It’s mid-March and I’m in a t-shirt. The weather is a welcome respite from New Haven’s never-ending winter — it’s that putting-on-sunscreen-won’t-stave-off-the-burn kind of day. Gotta love spring break.
We’re at our volunteer site, a farm connected to the University of Buenos Aires that offers work opportunities to individuals with developmental disabilities.
Today, one of the farmhands is showing me how to plant lettuce seeds in beds of soil. Sometimes we pause to trade jokes or start water fights. Sometimes he teaches me new phrases in Spanish. “Que buena chica,” he says, “Buen trabajo.”
Later that evening, I find myself in an Argentine restaurant using my broken Spanish to tell my waiter how I’ve wound up in Buenos Aires. “Soy de Nueva York,” I say. “Pero estoy de vacaciones.”
“Oh!” Suddenly he understands. “You have spring break, sí? Sprang break como James Franco!”
“Well,” I laugh, “Not exactly.”
* * *
In 2012, Yale-affiliate James Franco popularized the notion of spring break as a time for rum-soaked ragers in Florida/Cabo/insert beachy region of choice.
But for many Yale students, spring break is the ideal time for a very different sort of travel. Over the past two weeks, more than 50 Yalies participated in service trips abroad with destinations as wide-ranging as Taiwan and Guatemala.
Aobo Guo ’17 spent her spring break freshman year on one such trip to Ghana and Togo — a nation she’d never even heard of before she applied to go. The trip was organized by Reach Out, a Yale undergraduate organization that coordinates international service. It was supposed to focus on volunteer work at an orphanage in Togo, where students aimed to implement a health curriculum for the children. Soon after arriving at the volunteer site, however, Guo grew frustrated with the group’s efforts.
“I noticed that Reach Out’s ambitions were noble but weren’t necessarily being executed in the most effective way,” she told me. “It seemed like there was this approach of ‘Look at these slums! Play with these kids! Take in the exotic culture!’ But we weren’t getting a lot done in terms of our actual service project.”
Guo said their plans to implement the health curriculum hit a roadblock — many of the volunteers didn’t speak any French. The language barrier, she said, made it difficult to communicate with the children at the orphanage.
Even though the group encountered structural and logistical difficulties, Guo gained a strong appreciation for the challenges inherent in international service work.
Her mission since then has been to devise better solutions to these difficulties. The following year, Guo led a Reach Out trip to Nepal that better fulfilled her vision of meaningful and mindfully planned service. She later became Reach Out’s president, making it her goal to clarify the organization’s goals and deepen its impact. As president, Guo was responsible for approving applications from potential trip leaders. She rejected a greater number of trips than her predecessors, intent on maintaining a higher standard — quality over quantity was her MO.
“Previously Reach Out had this reputation for being just a cool spring break experience where you get to travel to an exotic location under the guise of helping out,” Guo said. The emphasis was on tourism rather than on volunteering. “I wanted to make it more centered on service in order to really drive impact.”
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Katherine Garvey ’16, the current president of Reach Out, has continued Guo’s mission to make spring break service matter. But she is still well aware of the negative associations that come to mind when people think of community service trips. “It’s hard to design a six-day trip that doesn’t fall prey to the characteristics of voluntourism,” she acknowledged.
Some take that criticism a bit further.
For instance, Yale’s own Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science calls service trips “resume-padding” and “morally safe, because they’re distant and quarantined.”
“Students have told me the trips displace, delimit and debase good impulses by directing them to societies one can’t understand in a few weeks,” Sleeper told me. “To better help others and themselves, students should try ‘service learning’ with fellow citizens in their own societies.”
Garvey, however, feels there is something critical to be gained through service abroad, so long as trips are carefully planned and executed with purpose.
This March, Garvey led a spring break trip to the Dominican Republic, where Yalies volunteered for Yspaniola, a non-profit that promotes literacy in the impoverished Batey Libertad community. (Bateys are rural communities in the Dominican Republic, historically centered around the sugarcane industry.)
In planning her trip, Garvey made sure to include a service component that would leave the Batey Libertad community with something tangible and long-lasting. So the Yale volunteers made flashcards, developed reading games and provided other resources that would be helpful to their literacy center. Garvey also organized weekly meetings at Yale leading up to the group’s departure for the Dominican Republic, in which volunteers gathered to study Dominican culture and the challenges faced by this particular community.
The volunteer site for Garvey’s trip, Yspaniola, is the brainchild of Jonathan DiMaio ’09, who is something of a poster boy for service trips gone right.
In 2007, DiMaio participated in a Reach Out trip to the Dominican Republic. In 2008, he went on a second trip to the same location, which raised money to build a women’s center in the community and helped implement a better sanitation system. But DiMaio was frustrated by the limitations of his short visits to the community. He wanted to build roots in Batey Libertad, to truly immerse himself in the town’s unique fabric and culture.
