Only a Soph-o-more

Often on school trips, both at high school and university level, the students are treated as unskilled laborours.  This is true with the Dialogue of Civilizations programs, Alternative Spring Break, and pretty much any trip that involves volunteering. 

What is up with that?

College students are NOT unskilled.  Especially if you take into account where in the world they are sent to volunteer.  When they are working with 1st graders in Benin, they have worlds more education. 

Why is it that so many of out volunteering abroad programs only use people to build schools, paint community centers and tear down old houses?  Just because you’re not a doctor or an engineer doesn’t mean you are entirely without skill.  And really, don’t even get me started on the mistakes made by EWB–every engineer I know informs me that no no, they make totally good decisions about culture, cuz they like have someone who knows about that and stuff.  Yeah, high school Spanish doesn’t really cut it on the cultural awareness and general-development-aid-savvy scale. 

Anyway: back to us “unskilled” laborours here.  We’re not unskilled.  If you look at the overall global population, having a high school diploma makes you one of the lucky few.  Several semesters of college?  It’s rare throughout the world, and totally unheard of for many populations. 

Now, all this doesn’t mean we’re smarter than them, better at whatever we do than them, and more equipped to understand their culture than them, whoever “they” may be.  It just means that the aggregate knowledge of our affluent lives and relatively good education systems means we should be shooting higher.  It also means there’s a good chance that we geeky political junkies are perhaps better fit to policy decisions than breaking large rocks, and could do far greater good from a desk than a hot field.  Yes, it is appealing to go somewhere and see children in rags and have them smile for your digital camera.  It feels great when they love you, and to use your hands to create something tangible. 

But are we really all in college so we can be day-laborers?  Or are we just assuaging our own guilt?  Or perhaps even being misused? 

On that note, I HAVE been involved in several different volunteering abroad opportunities, and I’m looking to get into another one.  What’re your thoughts?  Any dos or don’ts?  Any questions you would ask before volunteering?  I’m looking at you, yovos and Allyson Goldhagen!

3 thoughts on “Only a Soph-o-more”

  1. Delia, I can only anwer your question with another question: Has your life been enriched by any of it? If so, keep doing it. I believe, the more you give the more you get. Right now, you’re way ahead of most of us. And by the way, you’ll never be just labor. For your labor is one of love for humanity. Pretty deep, huh?! Enjoy your good deeds!! Uncle Joe O.


  2. Hey Delia – as a college student myself, I totally understand where you’re coming from. I also sense that the attitude of volunteer organizations sometimes is that students don’t really have a lot to offer beyond yielding a hammer or digging a ditch somewhere. Of course, these things are important and need to be done… but there are many other kinds of opportunities and needs that could be met by college students. You never know, college students, as part of a new generation, might even have something to offer that other professionals do not!

    One suggestion I have is checking out organizations like who focus on matching your skills with needs. They are primarily in NYC as of right now, but it’s a good place to start when thinking about skill-based volunteering.

    Thanks for your thoughts!


  3. Hey Lacy, thanks so much for the input–I’m nto based in nyc, but i’m sure other readers will appreciate that. glad youre enjoying the blog! i;ve just now started poking around yours, i’ll have to add it to my rss


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