In the matter of voluntourism, it’s not about intention at all — it’s about impact.
Given the negative ideals that voluntourism often perpetuates, offering students with these experiences an upper hand only values the appearance of charity, not charity itself.
In his article “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?” New York Times writer Frank Bruni detailed a trend among universities to prefer students who’ve illustrated their commitment to charity by embarking on faraway, often expensive “voluntourism” trips, ultimately landing them a boost on their resumes.
Bruni pinpointed the habit of high school students completing these trips to very different countries and poverty-stricken areas, only to then return to their often affluent lifestyles and take away “a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.”
Although altruism is a value to be admired in students, a couple of lines on a university application detailing a trip to a developing country isn’t proof of philanthropy.
When a well-off high school student takes a short break from their affluent lifestyle to build a well in a Rwandan slum or distribute friendship bracelets in a rural Indian village, the communities being helped are often treated as disposable. They matter only because of the poverty and adversity they represent, even if the high school student’s intentions are one-hundred percent pure.
Privileged young people travelling to developing countries with the belief in not only their ability but their right to fix them, only to reduce these experiences to tools for their own gain, contributes to the culture of tokenization faced by people of colour both abroad and at home.
Moreover, a systematic preference of students who have completed these trips favours students who are wealthy or whose families are wealthy enough to travel around the world in the first place, never mind the good that could be done at home.
While a majority of well-meaning students may pack their bags with the full purpose of making a dent in injustice or suffering, the problem with this type of philanthropy isn’t really about the philanthropist — it’s bigger than one person’s good intention.
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