09/25/2012 02:23 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Service Trips Abroad: Helpful or Hurtful?

College is unique in that it encourages students to spend time abroad helping others, whether it be during winter term or spring break. This sounds great on the surface, but it's easy to let yourself slip into an ignorant bubble, unaware of the consequences of your actions and the implications these actions have. As a former participant in one of these trips, I can attest that I had an amazing time, and it taught me a lot. But as a skeptical thinker, I couldn't help but wonder how much "help" we were actually doing. Did we make a difference, or were we just some self-important college kids in need of an ego boost forcing ourselves upon the "lesser developed" who we thought so desperately needed our help?

In her essay, "A Small Place," Jamaica Kincaid says, "Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this." She goes on to talk about how, when people travel (especially for vacation/pleasure purposes), they are getting to escape this "life of overwhelming and crushing banality," which is impossible for the natives of their destination. This is especially true in less industrialized parts of the world (i.e., the places where students are more likely to volunteer), as there are less means for people to leave. We are using these people's land- their home- as an escape from our own. We are ignorantly and selfishly using them as tour guides and entertainment.

You may be thinking, "Well, I'm not on vacation; I'm doing service work," but are you really? You have to admit that you wouldn't choose your destination if you didn't think that there would be some parts that would be pleasurable. And the fact is that even if you are helping others, you probably aren't helping that much. You're only there for maybe three weeks, and it takes you at least a few days to get accustomed to your surroundings. You may teach some people some things, but they will teach you much more.

And then there's the part no one wants to talk about: you are an American (or European) person coming into a foreign land that you may or may not know much about except that it needs your expert Western knowledge. Sound familiar? This is what makes me the most uncomfortable. One to two hundred years ago, our imperialist ancestors did the same thing, and while their intentions may have been more malicious, there was still this implied thought of "we need to help [govern] these people, because they can't do it themselves." We are ghosts of imperialists.

Now, I'm not totally disregarding service abroad. I think it can be wonderful, and there are many programs that do contribute a lot to people, such as Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International, but these programs aren't the same as going with your friends to Africa for a month. Short term service trips are fine for global exposure or self-discovery, but you need to recognize the trip as such. It's so important that when or if you decide to launch yourself out there as a humanitarian inches from saving the world, that you know what exactly it is you're doing, and to whom exactly it is you're doing it.

By Sally Burnette, Eckerd College