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College Volunteers Abroad: Fierce or Farce?

This past spring break, I went on a joint Habitat for Humanity and Bnei Akiva trip to meet new people, avoid mindlessly sitting around my house, and try to do a little good. Unfortunately, we encountered what was a rare amount of snow for Darlington County, SC, and our plans to work on a house were reduced to building tool sheds instead (work that, although less glamorous, nonetheless needed to be done). Throughout the week, it became glaringly clear that participants’ levels of eagerness were unequal. Where some put in a full days work, others socialized with some help in between. To be fair, circumstances may have played a part in the group’s imbalanced commitment; we were far overmanned for the makeshift assignment, and the intended prospect of raising the walls of a person’s home, now abandoned, may have lowered group morale. Both the organization and the people on this trip are truly wonderful, and defaming either is not my intention. Still, such an experience poses the question of why students are truly going on these trips.

The competitiveness that has taken hold of our society’s relentless youth, battling to gain acceptance to esteemed educational programs, is remarkable. While the number of qualified applicants grows, the number of spots often does not, forcing admissions to examine other criteria. It is no secret that things like extracurricular activities, evidence of leadership and, of course, volunteerism are taken into account. This development has spawned a breed of overzealous, “resume-padding” students that I am sure many of you have come across. The phenomenon’s prevalence among both high school and college students has grown enough that The Onion, a satirical news organization, has dedicated not one, but two articles to these volunteers. The first bemoans the closing of a soup kitchen, leaving these students without a place to fulfill their volunteer requirement, and the second describes the difficulties of antagonized volunteers working with a helpful (but smug) high school student whose presence is only the result of a need to get into Stanford.

Though, obviously, these articles exaggerate, the demand to separate oneself from other applicants may be part of the motivation for students spending their breaks aiding in foreign countries or states. Depending on the nature of the organization, sometimes these trips seem more like glorified vacations, reflecting the birth of a term known as “voluntourism.” Personally, I don’t find anything wrong with this and believe that experiencing another culture in conjunction with supplementary aid can be extremely worthwhile. But listening to the transformative and self-righteous accounts of touring students gets tiring. It appears that some students volunteer just to have the capability to write an essay that describes “how I learned to appreciate what I have” or “how I applied thinking I would change their lives but in the end it was mine that was changed.” Perhaps I am being too harsh or cynical, but often these chronicles emerge as hagiographic testimonials that, even if true, are hackneyed and obnoxious.

It is hard to imagine that admissions offices have not become astute enough (if they have not always been) to differentiate between spurious volunteerism and that which reflects more of a person’s true character. Many online sites, including Forbes, confirm this awareness, indicating that irregular, strategized volunteering get applicants nowhere, fast. Other articles (with subject lines that disconcertingly resemble “Here’s how to make your onlooking girlfriend think you actually want to help that old woman across the street”) provide tips on how to make your volunteering appear more genuine, such as: fit your volunteering into the context of your broader pursuits; concentrate your energy on one or two interests/clubs rather than have a dispersed focus over a number; and try to build an uncommon story. In some ways, the application process has become no more than a game of assuming the consummate persona, an elaborate masquerade ball.

I expect that my reproach may offend some, so I would like to make certain elements evident. From my own experience, resume-padding occurs less in YU than at other institutions, and more on behalf of high school students applying for college than college students applying to graduate programs or jobs. Most of the trips YU students go on do not fit the criteria of “voluntourism,” and friends that I have spoken to who went—for reasons other than their resumes—on programs led by Habitat, CJF, or AJWS all had demanding, meaningful experiences. Still, I have seen the practice does exist. It is important to note that even for the students volunteering simply for the sake of resumes, they are still committing to invest their time, and their aid amounts to no less. (As a side note, there remains skepticism as to how much good these volunteer trips end up accomplishing. In an August-22 New York Times editorial, David Brooks wrote that many NGOs and multilateral efforts do not succeed in achieving much. However, Anna M. DiColli, the Director of Volunteer Programs and Global Operations for FIMRC, assured me, contrary to my own original doubt, that “a volunteer’s time—anywhere from one to several weeks—is absolutely just as valuable as direct monetary aid.” She said this is especially the case when the volunteer has a specialized skill.) Regardless of a volunteer’s intention, their contribution remains the same. A person with a CV on his or her mind quite possibly may accomplish more than someone with an altruistic view.

I do not wish to deter those people from volunteering who only have time to participate on a one-week trip or are solely doing it for their resumes. I only want to express that admissions committees can tell why you are doing it, and it seems the only sure way to “fool” them is to develop a bona fide spirit of volunteerism. Something we can all realize, including myself, is that while the resumes may end, the volunteering should not.

A warm, congratulatory welcome back to YU to all those who volunteered this summer.