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Why you should rethink your “service” trip

Between high-achieving campus clubs and the pressure of constructing a well-rounded college application to compete with a rising number of equally impressive others, Tamalpais High School students are in a frenzy to acquire as many service hours as possible. The majority of Tam students, being upper-middle class, can seek out these opportunities not only in their communities but also abroad. Despite this privilege, community service trumps service trips as it offers students opportunities to make a positive and, more importantly, lasting impact on their communities while avoiding supporting the big-money industry of voluntourism. 

In the summer of 2022, I traveled to Ollantaytambo, Peru, with a student travel and service company named Global Leadership Adventures. Coming out of the pandemic, my parents insisted that I participate in an international service program. I was hesitant because the decision was desperate, made obvious by the fact that we were signing up very late and I was traveling to a Spanish-speaking country with my three years of French class. However, I can’t deny that it was an invaluable experience to be away from home to explore and appreciate Andean and Peruvian culture. I met a couple close friends and visited one of the Seven Wonders of the New World: Machu Picchu. 

Nevertheless, when asked if I wanted to try a similar program this upcoming summer, I reconsidered. Seeing some of my peers commit to local service this past year inspired me to examine the issues I’m passionate about and do more research on local organizations. In the Tam community, there are a plethora of local service opportunities for students including campus cleanups, Bridge the Gap, Food Picked With Love, Youth for Justice, and countless others. This short list does not even cover opportunities for students to get involved in community service through easy-access, Marin-based programs outside of Tam. After discovering and participating in some of these options, I urge anyone else who experiences a dilemma similar to mine to reconsider if your summer plans haven’t firmed up. Even if you have already committed to a summer travel experience, start planning now about how you can get involved in the local community when you return.

There are three main reasons that I believe best demonstrate why you should volunteer locally, all centered around the actual impacts of your service. First off, by participating in local service, you can make a direct change in your community. According to the University of Nevada, Reno, teens volunteer about 2.4 billion hours annually which is worth about $34.3 billion dollars. Clearly, your time and energy are worth a lot of money. This enables you, as the volunteer, to further the goals of an organization whose mission you support. 

“Honor T is the longest-running club at Tam and is dedicated to encouraging students to do local service,” Co-President Ellery Barnes said. To be in Honor T, you have to complete 12 hours of community service per semester and submit a rigorous application. This is Barnes’ second year as co-president and she told me about her go-to service opportunities and how they impacted her, one of them being the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. 

“During COVID, there was a lot of food insecurity,” Barnes said. “Every Saturday, I would do the SF Marin Food Bank drive-throughs and that was cool because I actually got to see the people, interact with them, and give them food. They were so grateful and appreciative and it made me realize the importance of meeting the people you’re helping and gaining new perspectives,” she continued.  

In addition to human interaction, the dedication you have to your activities is also incredibly important. 

Junior Fiona Bailey thinks there is value in making a commitment to do service. She regularly volunteers at the Redwoods Senior Home, just across the road from Tam High, to assist the elderly with their technology. “I believe I have made a difference through my volunteering by keeping up with it for several years because it has allowed me to become a person the residents at the Redwoods can count on. They are familiar with me, and they trust me,” Bailey said. This trusting relationship can improve the community as a whole. 

Service trips usually range from two weeks to a month long, while you can help local organizations all four years of high school and even beyond. A common reason that students participate in service trips is to put them on their college applications. A Tam High junior went on a service trip to Costa Rica in summer 2022. 

“I feel like most of the kids on the trip were just doing it for college applications. They didn’t actually care about the cause,” the junior said. 

For students who are participating just to slap it onto their applications, keep in mind that the admissions officers are tired of reading “mission trip” essays. This is what Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology, called them when he was interviewed by Ira Glass on This American Life. “‘And then over the course of my time there, I went expecting to help others, but it was, in fact, me who was changed,’” Clark imitated from essays he had read. “And even just when you first start reading that essay, you’re like, oh, here it comes again.” 

In Frank Bruni’s opinion piece “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?” from the New York Times, he points out that students often misunderstand how admissions officers are reading their essays about service trips. Some students think they are showing off the passionate goodness they bring into the world through the service project while in reality they are just flaunting their family’s wealth and privilege. 

In essence, colleges value community service over service trips because they know you’re affecting and investing in your community, not just trying to visit some gorgeous Costa Rican beaches. 

The second impact your service has is on the community where it takes place.

Voluntourism is defined by Oxford Languages as “a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.” The same word is defined differently on the Earth Changers tourism blog: “[a practice that] is not ethical, responsible or sustainable, largely created to fulfill western desires rather than local needs, exploiting for a profit for external parties.” One might wonder: if voluntourism can be that bad, why are people still doing it? 

