Why I’m Ending Service Credit for “Voluntourism”

Elijah Sivin, Contributing Writer

You may be familiar with this scenario: a student comes back from a service trip tremendously excited about the experience. They flew to a foreign country, were exposed to a new culture, worked with cool adults, made good friends and returned with a phone full of pictures showing service work that they’re proud of. It’s a “win-win situation” that we should all support, right?

I’ve come to see that the issues involved in this kind of service travel or “voluntourism” are actually much more complicated than they appear at first. With the support of a variety of students and teachers, including a small but terrific Service Learning Team led last year by Ms. Richards and Emily Melcer ’22, I’ve been pondering the question for years now. I’ve ultimately decided that there are too many controversies and complications to universally credit service travel with for-profit travel companies as a way to meet Poly’s service requirement. So the summer of 2023 will be the last time that Poly students can fulfill the requirement that way.

Why? Given all the students who feel good about their service travel experiences, why not promote these programs? 

First of all, I want to be clear that I am in no way casting doubt on the motivations of any students, and I know that some good work occurs in these programs. But I do have significant structural concerns, and there are several reasons for this decision. Here they are: 


1. Service travel, due to its great expense, divides the Poly community

Some students can afford this kind of costly trip, but others cannot. In a situation where the school cannot provide financial aid for all who hope to take this kind of trip, the situation creates unnecessary division. There will always be financial differences in our community. But when some students are able to meet a school requirement through expensive travel (for example, one “Hawaii Community Service” summer trip currently costs $7,699, not including airfare) it seems that we are heightening those differences unnecessarily. 

2. Service travel, as run by for-profit companies, has become an unregulated, unknowable industry. 

This is distinctly different from other kinds of service. In the decade that I’ve been directing service learning at Poly, I’ve become familiar with many local nonprofit organizations, and worked directly with quite a few. I can assess their value, communicate with students who serve with them and network with the adults involved. When a Poly faculty member leads a trip with a service component (like the recent France trip led by Dr. Gittens and Mr. Larose) I talk to those educators and come to understand what they’ve accomplished. As a community, we can learn from the experience and improve the next iteration. However, there’s no meaningful way for us to engage with or even know what’s happening throughout the entire $2 billion “voluntourism” industry, which is global in scope and generally takes students to far-off places that are almost impossible for me to learn about, except through the company’s promotional literature. 

3. Service travel offers uncertain benefits for the communities being “served.” 

There is a growing body of research on service learning. There is always room for debate, but there is also a great deal of evidence that service learning can be very beneficial for those doing the learning. The impact on those being served, however, is much less certain. When volunteers “helicopter” in and out of an unfamiliar place, it’s almost impossible for them to know what the actual impact of their service is. I’ve experienced this myself, as service projects in the Bahamas, Ukraine and Cambodia all took on difficult, unexpected dimensions before my eyes. For example, I once volunteered on a research team that gathered environmental data while snorkeling in the Bahamas. Sound too good to be true? Well, once I arrived, I found out the research was being paid for by the same hotel company whose development would destroy the very reef I was researching. I wasn’t able to learn this until I got there. Even celebrated experts, like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have decided that they were misled in the field of international aid and development. One antidote to this uncertainty is to focus on projects that are local, or even right here at Poly. That way, everyone involved can see and understand the nature of the service. The way we have redesigned our program in the last few years, especially the introduction of Service Learning Teams (SLTs) at Poly, promotes the kind of transparency that increases trust and a sense of community. Expensive travel programs that lead kids to do service that’s invisible to the rest of the community can have the opposite effect. In general, I would encourage students to start with service programs, such as the SLTs, that occur in nearby spaces, where everyone involved can see and understand the impact of their work in an ongoing way. 

4. Service travel can lead to the development of a “Savior Complex.”

When trying to inspire students, we can easily fall into tropes of stereotyping or “othering” those identified as being in need of service. While we tend to engage in service with the best of intentions, the “unwritten curriculum” that emerges can actually be quite damaging. Folks performing the service can begin to see themselves as “saving” the people being served, although they may not actually understand those people very well.  Educators run the risk of unintentionally sending the message that those doing the service have some inherent superiority and, therefore, that underprivileged groups are inherently inferior. Why else, we may find ourselves thinking, would a group of teenagers be able to provide an unfamiliar community with benefits that the community couldn’t provide for itself? As students of history can see, this kind of thought uncomfortably echoes many demeaning and even racist or imperialistic attitudes of the past. I will admit that it took me some time to really understand this concern, but once I “got it”, I couldn’t get the issue out of my mind. In group discussions about the issue, students tend to have a similar reaction. 

5. Service travel promotes unnecessary fossil fuel consumption.

Environmental harm comes from many sources, and we can’t easily limit it. But that doesn’t mean that we should encourage it. Summer can be a time when we slow down and pay attention to the natural world, and we often think we have to travel to an “exotic” location to do so. But for years, I’ve been leading groups of Poly students on local sustainability service projects, in which they’ve been able to fulfill Poly’s requirement at no cost, and with a very light ecological footprint. The students have had great experiences at public parks, on Governors Island or atop rooftop farms in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And they have been able to do that meaningful service in a place they can easily understand and return to. You don’t need to burn jet fuel to do valuable and enjoyable volunteer work, especially in the realm of sustainability.

I know that many people love travel and find it highly educational. Those folks are free to keep traveling. Students can even choose to pay for a service trip with a for-profit company, if that’s what they want to do. They just won’t be able to fulfill Poly’s service requirement that way, after this summer. Students can get service credit on a Poly trip or by working with trusted nonprofits like American Tributaries, Amigos de las Americas or Earthwatch. But we can also do a great deal of good service in New York City, and even right here at Poly. So let’s cut back on the voluntourism, and try to help out right where we are.

Sivin is an Upper School history teacher and Director of Service Learning.