The Pros and Cons of Summer Service Trips for College Students

For millenials, international service travel can offer a number of exciting benefits — from practicing a foreign language in a different socioeconomic setting to adding a 15-word blurb to their résumé which many times exaggerates their contributions; hammering a few nails one afternoon quickly turns into “constructed entire two bedroom house for a lower-income family”. Posters on college campuses advertise the exotic and often tropical lands where teaching English for four days leads to a long weekend vacation at the beach with a few piña coladas. Because how else are service organizations to compete with millenials’ typical spring break or summer plans, the mindless binge drinking beach parties that have come to stereotype our generation?

Given the various advantages of such international service trips and the pressure from universities  to participate in them, international service travel seems to be a win-win situation for both parties — the student and the  person, community, organization, or other ambiguous entity they seek to serve (“what’s their name again? I need to beef up my résumé”). But an array of academic literature has questioned the efficacy of short-term international service trips, showing their sometimes shocking, detrimental consequences. Other articles such as “The White Savior Industrial Complex” have argued against the growing messianic attitudes accompanying white Americans' traveling to the Global South to “fix” complex social and political problems. Still, considering the emphasis on international service travel in our generation’s undergraduate experience, we cannot dismiss such a model as void of any positive contributions — to do so would be equally as naïve as the idealistic college students who think they can solve world problems overnight.

In the favela, or shantytown, of Saramandaia in Salvador, Brazil, foreigners have proven instrumental in the official founding and growth of the NGO “Conscious Art” which offers at-risk youth the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities such as percussion, circus, graffiti, and boxing. While the co-founder and current president Aléx Sandro Pereira, among a handful of other dedicated Brazilian community members, had the idea and raw determination to make this social project a reality, a number of foreigners have assisted the group significantly in its transformation. This includes monetary contributions to purchase land and materials to construct a three-story building as well as to acquire other essentials such as music equipment. Some foreign activists have even helped create partnerships between “Conscious Art” and international NGOs such as Rhythm of Hope while others have helped the organization procure long-term funding from the municipal government. Overall, these partnerships with foreigners have been widely beneficial to an NGO that now reaches over 300 youth in their lower-income community.

But it’s no secret to Aléx that these foreign activists sporadically mix their volunteering with weekend getaways to idyllic beach towns, a luxury that the vast majority of Saramandaia residents cannot afford. Throughout my time with the organization, Aléx often lamented the fact that we, as generally college-educated foreign activists, were still tourists and that we would indeed travel back to our respective home countries in the near future, thereby ceasing to support his organization on a day-to-day basis.

Still, he recognized the important contributions foreign activities had made and would continue to make to his organization, imperfect as they may be in fully realizing his dream of a radically better life for every single one of his students. Aléx thus continues to engage with foreigners that wish to work with “Conscious Art,” knowing that such partnerships are vital to the NGO’s survival and future growth.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently told students at Tulane University not to feel guilty about their expensive trips abroad, but rather to recognize that the experience of having volunteered internationally makes one more cognizant and more critically engaged with the world’s realities and needs. He seemed to suggest that such investments in millennials’ personal experiences and education would pay off long-term — not only for ourselves, but also for the billions of people who will be influenced by the changing worldviews and future policies enacted by members of our generation in the Global North.

The question is not if international service trips are the most efficient short-term way to use resources to achieve positive social change. Whether international service travel has the potential to create long-term, more globally minded and engaged citizens while making significant contributions along the way is the question yet to be answered.