Opinion: Students should volunteer close to home

What’s the point of a service trip if you’re not actually serving other people?

My first experience on a short-term volunteering trip was with the USC Volunteer Center Alternative Break program. Twenty college students set out for the red rocks of Arizona and Utah for a spring break on the Navajo Nation. Don’t be under any illusions — the trip was much more help to ourselves than to the Native Americans we were privileged to meet.

Whatever meager, unqualified labor we provided, I am certain that it took much more work to host us than it was worth. The Navajo reservation residents fed and housed us, made itineraries at each site, and even put on a ceremonial dance for us on our last day.

Don’t get me wrong; the trip was a profound cultural immersion experience that opened my eyes to the injustices, heartbreak and inequity that face the Navajo people. I didn’t have any idea what it was like to live in a food desert until my digestive system rebelled after three days of eating packaged food. I was exposed in a small way to the challenges Navajo young people face trying to maintain a cultural identity in the modern world.

All of these positive impacts benefited me. Am I more aware of issues affecting the Navajo people? Yes. Does that make a difference for them? I’m not sure.

Navajo high school students and a teacher in Utah led USC students on a hike to a waterfall in March 2015. The hiking path had been cleared by a nonprofit organization, NavajoYES. Part of the mission of NavajoYES is to promote wellness and a connection to the outdoors for young people. (Rachel Cohrs)
The Utah landscape on the Navajo reservation featured stunning red rock formations, like the one the Alternative Spring Break trip group climbed. The hike in March 2015 was led by local Navajo high school students. (Rachel Cohrs)

That brings me to my biggest concern– the amount of money high school and college students spend on international service trips.

My Navajo Nation trip was inexpensive compared to other spring break trips offered. The cost of my trip was around $350. The international service trip option costs nearly five times more.

I’m not talking about people who have genuinely useful skills like construction, painting, or medical expertise. I’m talking about the droves of students with no previous experience with manual labor who want to get into an elite college or graduate school, so they go on exotic trips to build an orphanage or houses.

By and large, these trips are a waste of money and time. Instead, colleges and graduate schools could do so much more with the thousands of young people at their beck and call. They should encourage students to commit to long-term volunteering in their local communities.

My three high school years spent volunteering with cancer patients at the Mayo Clinic built discipline, patience, humility and relationships that I never could have gotten from a weeklong trip. In a culture of instant gratification and the college bubble, these skills and attitudes grounded me and shaped my priorities in how I spend my time.

By encouraging local, long-term volunteering over short-term international trips, colleges and universities can teach students valuable lessons before they step on campus. Schools can teach students that data-driven, problem-solving in low- and middle-income countries often doesn’t follow the ideologies or frameworks common in the United States. Schools can teach students that empowering local workers with job training and work would be a much more efficient use of students’ money if they truly wanted to make a difference abroad.

Is a service trip to a foreign country a more meaningful way to spend a spring break than a week partying in Cabo? You bet. Just keep in mind it will most likely do you more good than the people you’re “helping.”

Dusk fell on the Navajo reservation in Utah as a group of 20 USC students climbed rock formations over spring break with local Navajo high school students. The Alternative Spring Break trip took place in 2015. (Rachel Cohrs)
USC students had the opportunity to experience a traditional Navajo sweat lodge during the Navajo Nation Alternative Spring Break trip in March 2015. (Rachel Cohrs)

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Rachel is the Interactives Editor at USC Annenberg Media. She is a senior journalism major with a law and public policy minor, and is interested in politics and policy reporting.