Dwight Hall addresses ‘voluntourism’

The “Moving Beyond Voluntourism” panel discussed concerns with the lack of meaningful volunteerism on international service trips.
The “Moving Beyond Voluntourism” panel discussed concerns with the lack of meaningful volunteerism on international service trips. Photo by Maria Zepeda.

Dwight Hall is working to improve international volunteer service efforts at Yale.

At a panel discussion entitled “Moving Beyond Voluntourism” Wednesday night, Dwight Hall addressed concerns over the value of student volunteer trips abroad. The event was organized by the International Network, a Dwight Hall branch that was created this fall to organize specific programming related to international service for 11 student groups. The new initiative will provide oversight for international service efforts and address common criticisms of volunteer trips, such as the lack of meaningful service on such trips.

“Service should be fun and is a wonderful way to learn, but you also have to realize you’re providing something important to people, and that’s not to be taken lightly,” said Jeanette Archer-Simons, executive director of Dwight Hall.

Complaints about “voluntourism,” the term for service trips that focus on recreation and lack an emphasis on volunteer service, have been brought to several of International Network’s member organizations in the past, International Network Coordinator Teresa Logue ’15 said, but a means to address these concerns has not existed at Yale.

Logue said trips that elicited concerns include service groups that spent the majority of their trips abroad “on vacation” and another group that traveled abroad to provide medical service without having undergone sufficient training. Allowing trips without sufficient service components to advertise themselves as “service,” to be later used on student resumes, is “ethically questionable,” she said.

Currently no regulations exist for international service trips offered by Yale student groups, Logue said, and the International Network plans to establish “standards of good practice” for international service trips as well as a system for evaluating trips based on those standards. Since the start of the semester, the International Network has held several events with strong attendance and good feedback, she said, adding that an International Trips Mini-Bazaar was held last week to advertise all the international service trip options available to students.

“Service trips are complicated. It’s not an easy thing to go abroad somewhere you’ve never been before and try to implement a project or engage with the community there in a short period of time,” said Monica Landy ’13, the International Network’s event coordinator.

International service during school breaks is becoming increasingly popular on elite college campuses for students who have the time and financial resources to travel abroad, said Talya Zemach-Bersin GRD ’14, a speaker at the panel. When these programs lack adequate preparation, Zemach-Bersin said they can “bolster the privilege and assumed innocence of the already privileged” or allow students to benefit personally and professionally from “the poverty and suffering of the less privileged” rather than aid communities in need.

The accomplishments of short-term service trips are often intangible, said Iva Popa ’14, president of Reach Out, a group on campus that organizes service trips abroad during breaks. The service accomplished is often a “two-way street” and students who conduct service abroad typically become more involved with service after they return, Popa said. She added that two years ago, students who traveled to Uganda through Reach Out formed the Ugandan Hope Network — a student group that supports nonprofit efforts in Uganda — after returning.

Aaron Lewis ’14, who attended the panel Wednesday night said he is uncertain about the International Network’s ability to fix what he sees as a systemic problem with the validity of international service trips.

“None of these trips will happen unless kids want to do them,” Lewis said. “The motivation is coming from the students therefore, and not so much the organizations that are holding these programs.”

Dwight Hall is the largest student-run service organization in the country.

Correction: Dec. 12

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a statement made by Talya Zemach-Bersin GRD ’14 to Monica Landy ’13.

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