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!