It’s common to see Instagram posts with the teen smiling and holding a shovel, standing under a wooden structure with the caption “We finished building the school today! Such hard work but so rewarding!” or something of that nature. After the trip, how many teens actually continue participating in a service similar to their program, supporting an organization they worked with, or keeping in touch with people from the area they visited? I understand that it’s easy to forget about the people and the organizations you left behind because, in my case, they were located in the Andes mountains without any cell reception and there was a thick language barrier between us. In these cases, there are a myriad of barriers that prevent teens from continuing their service regardless of if they desire to or not. However, if the teen truly cared about the cause, they would find a way to continue the service when they returned home.  

In 2021, The Guardian wrote an article about a 2014 blog post by Pippa Biddle titled, “The Problem With Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being A Voluntourist.” The blog post reflected on Biddle’s own experiences volunteering in Tanzania on a school trip. She reflected on how she and her boarding-school classmates were there to build a library in a school and spent more than six hours every day mixing cement and laying bricks. All throughout the night, Tanzanian men would take down the “structurally unsound” bricks and relay them, then act as if nothing had happened morning after morning. 

“It would have been more cost-effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level,” Biddle wrote in her post. She and her classmates were taking away jobs from local people and doing them poorly. 

The Tam High junior similarly recalled “not feeling qualified to mix a lot of concrete then lay it down as a building base” on their service trip. 

I can relate. In Peru, I remember local people watching with amusement as my group struggled to sand logs. When one of them came over to help us, I noticed how his techniques were far superior to ours and I questioned why the organization had assigned us this task when they were considerably more capable. 

Another key way that voluntourism is hurting rather than helping is through “orphan tourism.” This is defined as “[a practice] in which visitors volunteer as caregivers for children whose parents died or otherwise can’t support them,” in a New York Times piece titled, “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma.” This industry has become so popular that orphanages have started to cater to the volunteer’s desires rather than the children’s, according to the article. They are knowingly subjecting the children to terrible conditions just to lure the unsuspecting volunteers into donating more money to the orphanage. 

This reinforces a negative stereotype for developing countries and the prevalent white savior narrative for majority white voluntourists. Additionally, The Conversation wrote that approximately 80 percent of “orphans” have living parents who could take care of their children if they were offered more support by their government. Children in those countries, whether they are orphans or not, see many volunteers coming and going around every two weeks. The constant rotation has been linked to attachment disorders in children, and in worse cases, sexual exploitation, forced begging, and human trafficking, according to the Center for Girls. 

As you can see, there are many underlying negative impacts on countries as a result of voluntourism. I am not trying to prove or imply that all service trips are terrible or bad-intentioned. However, most teens just don’t have the skills required to really make a difference on their trips. 

If you are a doctor or construction professional and you can make a long-term commitment to living and working abroad, then perhaps service trips are for you. But if this isn’t you, do you really want to be involved in destabilizing the community that you thought you were building up? 

The final reason you should choose community service and not service trips is because community service impacts you. 

It’s important to focus on the impacts that your service has on others, but equally as significant to ensure you are aware of how the service is benefitting you. Community service positively affects teens personally, educationally, and professionally. The University of Nevada, Reno wrote that teens who volunteer at least one hour a week are 50 percent less likely to abuse alcohol or cigarettes, become pregnant, or engage in other destructive behavior. Teens themselves reported that they learned to “to be helpful and kind, to understand people who are different, to develop leadership skills, to become more patient, and to have a better understanding of citizenship,” according to The Bridge Teen Center’s article, “The Importance of Community Service in a Teen’s Life.” They also found that teens who volunteer are more likely to do well in school, graduate, and vote. 

Beyond the immediate advantages of volunteering locally, there are long-term ones, too. Community service is good for college applications and scholarships as well as job applications. The Bridge Teen Center found that having volunteer experience on a resume boosts chances of finding a job by 27 percent—and let’s be honest: who’s going to put a service trip on their resume to get a job? To find some community-service-oriented job or scholarships, a quick Google search of your interests is all that is necessary to begin exploring your options. 

The difference between the benefits that can be found in community service and those in service trips comes down to how the former possesses more advantages. Volunteer work lasts longer than a two-week trip, and you bear witness to the positive and long-term impacts that you are spearheading within your own community. 

If you are considering getting involved or have already been on a service trip, I implore you to avoid them because they negatively impact communities by cutting jobs for local people, allowing organizations to cater to the needs of voluntourists, reinforcing stereotypes of developing countries and the white savior narrative, and, alas, hurt your college application (cue gasp). 

Conversely, community service helps you in the long run not only emotionally, but also educationally as well as professionally by giving you a tangible, integral role and responsibility in your community through an opportunity through which you will build valuable relationships.

“When you’re doing service, ask yourself ‘what do I want to get out of this?’” Barnes said. “You shouldn’t feel like you have to travel halfway across the world to do service when there are people right outside your door who could use your help.” 

One of the most common reasons that teens don’t participate in community service is because they don’t know where to start, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity. To avoid leaving you lost, here is a compiled list of some helpful resources for you to find local service opportunities. 

First and foremost, check out the Tam High College and Career Center’s community service postings. There is also an Instagram account associated with the center called @tamhigh_givesback. If you’re looking for larger, long-term projects in the greater Bay Area, visit HandsOn Bay Area.

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