Three-thousand, five-hundred dollars. That’s precisely how much I paid to volunteer in Uganda, Africa for two months last summer. I knew when I applied for the program that the concept of paying to volunteer was strange, but by the time my flight took off for Entebbe the backwardness of it had been drilled into my consciousness by everyone who knew the details of my trip and particularly the lump sum that I had ponied up. I was ready to smack the next person to make an artful quip about letting me house clean if I paid $20. Up until then, I had been sustaining my dignity by telling myself that it would all be worth it because I was paying to help humanity.

But after a couple of weeks working in a rural community – surrounded by children with swollen tummies, sores all over and roughly a one-in-ten chance to live past the age of five – and watching villagers waste away from preventable diseases, I felt helpless. I soon confronted the harsh reality that undergraduate volunteer trips abroad are inherently self-serving.

When undergraduate students go to developing nations, we aren’t equipped with special skills or career experience to share. We don’t have money to invest. And we are far from possessing any significant degree of diplomatic leverage to spur systemic change. It would be self-righteous to think otherwise: that we actually have a significant impact on the crumbling communities in which we volunteer. Sure you may have taught a couple of primary school classes, handed out a few dozen pills or planted some seeds. (And your unabashed undergraduate enthusiasm likely ensured that you did a fantastic job.) The value of experiencing diverse cultures cannot be given short shrift either.

But the bitter and ill-accepted truth is that our money, which is devoured by the costs of airfare, lodging, food and the like, would undoubtedly be more effective if donated to organizations other than British Airways and short-term programs that vaunt clever phrases like “intercultural exploration.” If your chief aim is to improve the lot of those less fortunate, your money would probably be more efficiently spent providing resources to local workers, particularly considering that developing nations are often rife with unemployment. Or it could be better spent financing the trips of experts who could more aptly teach and implement new methods and concepts.

Further proof of the self-indulgence inherent to volunteering abroad is the fact that there’s an expanse of volunteer positions to be filled in America. So why spend thousands to go abroad to help the destitute when nearly 10 percent of our own country lives below the poverty line? We feel that we’re donating time and maybe a slice of our program fees, and hence deserve to get a cool global experience out of it – that’s why.

Don’t get me wrong, volunteering in any capacity is an exceptionally admirable pursuit, especially considering a growing, yet still meager, percentage of privileged American students even bother. But we must admit that we’re not made solely of altruism and caritas. Acceptance of this is precisely what can empower us to make our forays abroad count as something more than a month or two of hard work and photos ops. Undergraduate trips to volunteer abroad can have enormous humanitarian impact, but this isn’t intrinsic to the experience as it is to volunteering locally. It is up to volunteers to make the money and the time worthwhile in the days, weeks, months and years following the trip. The actual selflessness of traveling to other nations to volunteer lies in whether or not we do this.

The trips arm participants with the range of knowledge and depth of perspective that can only be won through experience, but it is up to us to become more than simple voyeurs by committing to give back and change the status quo when we return. In many ways, our futures are more open now than they will be at any other time in our lives and, to a large extent, we can do anything we choose. Thus we are invested with the unique power to commit our lives to endeavors that we are passionate about and feel are worth while. Experiencing firsthand the perpetual devastation and strain that wrack the developing world and absorbing other cultures while diffusing our own inevitably shapes what undergraduates consider to be “worth it.”

Recognizing that no one truly reaps immediate or significant benefits from a volunteer trip means taking responsibility for the fact that we are in control of the value of our investment and must ensure that it pays off – not for our sake, but for the sake of those we aimed to help from the beginning.

Ashlea Surles can be reached at ajsurles@umich.edu.

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