“Dude, I really wanna go on that Reach Out trip and help the kids in Nepal; it’s gonna be so sick. But the problem is I just can’t afford the $2,000 air tickets. Do you know where I can apply for funding at Yale?”
As a former trip participant, former trip leader and this year’s spring trip coordinator for Reach Out, an undergraduate organization that sends hundreds of Yale students each year to work on service projects in developing countries, I fielded lots of questions like that over the past two weeks. It was inspiring so see all the enthusiasm, but at the same time it was intimidating to face such questions. For people wondering where they can find funding on campus for such trips, I honestly still don’t have a good answer yet. I doubt the Yale administration does, either.
Yale takes pride in its aspiration to become a “global institution.” Indeed, the University has consistently encouraged students to explore the rest of the world. We launched a dozen study-abroad programs, established an office dedicated to assisting students’ overseas travel plans, sponsored an international conference on Asian affairs to be held this weekend in Washington, D.C. and offered numerous academic fellowships for students to travel abroad.
All were admirable in their own right. But one piece of Yale’s roadmap to increased global participation remains missing: We do not yet have a well-structured system to offer financial assistance for students participating in service trips.
Students looking to fund such a trip can work 200 hours; they can talk to their masters and cross their fingers, hoping the college’s budget this year is more generous than the country’s; they can rack their brain and spin the service trip as an “academic” project for one of the small number of fellowships applicable to spring projects; they can even ring up moms and dads as a last resort. But the question is: Should Yale, a wealthy, ambitious university dedicated to bringing light and truth to every corner of the world, sit and relax, watching its students anxiously running around for funding only because they wish to work on service (instead of academic) projects in remote third-world countries where no Bulldogs programs nor Yale alumni clubs exist?
One should never underestimate the impact of service trips in developing countries. They provide unique means of integrating academic learning and first-hand service experience abroad. They change and enlighten ivory-tower students’ perceptions of the developing world, enhancing understanding of development issues faced around the world.
It excites me to see students learning local languages after coming back from trips, deciding to work again in the regions they visited or starting to establish long-term working relationships with local NGOs. Such efforts make me so proud of my peers’ passion to help the world.
But I’ve also seen the other side of Reach Out. I’ve seen the disappointment on faces as students have to drop out of trips because of lack of funding. This year, over 270 students applied to 10 spring service trips. Reach Out unfortunately does not have nearly enough funding to aid everyone, and some of those students may have to cancel their plans because of the cost they are forced to bear.
It is discouraging and unfair that those from less privileged backgrounds, whose families can offer little help, have less opportunity to participate in trips like those run by Reach Out. These students are as full of energy as students who can afford the trips, and as ready to kindle a fire of progress in the countries they visit. They share Yale’s desire to generate tangible, far-reaching changes around the world, and they embody Yale’s commitment to fostering a sense of global responsibility.
That spirit is precious, but also fragile. And the way to protect it is simple. Students only need a bit more financial assistance from the University. By institutionalizing a standard, universal process of applying for funding towards service trips, possibly on a competitive basis, Yale can fill in that missing piece. This would both help students and further Yale’s mission to globalize and help people around the world.
When presented with an opportunity, Yale students take full advantage. Yale has an opportunity now to further the school’s globalization agenda in a new way — and help students in the process. This time, Yale should not let it pass by.
Robert Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.