When students go abroad to volunteer, what are their motives? I can think of a few: to build their resumes, to receive hands-on experience in career fields and simply as a way to travel and see the world. Additionally, it’s a good way to practice speaking skills while learning a second language and many say that it and satisfies the need for a higher calling.

But if students go abroad for any of these reasons without considering the bigger picture, then the way in which they carry out their jobs may be problematic. A host of temptations often arise, corrupting the altruistic desire to make a difference. There is the American privilege — that is, the respect people are given based solely on the fact that they live in a powerful, wealthy country (this is more relevant in some countries than others). There is also the job-related status — teaching English as a second language may seem like an unimpressive profession here (and this is not to say that it is or that it should be), but in some countries and regions, teachers are respected with ardor, and English teachers in particular are given special treatment based on the high utility of the language they offer. Overtime, the positive reception of someone’s services can become the driving force to continue them, rather than the altruism that inspired them in the first place.

A friend of mine was in Kenya recently and volunteered in a medical research laboratory. While he did not directly perform procedures on patients, he interacted with them by asking questions and helped collect samples. Though he wasn’t a doctor, his lab coat and position earned him the treatment of one. He said “anyone who wears that lab coat is treated like a relative god.”

This story is reminiscent of my own experience last summer teaching English to children in Mexico City. As a part of our study abroad program, we taught a few class sessions to students in the community where we stayed. Though ill-prepared to teach, we came up with a few exercises for the kids — mostly teaching them basic vocabulary, and then doing activities surrounding these words. I had never learned about teaching ESL, and so most of the ideas I came up with — such as a scavenger hunt to practice using new vocabulary — came from my experiences as a summer camp counselor and as a language student myself. When I took a course on teaching ESL a year later, I realized how useful it would have been to take that class before going to Mexico. But as college students, we often feel like we are already qualified for almost anything.

I know that the English classes that my friends and I taught in Mexico were useful. This was the first exposure that some of these kids had to English besides on TV, and knowing some English will undoubtedly open up opportunities for them, however small they may be. Likewise, the service that my friend in Kenya provided was highly useful to the community he served. Nevertheless, while we held these positions, we had to suppress hubris and remind ourselves not to get caught up in the idea that we provided a much-needed service.

Volunteering abroad can be beneficial to everyone involved, but it can also hurt people. In Mexico, I became very close to a ten-year-old girl in the class I taught. Upon leaving, she gave me her address and I promised to write. After writing one letter and not hearing back, I forgot about my promise, and became too caught up in college life to write again. Since then, I’ve thought about the possibilities that such brief friendships can have, both for better and for worse. When we volunteer abroad as students from the U.S., we are promoting this country’s image, earning it the reputation of a nation that reaches out to help others. Meanwhile, we are also promoting ourselves. It can be difficult to interact with people abroad without seeming like a politician, only making friendships out of convenience or for personal gain.

Going abroad to study or volunteer is, for the most part, a positive experience. I do not mean to undermine that truth. It will become even better, though, once the organizations that send students, as well as the students themselves, travel with the awareness of the their position, and the interests of those they interact with.

Anna can be reached at asiobhan@umich.edu.

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