The window of opportunity to travel abroad, aided by extra time in the summer months, has come to an end. Whether it is about experiencing a new place, visiting family or studying abroad, an estimated 88 million Americans leave the country during the summer. Included in those trips is a growing number of students who go abroad to volunteer.
‘Voluntourism,’ the act of volunteering abroad, has become a rapidly growing market and one that affects the countries visited in a surprisingly negative way. Rather than helping, the trope of the American savior who comes from a first-world country and wants to extend a helping hand is one that ultimately prioritizes the needs of the volunteer rather than the needs of the affected community.
As students advocate for social issues around the world, we must consider how we can help solve the problems we face in the United States, rather than ignoring them for those abroad.
At GW, students advocate for a wide variety of causes. As students advocate for social issues around the world, we must consider how we can help solve the problems we face in the United States, rather than ignoring them for those abroad.
There are more than 50 registered student organizations at GW that focus on volunteer work. Some organizations, like Alternative Breaks, complete service projects both in D.C. and around the world, however, many of these organizations are focused on international issues. GW does offer ways to help our local communities including SmartDC, a literacy program that works at schools around the District, and students should take advantage of these opportunities rather than pay for costly trips abroad to volunteer.
The work that organizations with international focuses do is needed. But at the same time, students are ignoring the issues within the United States, and even right in our own backyard. A report from the United Nations suggests that poverty in the United States is striking for a developed country, with an estimated 41 million Americans experiencing food insecurity.
Here in D.C., homelessness is a large issue linked to the rising cost of housing. While the percentage of homeless people has decreased between 2017 and 2018, the city’s biggest homeless shelter recently closed. At the same time, food insecurity is extremely prominent in D.C., with one in seven households experiencing food insecurity in the District. Food insecurity is especially high in Wards 7 and 8 of the city, known as “food deserts” – communities with minimal access to fresh produce.
With manpower from students, many of these issues around D.C. could be improved. It might not be as glamorous as traveling abroad, but helping the community you are a part of can be more rewarding.
With manpower from students, many of these issues around D.C. could be improved.
Volunteering locally also means you can dedicate more time to the area without travel and other costs getting in the way. Rather than having a weeklong trip abroad, helping one’s local community is readily accessible, and travel costs are reduced. When you don’t have to spend time and money to volunteer, you can make more of an impact and can continue a project over time to really see the effects your work has.
While traveling abroad has its perks, there is no denying that our own local communities also need our help. Even if students can opt to pay for a trip abroad, they should plan to first look at their own backyard and find ways to give back to their community.
Alejandra Velazquez, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.
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