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Volunteer/Service Mission Abroad

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Snoop32

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Hello! Have a question about one of my most meaningful experiences. Thank you so much for helping me out.

Spring break of my freshman year, I did a mission trip through my school to a children’s home/orphanage in a developing country. We raised money, and also had most of the trip covered by my school to go. Anyway, this children's home is already Christian, so it wasn’t a conversion mission by any means. We were mostly going to help them out because they are financially desperate, and the director of the home is a native to the town my school is in. We helped to build a classroom, taught English, painted, cooked, etc. It was an excellent experience and really helped me to practice the language I was learning in school.

I spearheaded a return trip and brought even more hands to help out the next year. It was cool, I got to teach English in the classroom that I helped to build. Anyway, they faced even more hardships because the director that I previously mentioned was hurt and couldn’t raise money in the states anymore. So a few months later I went alone, made a plan with her to raise money while I was down there, and now serve as sort of an ambassador for them going to churches and other organizations in the states to raise money.

This is one of my most meaningful experiences by far, and I truly, deeply value the friendships, experiences, and life lessons I learned from being involved in that place (many of them I feel are highly applicable to the medical field, such as working with others of diverse backgrounds, mutual kindness and respect, and a yearning for understanding other cultures).

I know sometimes people think things like this are “voluntourism” or some sort of conversion mission, but it genuinely wasn’t. I did not pay an exorbitant price (only tickets, but even that was subsidized) and we were not taking opportunities from the locals because no one would help. Since their funding comes from the US, we wanted to leverage our being where the money came from to help. Do you think ADCOMs will look negatively on this? I don’t want to hurt my chances with someone that might twist this experience.

Thank you!
 

7thAndLASTPoopoftheDay

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First of all, let me say that it seems like you did some valuable work and really helped some people in need. Everything that follows is only my personal opinion informed by bitter experience and should be taken in that light.

Going through this process has taught me if there is any room to interpret anything on your application in a negative light, ADCOMs will seize upon it. There are just too many other people competing for the same spot, and they could easily fill it with someone else who doesn't have any question marks, so why take a risk on you? I don't mean to diminish anything you've done, you've done great work and should be proud. The harsh truth is that in this game, appearance is everything. No matter how much good work you do, if your "narrative" is not perfect, your chances are nil.

I think there is room to include this in your application, you just need to be very careful how you present it. For example you said "we were not taking opportunities from the locals because no one would help." This might be true, but I would avoid saying it. If I were a cynical ADCOM, I might think "maybe you just weren't paying them enough. If you paid more, obviously people would be willing to help, and you'd be helping the local economy."
 
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LizzyM

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If this had been a one-and-done trip to improve your language skills, I'd suggest downplaying it but you've been involved over multiple years, been an organizer, been back to the site, etc so it seems worthy of a listing and even a "most meaningful" designation. Go for it.
 
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Moko

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(i) Spring break of my freshman year, I did a mission trip through my school to a children’s home/orphanage in a developing country. We raised money, and also had (ii) most of the trip covered by my school to go. ... We were mostly going to help them out because they are (iii) financially desperate ... We helped to build a classroom, taught English, painted, cooked, etc. It was an excellent experience and really helped me to practice the language I was learning in school. ... I spearheaded a return trip ... I got to teach English. ... they faced even more hardships because the director ... couldn’t raise money in the states anymore. So a few months later I went alone, made a plan with her to raise money while I was down there, and now serve as (iv) sort of an ambassador for them going to churches and other organizations in the states to raise money. ... many of [lessons] I feel are highly applicable to the medical field, such as working with others of diverse backgrounds, (v) mutual kindness and respect, and a yearning for understanding other cultures... I did not pay an exorbitant price (only tickets, but even that was (vi) subsidized) and (vii) we were not taking opportunities from the locals because no one would help. Since their funding comes from the US, (viii) we wanted to leverage our being where the money came from to help.
Overseas volunteering trips get a bad rap for many reasons that you alluded to. At my school, we tend to not harp on it too much unless the applicant makes a big deal of it, though its impact is usually at best neutral (moreso for one-time trips). However, your longitudinal relationship with this director and orphanage helps lessen these potential negative perceptions. I do however have some food for thought, suggestions, and counterarguments (not necessarily targeted at you, but at overseas volunteers in general).

