05/25/2012 03:13 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

Summers of Service

In major cities and campus towns around the country, graduation season is upon us: students sporting mortarboards and flowing gowns, 'Pomp and Circumstance' echoing on the breeze, and mouths and minds abuzz with the big question:

"What next?"

An increasingly popular answer for students, whether graduating this season or not, is volunteering overseas. Opportunities organized by schools, churches, and community centers send young people abroad in droves, and according to a 2012 study led by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, my Millennial generation is more likely than its predecessors to spend time engaged in community service.

The prospect seems cheery, until we consider that volunteering is more than ever a requirement -- not a choice -- for high school and college students. Plus, Twenge's study found Millennials to be less civically engaged than other generations on nearly all other fronts: less likely than generations past to value having a job that is worthwhile to society, and even less likely to agree they would eat differently if it meant more food for the starving.

Twenge's findings corroborate the recent criticisms of self-centered service efforts like Kony2012 and TOMS Shoes, and posit Millennials as more interested in proclaiming compassion on Facebook profiles, than in cultivating the empathy required for service work. For the true cynics, these implications foreshadow growing cadres of enormous egos running around the developing world, intent on adding an exotic line item to their CV without regard for the ethical and economic implications of their actions.

Thankfully, the reality is not so dire when we consider the work of responsible and thoughtful organizations setting the 'gold standard' in international volunteering, like the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD).

In the opinion of FSD's Director, Mireille Cronin Mather, "In one way the digital era is helping to connect, and in some ways it's making connections very diffuse. We're seeing more of a demand from students, but we want to make sure students on our trip are there for the right reasons."

Ms. Cronin Mather explains that too often, participants are eager to take action without realizing the implications of their behavior. FSD thus positions each participant "as a facilitator and not as a doer. And that is challenging for students who have not yet traveled outside the U.S. and think they know what apparent problems are. We ask them instead to listen to the priorities of the community they are sent to live with, to help them design programs the community wants to design."

FSD's philosophy is framed as one of "honoring the human relationship" between a foreign volunteer and the community with whom they will be living. "We try to omit from our approach to development the idea that 'foreign is better,'" she says. "Our partner communities have the capacity to make change for themselves and we ask students to help reveal those capacities."

Sasha Fisher, Director of Spark MicroGrants, represents a smaller but similarly minded service organization. "Our work is very human based," she explains, "At the core of our model is having communities work together towards a common goal, such as 80 mothers planning and building a school for their children together, or 120 families planning for and receiving electricity for their village. Our volunteers' ability to build relationships with each community is critical."

Also raising the bar for high quality service opportunities is Omprakash, founded and led by Willy Oppenheim. "We encourage humility above all else," notes Oppenheim about the organization's guiding principles. "Our experience suggests that the individuals whose experiences in our network are most meaningful are those who arrive willing to learn, willing to be wrong, and willing to be flexible. At the other end of the spectrum are those who arrive believing that they are experts coming to save the day."

Yet even those on the far end can end up growing immensely from the experience, says Geoff Hunt, Outreach Manager of The Experiment in International Living, an organization that inspired the creation of the Peace Corps, and even brought a 16-year-old Arianna Huffington to America for the first time.

"I see this transformation happening," Hunt explains regarding his debriefs with hundreds of student travelers led on community service trips worldwide. "The Experiment absolutely does change students' lives and that kind of change is perhaps even more important now that it's the Facebook generation. The culture shocks and time offline can be even more powerful, and the opportunity for growth is therefore even more significant."

Is the solution then to abandon our social networks? Dive into the real world, digitally disconnected, never to post another Instagram again?

Hunt would disagree. "Rather than either/or," he continued, "Facebook should be a way to reinforce relationships that already exist rather than supplanting the possibility of have a new relationship in person."

So. "What Next?"

I urge readers to learn from and work with organizations like FSD, The Experiment, Omprakash, and Spark Microgrants, who place human relationships at the heart of their service work.

"In order to have successful experience students need to be able to put themselves out there. They need to be able to disconnect," concluded Cronin Mather.

This dual call to action is one unique to Millennials, and one I encourage all readers to take on in the months of summer service ahead.