After graduating from Yale, DiMaio received a fellowship to move to the Dominican Republic and expand Yspaniola’s work. Five years later, and he’s still carrying on the work he started there. He has directed the growth of Yspaniola’s literacy summer camp and a program offering university scholarships to community members. Each year, he liaises with Reach Out students to facilitate service learning trips, strengthening the organization’s connection with Yale.
To DiMaio, it is critical that students prepare for the trips by reading about the history of the Batey Libertad community and by thinking critically about their position as Yale students coming to an area of extreme poverty.
“It’s so interesting for people from one of the most privileged communities in the world to come to this community that is really on the margins,” DiMaio said. “There are all these fascinating connections and strange power dynamics created.” That was a leap DiMaio himself experienced when he traded the comforts of Calhoun College for a life in the Dominican Republic.
The most powerful moment of any service trip, DiMaio believes, is when participants come to realize the powerful forces that link them with those who come from radically different backgrounds.
He told me about a group of Yale volunteers he brought to the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Students stood on the bridge looking over the town of Ouanaminthe, watching Haitian men and women wash their clothing and bathe in the nearby river. It was an uncomfortable moment, DiMaio continued, a visceral experience that revealed the extreme levels of poverty in the region, the chasm between the volunteers and the people they were trying to help.
Then DiMaio reminded the Yale students that the people they watched bathing in the river have lives beyond that brief snapshot — they have jobs, families, friends, Facebooks.
“There are connections between volunteers and the communities they visit that extend beyond these brief interactions,” DiMaio said. “We are more connected than we might think to these spaces of extreme marginalization.”
Those connections can create all sorts of complex dynamics.
Evelyn Nunez ’15, who led Reach Out’s trip to the Dominican Republic in 2014, described the sometimes tense encounters that can occur when American values clash with those of Batey Libertad.
She recalled one evening during her trip when the volunteers gathered to reflect on their service experience with members of the Batey Libertad community. One of the Yale students said he felt particularly uncomfortable with the community’s rigid gender roles. Each morning at breakfast, the men would sit around the table to eat while the women stood around in the kitchen. It made him feel awkward, he told the group. The next morning when the Yale volunteers came down for breakfast, the women were all offered seats at the table.
To Nunez, that felt like a moment of triumph. But others might have looked at it differently.
Alicia Schmidt Camacho, director of undergraduate studies in Ethnicity, Race and Migration, said that service trips offer important opportunities for students to explore the contrast between American values and those of communities abroad. But these interactions must be approached with caution and nuance.
“Students have to think about what’s really going to be helpful to the people they’re working with,” Camacho said. “It’s easy for us to see how gender inequalities operate in foreign contexts without noticing the inequalities we’ve grown accustomed to in our everyday lives.” Conversations about gender, she continued, have the capacity to embarrass rather than help women abroad.
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Though it’s the predominant organizer of such trips, Reach Out is not the only campus group that has taken on the international service agenda. The trip to Buenos Aires I participated in, for instance, was coordinated by the Slifka Center.
When Adam Sokol ’17 set about planning this trip with Ali Golden ’17 and Dani Czemerinski ’17, he was determined to avoid the pitfalls of traditional service trips painting a wall that later gets repainted by a new group of college volunteers, as he put it. Sokol, himself skeptical of typical volunteer trips, wanted to set realistic goals for the group’s service project.
“Throughout the process of planning the trip, we were extremely self-aware and -critical about the implications of what we were doing,” Golden explained. The organizers asked themselves: How can we justify the resources invested in the trip? They recognized that trip participants were aiming to learn and not just to serve. The trip’s purpose, the organizers explained, was to inspire more long-term commitment to social justice.
The trip organizers also grappled with their position as American volunteers. Czemerinski said that when she first told her extended Argentine family that she would be traveling to Buenos Aires with a group focused on social justice, her relatives were taken aback.
“It’s easy to misconstrue the intention of this type of trip as a group of American students traveling to another country, believing they can change the world,” Czemerinski said. “We did not change the world, nor were we intending to. The purpose of the trip was to learn about ourselves, try to understand another culture, and lend a helping hand.”
Jake Wolf-Sorokin ’16, who went on the trip, was initially torn about serving abroad given “all the problems in our own backyard, here in New Haven.” But Wolf-Sorokin ultimately decided that the wisdom gleaned from international travel would be invaluable.
“In the same way that Yale funds academic research abroad, service trips give us the chance to reflect on our own communities and think about how we can make our service back home more meaningful,” Wolf-Sorokin said.
