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Many high school students engage in community service abroad, whether it be on mission trips with churches, schools, clubs, or family. Not all students, however, sit down to seriously ponder what the experience means to them and what they hope to both give to and get out of it. Volunteering in a foreign country can be a wonderful opportunity to help others while developing your own sense of self, but, as has been addressed by everyone from Frank Bruni to Harvard University, service is also something college applicants have come to see as application capital as much as, or even more than, an opportunity to contribute to and change the world for the better. When the motivation to volunteer comes from the wrong place, it can actually do more harm than good; which is why it’s important to ask yourself the following four questions to make sure you’re engaging in service for the right reasons:
If you’re taking advantage of every selfie moment to capture and display the beautiful scenery crumbling and members of the local community who have taken a liking to you, you are probably not spending enough energy building a real rapport with the community and putting in the elbow grease and mental energy it takes to truly make a difference. Your choice to volunteer in a developing country should be one that comes from honest intentions and your desire to make a positive impact on the world. You shouldn’t be doing it to craft your image on social media. Put the camera down and open your heart to some good old-fashioned in-person connection.
They’re helping people in need, how could they be bad?! We understand this mindset, but the world of nonprofit organizations can be surprisingly tricky to navigate. Some nonprofits use their funds more efficiently and effectively than others. Investigate how the organization budgets its funds. What percentage of funds raised do they keep for themselves? Confirm that there are initiatives and specific plans and activities in place before you arrive at your destination. You can’t make the most of a service trip if there is no structure to your program. If an organization is professional and responsible, they will also take proper precautions by screening you if you are to work with children and engage in other measures to ensure your safety and the safety of those you’re travelling to serve.
We know you’re young and sprightly (unlike your essay Advisor who just finished eating a Family Size bag of Doritos), but do you have the physical ability to build the houses you’ve signed up for? Do you not do well in the heat, or are you recovering from a physical injury that will prevent you from lifting heavy objects? If you’ve signed up to teach math to young children, do you have mastery over the subjects you will need to teach? These questions may sound silly, but there are so many volunteer programs out there: make sure you’re volunteering for one that allows you to contribute in a meaningful way. Think about your assets and personal strengths when you search for these opportunities to ensure you’re maximizing your impact. If you only consider the locations you want to visit and the organization you want to put on your resume, you will be doing yourself and a community in need of a particular skill a disservice. It is also important to consider whether or not you have the ability to impart lasting impact to a community. If you are qualified to teach others how to build or teach, you can help communities build more self-sufficient ecosystems and make them less reliant on outside help in the future, which should be the ultimate goal.
This is closely related to the point above, but is this cause one you’re truly invested in? So much so that you would spend your time helping, even if there was no far off location or adventure attached to the task? Also, can you do this job in your own town — as in, can you help your immediate community without spending time and money and fuel to travel halfway around the world, and would your contributions would be appreciated just as much at home? It is important to crunch the numbers and weight these factors as you decide where to invest yourself. It may make for a less exotic social media post, but if your local community could use your passion and expertise, it may make more sense on a global and economic level for you to invest your expertise and energy close to home.
Volunteering is, at its core, a fantastic way to use your time, skills, and innate compassion to help others. It’s up to you, however, to make sure that you’re doing it the right way and for the right reasons. Do your research, put some true thought into why you feel strongly about contributing abroad, and make sure you will be making a lasting positive impact on people’s lives. If you’re participating for the “likes,” you’re probably better off staying home.