Debate: Are summer service ‘vacations’ worth it?

Two opinion editors of The Evanstonian, which is the student newspaper at Evanston Township High School in Chicago’s near-north suburbs, recently posted op-eds about the tendency of many high school students to travel to far-away places and perform community service during their summer break.

“Despite recent criticism of service trips, they remain invaluable for teenagers and the communities alike,” writes Grace Fay in her piece entitled “Embark and serve.” “Students spend weeks immersed in a different community and culture, offering a wide range of assistance and getting invaluable experiences.”

The experience can lead, she suggests, to an appreciation for people and cultures that are very different from those closer to a student’s home; it can teach students lessons that need to come from outside their own comfort zones.

Plus, after recent KKK and neo-Nazi rallies that were all but justified by President Donald Trump’s own words from the White House, along with counter-protests, Americans seem to be less united as a nation than at times in the past.

“The only way to combat what seems to be ever encroaching greed and hate in America is to promote these values of intercultural appreciation and a sense of service that come from volunteering in a different setting,” she writes.

On the other side of the debate is Gigi Wade, who entitles her piece “Know your place.”

While on vacation in foreign countries, “voluntourists” like students from Evanston engage in activities, such as visiting with local children or participating in the construction of some infrastructure project, that often aren’t helpful to either the locals or the students.

“Most teens lack the experience necessary to properly carry out what is asked of them,” she writes, “which means that members of the community have to compensate. Worse, volunteers prevent skilled, oftentimes poor workers from completing paid projects. Not only do service trips fail to yield benefits, they can be a setback to progress within the community.”

Also, she adds, since the vast majority of voluntourists are wealthy and white—the cheapest foreign service trip she was aware of cost more than $2,000—some sort of “white savior complex is created when predominately white tourists operate with the understanding that they are ‘fixing’ a community. …

“A two-week intrusion into a society with pre-established customs and divisions of labor certainly isn’t the way,” she concludes.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.