Lost in the Meaning of Volunteering

By Da Yeon Eom

For the charitable among us, it’s easy to daydream about taking a volunteer abroad opportunity to eliminate poverty in a remote village in Africa, inventing a sustainable source of income for its people and maybe winning a Nobel peace award for the benefits you provided.

If not for the Instagram updates, you would still be able to tell a great story about how the experience of volunteering in a third world nation was transcendent.

Although the mentality of wanting to help people is virtuous, the question that all students who wish to volunteer abroad should ask themselves is, “What am I prepared to learn, and how can I contribute without disrupting the people’s lives?”

Sometimes, there are consequences to the communities being helped, such as unknowingly participating in a dependent relationship instead of developing an independent, sustainable plan that can survive after the volunteers return to the comfort of their homeland.


Only when the participants are open-minded about the experience and interaction with people they would encounter on their volunteer trip willthey will be rewarded by extraordinary memories.

A group of University students was led by Professor Madhu Viswanathan for an MBA research trip to Bangalore and Delhi over winter break. Michael Hansen, a Masters student in Industrial Design who went on this research tripsaid that, “It is very easy to see something from a distance and think you know how to fix it, but to see how other cultures interact, to see the emotions involved, tells you a lot more than some survey or video ever will.”

Voluntourism, or the combination of volunteering and tourism, has been promoted as “sexy” or “exotic” by the media. The price of travelling and other necessities is not inexpensive. However, college students take the risk because they want a sense of adventure, and a boosting of self-esteem when they can add #wanderlust to their Instagram pictures with a starving child. https://medium.com/the-development-set/the-reductive-seduction-of-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d#.fld1zl3ao

Sophy Cai, a P.h.D student in Education who attended the research trip, said the stereotypical heroism of volunteering can and should be fixed.

“(We need to be)open to confront the power relations and our own motivations. Asking the question of, ‘What does the exotic volunteering let us learn about ourselves, our positions in the world, and our responsibilities to the third world?’” Cai said.

If you are prepared to abandon the sense of noble obligation many have when signing up for volunteering abroad, there is nothing wrong with wanting to contribute and wanting to learn from the locals. Enjoy the trip and make responsible choices when entering people’s lives as a guest.

Be kind to the people not for the sake of “likes” or admiration on social media, but for a learning lesson outside of a classroom and for realizing how ignorant we are in our privileges. The University offers RSO’s such as Entrepreneurs Without Borders to assist students in finding ways to achieve a significant experience with the peers from campus.

“The foreign experience contains opportunities for education that are disjoint from the domestic experience;culture is an easy one to name. It’s never too early or too late to get involved and experience something amazing.” Johnny Chang, a junior in Engineering and memberof Entrepreneurs Without Borders, said.

And if you aren’t one of many who hopes of volunteering abroad, service can be achieved in local communities as well. Instead of embracing the dangers of long flights and lack of sanitation in third world countries, you can help out at the communities of Urbana-Champaign with the familiar scenery of campustown.

For example, Urbana Adult Education is one place among many where you can help out. It is an institution to assist people in their learning process so that they can achieve their GED, high school diploma or development in choice of careers.

You may make a short-time investment in experiencing the lives of the less fortunate, but respect the pain of the vulnerable ones as you decide to flash them in social media. Show enough commitment to be part of their community as a pupil rather than as a crusader before purchasing the next available ticket to cure the “third world.”

Da Yeon is a sophomore in ACES.

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