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The Dark Underside of Community Service in the Quest for College Admission

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Photo credit:  Shalomlife.com
Photo credit: Shalomlife.com

One of the most common questions I receive from parents and prospective clients is about the importance of community service on college applications.  For years, colleges and universities have been sending out signals that they value community involvement among their applicants, and that these sorts of contributions will be favored in the admissions process.
As a response, many high schools have instituted community service requirements for graduation.  Similarly, one of the main attractions of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum is its emphasis on community action through its CAS program (“Creativity, Action, Service).
Coincident with these trend is the rise of “voluntourism”, by which well-off adults travel to Africa or Latin America or Southeast Asia to do “good works” in a poor community during their vacations.  These programs also build upon similar efforts organized by churches and other religious organizations.  This demand has created a significant niche of the international travel industry that caters to altruistic adventures.
To grossly oversimplify, the idea is for folks in wealthy countries like the United States to see how others live and to contribute in some way to the development of a less well-off community. From the standpoint of college admissions, these sorts of “voluntourism” programs have become increasingly common.  Many affluent families routinely send their kids off on some sort of community service adventure to work in an orphanage, dig latrines, or paint school buildings in poverty-stricken communities around the world.  Invariably, these experiences become fodder for college essays.
From the admissions standpoint, these pay-to-play experiences are so common–and so superficial–that their impact in the admissions process is negligible.  Given that so many kids write about such experiences, the resulting essays can even become a strike against the student.  I’ve heard admissions officers crack jokes about the insipid essays that emanate from these international volunteer experiencs.
To give you an idea of the essays I’ve seen kids write about such experiences, I offer the following made-up example (warning: I am exaggerating for effect…):

“My life changed when I spent two weeks digging ditches in Upper Slobovia last summer.  I never knew that people who were so poor, who ate bugs for dinner, and who used a tin can as a potty could be so happy and generous.  These unfortunate people taught me so much about life: especially, how lucky I am not to be one of them.”

Obviously, I’m not really a fan of these “voluntourism” programs.  I studied international relations in graduate school, and spent a good deal of my time thinking about poverty alleviation in developing countries.  I also have many very close friends who spent years of their lives doing “real” development work, living in hardship in places like Guyana, Malawi, and Laos, actually delivering well-developed, well-funded development aid.  And many of these friends will confide that they were never too sure that their efforts really amounted to much.  So how could a teen with a shovel actually do any real and lasting good during a two week drive-by trip to the Dominican Republic?
Actually, these teens could be doing do more harm than good.  A recent article published on Al-Jazeera America caught my eye.  It highlights the growing demand in the rich world for altruistic vacation opportunities.  Both in the teen and adult markets, scads of companies have cropped up to feed this demand, and more and more rich white folks are traveling to poor places where the dominant skin tones are several shades darker.
The overall tone of the article is fairly critical of “voluntourism.” The author cites several egregious examples of voluntourism gone wrong in South Africa and Haiti and elsewhere.  However, the author does soften the critique a bit by saying that such volunteer experiences abroad can be improved through due diligence, better awareness, and a more realistic attitude on the part of the tourists that what they are doing can have negative as well as positive consequences for a community.
When asked by parents whether such volunteer opportunities for teens are really worth it, I tell them that they have become virtually worthless in the admissions process. The only people who can really go are those who can afford to fly to Timbuktu and back again.  Colleges might actually prefer to hear from applicants who have done something significant and important in their own local communities.  Certainly, such efforts may lack the “wow!” appeal of teaching English to kids in South Sudan, but what colleges want to see  is an activity that has a measurable impact–and not the experience that took place that even Google Maps cannot find.
To be fair, I have had a small handful of kids write excellent, reflective, and balanced essays on their time abroad as volunteers.  Generally, the best ones are written by kids who spend four or more weeks in a community, during which time they actually begin to see beyond the superficial level of what poverty means, and begin to connect with people in a more interesting and fundamental way.  Not all “voluntourism” is horrible.
But don’t latch on to such opportunities as the quick way into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.  These universities will be much more impressed your impact, your capacity for reflection, and your intellectual and personal curiosity much more than the stamps in your passport.
 
Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant
 

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