i) When people go abroad to "help" with unskilled labor, was their main motivation to truly help the locals or to help themselves by getting a 'feel good' moment or opportunity to engage in cultural exploration? How much benefit are the students truly getting from several hours of English lessons? While most volunteers likely believe that they are doing the former, I can't help but think that they are subconsciously engaging in the latter.
ii) There is no such thing as a free lunch. The money used to cover your trip came from somewhere, most likely from your and others' tuition.
iii) I have no doubt that this orphanage was financially desperate, so wouldn't the money that you and your school spent on your ticket, lodging, etc. have been better spent as an additional donation on top of what was raised? Certainly, I cannot fault you for what your school opted to do with your tuition dollars, but you are accountable for the money that came directly from your wallet.
iv) You are either an ambassador or you are not; there is no in-between here. Consider formalizing this relationship if you are acting in this capacity, which may help further legitimize your travel. For some organizers, having personal on-the-ground overseas experience can lend credibility to the work that they do: to help ensure that the money is properly spent and to assess the areas of greatest need.
v) This goes back to (i): most of us have no problem with people taking trips and "vacations" overseas to immerse themselves in other cultures. In fact, most people here in the US would likely benefit from such cultural exploration. But I believe that people should be transparent with their motivations instead of advertising it as being primarily altruistic in nature, which can give off a "White savior" vibe. Altruism can be shown domestically, and many programs here in the US are similarly reliant on donations and labor as well. I suspect that this is part of the reason why your school funds trips like these: to help their students become global citizens through cultural exploration, and also for PR purposes and student recruitment.
vi) see (ii)
vii) Where was this orphanage located? What was the cost of living and average hourly wage in the area? Being a developing country, I suspect their COL and hourly wage is significantly lower than here in the US, and that the money spent transporting you and your peers to this country could have easily enticed someone to do the work that you did, with change to spare. I am skeptical that there was truly "no one to help" unless this orphanage was located in the middle of nowhere. Cynically, I believe that everyone has a price (though I may just be projecting). If you were to offer me $500k annually to do just manual disimpactions daily, I would happily open a disimpaction clinic. Someone without education would likely happily do the same if they were offered a high enough multiple of the minimum wage.
viii) I don't understand your point about how it is advantageous for you to go abroad to help just because you are from "where the money came from". Were the locals more grateful for your manual labor, or for the donations you brought? Did they perceive warmly welcoming you and your peers as being a price to pay for these sorely needed donations? Again, this may not be applicable to your trips, but just food for thought for others who may contemplate volunteering abroad.

I have no doubt that your motivations and takeaways are sincere, but perception is everything. I would recommend that you emphasize your longitudinal relationship with this orphanage. Consider my points in (iv). Avoid comments that can be perceived as a "White savior" complex, and avoid painting this as a purely altruistic endeavor: it is okay to go abroad to broaden your horizons and be exposed to other cultures. Just my thoughts.
 
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Snoop32

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First of all, let me say that it seems like you did some valuable work and really helped some people in need. Everything that follows is only my personal opinion informed by bitter experience and should be taken in that light.

Going through this process has taught me if there is any room to interpret anything on your application in a negative light, ADCOMs will seize upon it. There are just too many other people competing for the same spot, and they could easily fill it with someone else who doesn't have any question marks, so why take a risk on you? I don't mean to diminish anything you've done, you've done great work and should be proud. The harsh truth is that in this game, appearance is everything. No matter how much good work you do, if your "narrative" is not perfect, your chances are nil.

I think there is room to include this in your application, you just need to be very careful how you present it. For example you said "we were not taking opportunities from the locals because no one would help." This might be true, but I would avoid saying it. If I were a cynical ADCOM, I might think "maybe you just weren't paying them enough. If you paid more, obviously people would be willing to help, and you'd be helping the local economy."
Thank you so much for your response and advice. I gave additional context that I have not included in my actual write up just for background for you all. I agree, it is all about how you present it! I don't want someone to have a reason to knock me out of the game.
 

Snoop32

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If this had been a one-and-done trip to improve your language skills, I'd suggest downplaying it but you've been involved over multiple years, been an organizer, been back to the site, etc so it seems worthy of a listing and even a "most meaningful" designation. Go for it.
Thank you very much for your response!
 

