McWilliams: Voluntourism can be beneficial when done correctly

Leta McWilliams

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Summer is a time that many students use to travel. Among these students there are those who take advantage of voluntourism. 

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Voluntourism can be defined as “a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.” Colorado State University offers many trips where students can travel and volunteer abroad. These trips include opportunities for students to do manual labor, to teach at local schools and to immerse themselves in the culture of the local community.

As voluntourism becomes increasingly more popular, so do the odds that it begins to become harmful to the communities it is supposed to be helping. When done correctly, voluntourism can be beneficial to the volunteer as well as the community.

There are so many individual benefits to volunteering abroad, the biggest being cross-cultural understanding. Most Americans are stuck inside a culture ‘bubble.’ Only about 20 percent of Americans know a second language and about 64 percent have never been outside of the U.S. Because Americans aren’t experiencing what these other cultures are like, it’s hard to have a deeper understanding of these cultures and the community. Taking advantage of voluntourism opportunities, especially ones presented by universities, is a great way to broaden an individual’s authentic perspective on the world.

There are also many community benefits to voluntourism. When people from developed countries volunteer in developing countries, they have the ability to make many positive economic impacts on the community. There’s potential for an immediate increase in tourist income and a possibility for long term sustainable tourism. Many people also return home from voluntourism trips and are inspired to help those at home. The lessons and skills translate to volunteering at homeless shelters, food pantries and many others.

However, without the needed preparation and mindset, voluntourism can also have some negative consequences.

A voluntourist needs to have a humble mindset when going to help developing countries. Many natives in these communities have had experiences with voluntourists having superiority complexes and looking down on the people they’re there to help. This type of behavior can create a cultural divide, which in turn can have negative consequences in regards to global relations and the economic standing of the developing community. Voluntourism isn’t a time to boost your own ego. It’s an opportunity to help others as well as learn from them.

“Voluntourism isn’t a time to boost your own ego. It’s an opportunity to help others as well as learn from them.”

 

Those volunteering also need to remember that they’re there to help create sustainable change. There have been many instances where volunteers go to developing communities and there hasn’t been lasting change. They’ll work on projects that have no use to the community, or the projects are too big and can’t be continued once the volunteers leave. Poor planning can cause a waste of time and resources.

Taking advantage of these trips is something more students should be inspired to do. When done correctly, students are able to help developing communities, learn new and important skills and understand parts of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. It creates lasting change for those living in the U.S. as well as the developing countries they travel to.

CSU has many opportunities for students to participate in volunteering abroad. Many programs are centered around education or social work, but students from all degree programs are welcome.

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Leta McWilliams can be reached at letters@collegian and online at @LetaMcWilliams