Voluntourism allows students to combine travel, service

Abigail Zeitler

Between visits to museums and iconic landmarks, some students are now spending their time abroad in clinics, nearby gardens and classrooms.

Students are combining recreation and service through “voluntourism,” excursions that allow them to travel to other countries and help others while experiencing a new culture.    

English and biochemistry junior Reilly Sample is vice president of the UT chapter of Global Medical Brigades — the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization — formed in 2010. Sample, who volunteers twice a year, said voluntourism is beneficial for both the volunteers and the communities they serve.

“For students, a trip allows them to see a bit of the country they are serving while receiving the satisfaction of helping a community in need,” Sample said. “Reciprocally, members of the community enjoy presenting their culture and traditions to volunteers so that they may learn about the people they serve.”

On the trips, GMB students work as volunteers in a free clinic open to the rural public and work on community projects that range from routing clean water to providing people with anti-parasitic medications. 

“The need for basic healthcare in the developing world is unreal — truly one of those things you have to see in person to believe,” Sample said.

Alternative Breaks, a program under the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement, provides students with service opportunities during academic breaks. Finance senior Zachary Garcia and deaf education senior Angela Kuehne worked as trip leaders for Alternative Breaks in New Orleans last spring break. 

Garcia worked at a community garden where he stripped and reconstructed garden beds, pulled weeds and planted seeds for the upcoming season. He said he began taking volunteer abroad trips during college to learn more about different cultures while making a positive impact.

 “The difference that you are able to make while you are on the trip is definitely my inspiration,” Garcia said. “The experiences that you come back with highlight things in your community that you did not notice before the trip.” 

Sample said a proper international volunteer should put down the camera and carry themselves with cultural sensitivity. While some critics of voluntourism believe students may focus more on the recreational aspects of their trips, Sample said they try to select students who are “there for the right reasons.” 

“Students who choose to volunteer abroad should keep their priorities focused on the service they are giving,” Sample said. “Their own personal gain from travel or social media is not a part of
volunteering abroad.”

English-UTeach and Youth & Community Studies junior Austin James Robinson volunteered last summer with Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, a worldwide nonprofit dedicated to teaching students leadership and service skills. In college, Robinson took a service-learning course that he said changed the way he saw volunteering. 

“The representation for voluntourism has been rich white kids who love to go to a photo-worthy place where they stay for a week, do no real good and actually hinder the community overall,” Robinson said. 

Robinson said the stereotype may be an exaggeration since voluntourism does mix helping others with exploring the world. He said both of those are exciting for the right type of people.

“You get to explore a new culture or community while also being able to, hopefully, increase the standard of living for that community you are experiencing,” Robinson said. “It’s a very privileged thing to get to do, and in its own way makes it pleasurable and something people don’t take for granted.”