people they encounter abroad.”

The McGill chapter of Borderless World Volunteers (BWV) facilitates a number of international trips each summer, usually lasting between six and eight weeks. VP International Project Development Rhea Bisaillon, along with Louise Moulié, who is BWV McGill’s chief-of-staff for the international committee, share Tiessen’s view on volunteer preparation. Summer trips are planned and developed over the course of two semesters, and prospective volunteers spend that time educating themselves on the issues they anticipate facing on their trips, as well as learning to work together as a team.

Bisaillon and Moulié point to the importance of a well-developed critique when researching and planning for future trips.

“Some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have fees,” Moulié notes. “Mainly the bigger NGOs. Just to participate […] you have to pay a certain fee on top of the volunteering fees, and that money is […] not necessarily [used] on the projects.”

“What you do during the year is prepare [for] your trip, choose the [NGO], you work with the NGO throughout the year to figure out […] what they need from you, and what kind of project you could put in place once you’re over there,” Moulié says. “But a lot of the work is on the field. Once you get over there you’ll probably have to adapt your project because it’s easier to understand what they need once you’re there.”

“We teach them what to expect,” Bisaillon continues. “You have to really respect the locals in the area and work with [them]. We do a lot of team-building exercises before the volunteers [go].”

“That’s what we tell our volunteers,” Moulié says. “We’re not a trip agency; we’re here to prepare them.”

Many students decide to participate in a volunteer trip without a thorough understanding of what exactly they have to offer, or even what they hope to gain from the experience. There are any number of different motivations young people can have to volunteer, from skills and language acquisition to cross-cultural exposure, but arguably one principal influencing factor is the sheer amount of promotion that targets the student demographic.

“I really support students who want to do these kinds of programs,” explains Tiessen. “But we are bombarded with all sorts [of] messages around us, whether they’re posters or television commercials, or the discourse that’s used by the agencies [.…] And often those images are of black children, or of brown-skinned children, and so it perpetuates a number of neo-colonial ideas about what our role is, what our relationship is going to be with the people that we encounter when we go abroad.”

Tiessen explains that this imagery can play a role in shaping our discourse and perceived cultural relations.

“So if we constantly see these images of white people helping black children in Africa, we reinforce and normalize a certain kind of power relationship that we think is appropriate and representative,” Tiessen explains.

The desire to volunteer your time and energy to help others is commendable, but what needs to go hand in hand with that desire is a willingness to educate oneself—not just in preparation for a trip, but continuously, about the issues and intricacies of any volunteer undertaking. A certain level of critical thinking is absolutely essential as far as international experiential learning goes, but it’s also important to realize that there are lots of different styles of travelling. Thinking carefully about what exactly you hope to accomplish, both for yourself and for others, is a vital step in any successful trip.

“[Working on your CV is] not a reason to do it,” Tiessen says. “Be honest […and] say ‘I want to have an adventure. I want to go and I want to be able to do something that doesn’t involve sitting on a beach for two weeks. I’d like to go and do something that is a bit productive.’ [But] be honest about the experience.”