The Truth About Service Learning Programs for High School Students

Service learning. Voluntourism. Whatever name you prefer, I refer in this post to travel programs that take students to a developing country to perform community service work. The type of work varies greatly by program, but often includes light construction projects, painting or cleaning a school, teaching kids English, or other similar tasks. I think you get the idea, and probably know people who have participated in a service learning program.

In our experience at Sustainable Summer, prospective students and their parents often assume our programs in Latin America must fall into the bucket of service learning. It seems we have collectively adopted a mindset that practically the only thing you can do when visiting a developing country like Ecuador is build a toilet (or, visit the Galapagos, but that’s a different story). But here’s the cold, hard truth about service learning programs for high school students:

If you really want to make a difference in other people’s lives, we suggest you skip the community service trip, donate that $6,000 to a school or NGO, and go volunteer at a local soup kitchen for free. Let’s call a spade here: community service – in general, but especially so-called “voluntourism” – is really just as much about you feeling good about yourself as it is serving others; it’s baked into the entire concept of crossing the globe for the benefits of volunteering. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s a truth that most of us conveniently ignore while also remaining largely oblivious to some of the negative outcomes associated with international service work and foreign aid. If you’re inclined to disagree with me on either of these points, please see this companion post on some of the criticisms of volunteering abroad.

The Educational Value of Service Learning Programs

I don’t mean to suggest that service learning programs lack educational value, but I do want to call attention to the fact that it’s much more of a one way street than you might be led to believe by the glossy marketing materials showing “white kids hugging brown kids,” as one blunt-talking college advisor puts it. What’s valuable about these types of trips is taking students out of their comfort zone and giving them opportunity for self-discovery. The core principles at work are not much different than what NOLS or Outward Bound programs teach, although I would argue the latter organizations are more experienced at developing leadership and life-long skills than your typical community service trip.

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It feels good to help others on a service learning program, but how much of a difference do we really make?

What’s valuable about volunteering is developing perspective about how other people live, and gaining a sense of accomplishment for helping a stranger in need. There’s nothing about service to others that inherently requires a plane ticket, or even an organized program, and as mentioned previously, your service may be causing more harm than good.

An Alternative Vision for Service Learning Programs

So let me put forth an alternate vision: If students are hungry to travel in a developing country, why not look for experiences that focus on that country’s language, or nature, or culture, or politics? Why should community service always be thrown into the mix? We certainly don’t expect every trip to Spain to include community service, so why apply that mindset to Latin America? It’s time we opened our eyes to the fact that the developing world has far more to offer the teenage traveler than paintbrushes and brooms.

Painting a School on a Service Learning Program  Image
Painting a School on a Sustainable Summer Program. We think a day or two of community service can be a helpful way to augment the educational experience.

Sustainable Summer programs, on the other hand, are focused on sustainable development as a subject of academic inquiry. How can the communities we visit use natural resources in a way that meets the needs of people today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs? This is the fundamental question we explore and it forms the basis for why we travel. We typically do a day or two of community service on each program. In most cases we are able to tie our work into the broader arc of sustainable development by empowering our students to conceive of a project or initiative, and as a group, work against a budget and other challenges to implement that project through service work. However, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always possible to achieve the desired results, because that’s the reality of development work. But we are able to juxtapose our day of “service” against the types of initiatives that do contribute to long-term change, which makes for effective framing of the development conundrum and a more impactful educational experience. Are we “making a difference” in people’s lives? Yes, just not the same people that are referenced in this context in  the marketing materials of most service learning programs. Our students are extracting real educational value from the experience. That’s the difference we’re trying to make. The impact of our community service work on the local people is minimal in the grand scheme of things.

We deeply admire students with a commitment to service, but hope families recognize there are more effective and efficient ways to give back than to pay a hefty tuition for service learning trips abroad. Community service should be exactly that: service done to support one’s neighbors and home communities. Let’s allow international travel to be a pleasure for it’s own sake, and let’s recognize countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica are rich territory for all kinds of study and exploration that don’t require hammers and nails.