Contributed by Diana H. Rodgers, Fit Education Consulting LLC
Service or mission trips have become a rite of passage for many high school students. However, short-term voluntourism (a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity) experiences have begun to raise red flags among many people, including many college admissions officers. There is growing consensus that going on service trips does little or nothing to help a student’s chances of admission. In some cases it can even hurt if the student is not able to clearly reflect on his or her experience in terms of its impact on oneself and others.
Criticism of voluntourism and mission trips is not unique to the college application process. Ron Lieber, a New York Times financial columnist, has covered both the up and down-sides of service trips in the paper and in his book, The Opposite of Spoiled (a worthwhile read for every parent). Additionally, many religious leaders are using their blogs and websites to encourage a different approach to youth service. Essentially, the pattern of students going to an exotic, often warm and beautiful, locale to perform labor that they are not fully equipped to do offers little actual service to the community and can even potentially hurt the economic and social development of the people they are supposed to be serving. This is further complicated when done in the context of a post-colonial country or an area of the United States that has a history of deep poverty. That is, we never want students to be cast in the role of the white or wealthy savior who is only there to witness the reality of disadvantage.
For example, I recently worked with a student who wanted to write his college admissions essay on his service trip to Puerto Rico during which he and his friends “volunteered in an orphanage and painted some walls.” The reality is that this student has never so much as made his own bed or served as a camp counselor, so what specific skills was he bringing to this experience? Further, the rotating cast of American high school students does little to increase the feeling of stability and emotional well-being of the children with whom he interacted. Yet, my student felt an incredible sense of pride in and fondness for his service trip experience. His planned takeaway for his personal statement fell into the “I went to help other people, but they really changed me” genre. And therein lies the rub. Service shouldn’t be about the fact that you had a great experience. It should be about making significant improvements in the lives of the people you are serving. Most American teenagers, through no fault of their own, do not have the requisite skills to make a positive impact on a short-term mission trip.
The other problem with mission and service trips is the price. Many private businesses operate expensive service trips with the promise that they will help students enhance their college applications, when in reality the only people who are being helped are the for-profit organizers. If you’re a parent of a high school student, you probably regularly receive emails and mailings advertising these programs, some of which cost several thousand dollars. Going on a 10-day service trip to volunteer at a school in India does not show that the student has a deep passion for Hindu culture or international development. It shows that the student’s parents had $5000 to spend on a service trip.
So, as you and your student are organizing your summer plans, reconsider the service trip, even if it is part of the culture of your student’s high school. Instead, think about ways your student can complete sustained and meaningful service in your community. Colleges would much rather see a Montgomery County teen spend every Sunday for three years at a soup kitchen in Norristown than see him jet off to Haiti, South Africa, or even Appalachia to bring non-existent skills to a culture about which he knows nothing. Moreover, by doing sustained and regular service, students have the opportunity to gain the skills to be assets to organizations over time. In this way, although students will be changed through the service, it is much more likely that they will actually be making a worthwhile impact on those they are serving. Ultimately, when students are planning to serve, parents should have a thorough conversation with them about the ways they can leverage their existing skills to improve their immediate community.
Fit works with high school students and their families in order to ensure that their college application process is a low-stress, organized, educational, and FUN experience that leads to exciting admissions results.