Snoop32

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Overseas volunteering trips get a bad rap for many reasons that you alluded to. At my school, we tend to not harp on it too much unless the applicant makes a big deal of it, though its impact is usually at best neutral (moreso for one-time trips). However, your longitudinal relationship with this director and orphanage helps lessen these potential negative perceptions. I do however have some food for thought, suggestions, and counterarguments (not necessarily targeted at you, but at overseas volunteers in general).

i) When people go abroad to "help" with unskilled labor, was their main motivation to truly help the locals or to help themselves by getting a 'feel good' moment or opportunity to engage in cultural exploration? How much benefit are the students truly getting from several hours of English lessons? While most volunteers likely believe that they are doing the former, I can't help but think that they are subconsciously engaging in the latter.
ii) There is no such thing as a free lunch. The money used to cover your trip came from somewhere, most likely from your and others' tuition.
iii) I have no doubt that this orphanage was financially desperate, so wouldn't the money that you and your school spent on your ticket, lodging, etc. have been better spent as an additional donation on top of what was raised? Certainly, I cannot fault you for what your school opted to do with your tuition dollars, but you are accountable for the money that came directly from your wallet.
iv) You are either an ambassador or you are not; there is no in-between here. Consider formalizing this relationship if you are acting in this capacity, which may help further legitimize your travel. For some organizers, having personal on-the-ground overseas experience can lend credibility to the work that they do: to help ensure that the money is properly spent and to assess the areas of greatest need.
v) This goes back to (i): most of us have no problem with people taking trips and "vacations" overseas to immerse themselves in other cultures. In fact, most people here in the US would likely benefit from such cultural exploration. But I believe that people should be transparent with their motivations instead of advertising it as being primarily altruistic in nature, which can give off a "White savior" vibe. Altruism can be shown domestically, and many programs here in the US are similarly reliant on donations and labor as well. I suspect that this is part of the reason why your school funds trips like these: to help their students become global citizens through cultural exploration, and also for PR purposes and student recruitment.
vi) see (ii)
vii) Where was this orphanage located? What was the cost of living and average hourly wage in the area? Being a developing country, I suspect their COL and hourly wage is significantly lower than here in the US, and that the money spent transporting you and your peers to this country could have easily enticed someone to do the work that you did, with change to spare. I am skeptical that there was truly "no one to help" unless this orphanage was located in the middle of nowhere. Cynically, I believe that everyone has a price (though I may just be projecting). If you were to offer me $500k annually to do just manual disimpactions daily, I would happily open a disimpaction clinic. Someone without education would likely happily do the same if they were offered a high enough multiple of the minimum wage.
viii) I don't understand your point about how it is advantageous for you to go abroad to help just because you are from "where the money came from". Were the locals more grateful for your manual labor, or for the donations you brought? Did they perceive warmly welcoming you and your peers as being a price to pay for these sorely needed donations? Again, this may not be applicable to your trips, but just food for thought for others who may contemplate volunteering abroad.

I have no doubt that your motivations and takeaways are sincere, but perception is everything. I would recommend that you emphasize your longitudinal relationship with this orphanage. Consider my points in (iv). Avoid comments that can be perceived as a "White savior" complex, and avoid painting this as a purely altruistic endeavor: it is okay to go abroad to broaden your horizons and be exposed to other cultures. Just my thoughts.
Thank you for your response, I appreciate the time you put into clearly labeling each of your points.

Could you please clarify what you mean by "white savior vibes" and what a comment like that would look like. My purposes were altruistic in nature, but I undoubtedly gained benefit from being with others and gaining friendships. How would you put that into words without coming across negatively?

My school has fundraising money you can apply for for spring break trips. We would apply ahead of time and that helped pay for the majority of the tickets and lodging. The other money that we raised was from fundraising, and very little was out of pocket. We were able to donate around $3000 on top of being there helping the second time around.

When I say no one would help, I did not mean that negatively. I totally understand that someone would be willing to if paid enough, but they simply do not have those kinds of funds. The people who do typically help around (some being former residents of the home) have stopped recently because it is unsustainable and they were unable to support their own families. That is what I mean when I say we would help with construction, plumbing, painting, etc that would cost far too much to hire someone else.

The locals, as well as the director (an American) were grateful for both I am sure. They, especially the children, liked having us there. Plus they were grateful for the work we do in the states to raise money to help keep them afloat.

Thanks again!
 
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