THE BLOG
11/07/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

Voluntourism: Why Helping Abroad Isn't Always Helping

This piece was originally published by Buzzsaw Magazine.

The beginning of Diwali, the five day Festival of Lights, marked the night I moved into my host family's home in Jaipur, India. I came to India knowing little to nothing about Indian culture, Hindu practices, or the Hindi language. But, I had come to India to teach.

I was assigned to work alongside other foreign volunteers at the SSN School, a school located in a rural village on the outskirts of Jaipur. Idex, an English language non-profit, ran the school. Though the school had three full-time Indian staff members, it relied heavily on foreign volunteers to run it. Volunteers came from all over the world. However, they were not there long-term, their visits ranged anywhere from a couple months to a week.

I quickly realized I was a part of an imperfect system. There was no scheduled curriculum for volunteers to follow. There was also no communication between previous volunteers and current volunteers, making it impossible to guess what the students had just been learning or which student was struggling with what concept.

There was no roll call in the morning; there were no worksheets; there were no report cards; there were no tests. Everything I knew about the education system had suddenly become irrelevant. My skill set, limited to begin with, had suddenly become non-existent.

In my shallow attempt to Americanize my surroundings and my situation, I spent nights making flash cards and planning out new English words to teach, but, come day-time, my efforts seemed futile.

Halfway through my time working at the SSN School, I chose to change my approach, focusing on loving and nurturing rather than providing a traditional educational foundation for my students. I accepted each of their hugs. I played with them in the dusty schoolyard with the other volunteers. I tried to remember that a smile and a hug could and can be a much-needed change in someone's life. I tried to remember that love is a universal language and consoled myself by believing that there is more to development than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Though I reached a certain level of connection with the children, I left India frustrated. I had not changed the world as I had expected. In fact, I wasn't sure that I had made much of a difference in anyone's life. I had formed friendships but what did that mean in the context of their future, of my future? What would my month and a half in India come to mean to me?

It would take me a few months to understand the meaning of my time abroad. I had been a "voluntourist," a slang word for an international volunteer. "Voluntourism" is a growing industry, with more than 1.6 million volunteers spending approximately $2 billion a year. These volunteer tourists are most commonly women and young adults between 20 and 25 years old, according to NPR international correspondent, Carrie Kahn. And I was part of this industry.

I had come, for a set time, with a specific task, without training, with the goal to save the world. I went to India with the audacity that my very being would somehow change the public education system of an entire country. I set off with a closed-mind, set in my assumptions of how education should be and what children need from a school to be successful later in life. I believed that my privileged American education would somehow lead me to be a good teacher and that cultural and economic boundaries would not stand in the way of it.

I quickly saw how untrue these assumptions were. Most of my students came to school in disheveled uniforms, distracted as they ate chalk, which I later found out comes from a calcium-deficiency. It soon became apparent that my inability to speak Hindi was problematic, and I spent most of my time trying to communicate at the most basic levels, rather than being able to effectively teach the English alphabet. The SSN School lacked the basic teaching resources that would be expected in American classrooms, including desks.

The children delighted at seeing us, screaming when we pulled up to the school gates in our rusty tuk-tuk each morning. I received countless hugs, an unreal amount of admiration and tears as we said our goodbyes the day before we left Jaipur. However, after leaving, I realized how much I despised myself for the adoration I had received from the children.

I want so much more for them. I want them to have adults in their life that mentor them throughout the years. I want them to have teachers that can speak their language. I want them to have non-profits that can help their parents locate more stable jobs. I want them to find someone that inspires them to learn and to follow their dreams. And I want all those people to be people that look like them.

Though I still have ambitions to be an active part of creating change for the better in our global community, I have new ideas on how and it doesn't involve me being the hero at center stage. It involves me contributing through my communication skills, or donating financially or helping organize movements that raise awareness. It involves me being part of non-profits where locals are the people working in the field. It involves me being the person behind the scenes.

I want to continue developing valuable relationships with people of all nationalities because, in the end, that is how we better understand each other and fully humanize people that we have not related to previously. But, I do not feel the need to be the savior, I no longer find justice in being the "voluntourist," using my Western privilege to so easily enter and exit the lives of others. Because that is not what friends do.

Friends understand you well enough to create no further harm. Friends support you instead of using you as a way to feel important. Friends do not just leave.