Mornings in Argentina began with 7 a.m. alarms, and we were off to the farm, called Pecohue. Coordinated by the University of Buenos Aires, Pecohue hires developmentally disabled individuals in order to give them a source of income and a social routine.
Though I’m someone neither well-trained nor well-equipped for manual labor, there were luckily a wide range of tasks available to us. We would partner with the farm workers to whack weeds, water plants and shovel manure. And we were also there to socialize — to learn from and contribute to the farm’s vibrant familial community.
The content of service trips certainly varies, and it is often affected by factors like language and volunteer skillsets. Of the Reach Out leaders I spoke to, each had taken on wildly different projects, from working with survivors of sexual abuse in the Philippines to teaching theater in a public school in Taiwan.
Camacho emphasized that, likewise, not all service trips are alike in their impact. “I’ve seen students go to an orphanage for two weeks, and you wonder how much the volunteers and people being served really benefit from such a short visit,” she said. On the other hand, she mentioned the potential good that more contained projects can accomplish in that timespan.
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We’re not in the easiest position as students on an internationally-oriented campus often disconnected from the surrounding community. Many Yalies may feel an obligation to address challenges in New Haven and a simultaneous responsibility to learn about global issues.
For Evelyn Nunez, this obligation necessarily extends beyond New Haven. Trips to the Dominican Republic have provided a necessary supplement to her international development textbooks. As Yale students, she explained, we are learning to be citizens of a global community, one that we cannot fully understand until we travel across it.
DiMaio conceded that there are aspects of a community that volunteers can’t fully come to grasp during a short visit. It was only once DiMaio moved to the Dominican Republic that he began to understand the nuanced difficulties encountered by members of the Batey Libertad community: military raids, deportations, court rulings that strip residents of their citizenship. It is consequently frustrating when organizations come from the outside to provide services without taking the time to study challenges on the ground.
But short-term trips matter, DiMaio explained, because they open the door for deeper involvement in an otherwise inaccessible community. DiMaio has seen several Yale volunteers return to Batey Libertad after service trips to spend full summers working at Yspaniola’s summer camp.
Had DiMaio not visited the Dominican Republic on a Yale service trip, he might not be living there today. “Service trips changed my life,” he said with a chuckle. “Now the work I do isn’t for some foreign community. It’s for people I consider my friends.”
But when determining where our deepest service obligations lie, many Yale students argue we should focus foremost on volunteer work here in New Haven.
“Fixing problems like poverty comes down to the slow work of relationship building and community organizing,” explained Ariana Shapiro ’16, who has led numerous social justice initiatives around New Haven. “I think this work can happen anywhere, but since building trust, solidarity, and relationships takes time, a two-week service trip abroad is unlikely to do a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.”
Some Yalies argue that service trips provide crucial exposure to issues of class. But you certainly don’t have to leave Yale’s campus to explore questions of privilege and socioeconomic disparities when it comes to spring break.
“Spring break is just one item on a long list of things that exclude low-income students from fully integrating socially at Yale,” Andrea Villena ’15 told me. She noted the frustration some students feel with the expectation that Yalies spend their spring break somewhere exotic. For the past four years, Villena has spent almost every spring and fall break at Yale. It’s not the easiest thing, she said, watching her friends post Snapchats and Instagrams on sunny beaches while she sits in Bass.
Tyler Blackmon ’16 said that the class difficulties of spring break present a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many low-income students at Yale cannot afford to accompany their peers on lavish vacations to tropical locales. On the other hand, those who are able to save up and take trips abroad are sometimes pilloried for spending their money in self-indulgent ways. It’s a lose-lose situation, in his eyes.
* * *
During our last evening in Buenos Aires, the group of Yale volunteers gathered over dinner to reflect on our work. We each took a moment to share what we would take home beyond souvenirs and sunburns. As each of us took our turn, I was struck by how many people looked to the trip’s long-term impact — our changed approaches and attitudes to service and international development.
Of Slifka’s trip, Czemerinski said: “I am certain that everyone will use this … to get more involved within the New Haven community, or as a learning experience to improve their current community endeavors.”
In other words, most of the important work born out of these trips happens once volunteers have returned to the Elm City. Do they post their Facebook pictures and move on? Or do they deepen their involvement in social justice, both at home and far away? Do they pull a DiMaio, move across the world and make this stuff their full-time job? There’s a catch to all the perks of these spring break trips — they provide a test of character that doesn’t end when the plane lands.
Camacho emphasized nuance in our attitudes about service. She explained that while we can’t fancy ourselves saviors, neither can we write off these trips as unproductive. Often, she added, they can change our identities and perspectives and discourse in meaningful ways. To make it corny, they’re as much about reaching out as reaching in. They’re powerful, so long as we recognize that we’re often the ones served by our mission of service.