By Hunter Fogel
SC Contributing Writer
This summer, while I could have enrolled in online courses or worked more hours at my part-time job, I spent four weeks in Peru, a biologically and culturally diverse country on the western coast of South America.
There I enrolled in a volunteer program teaching English for a few hours a day, stayed with a local family in Cusco, and explored the city and surrounding areas at my leisure. What’s more, I made fabulous friends, intimately experienced a foreign-to-me culture, and earned my badge as a solo world traveler.
As I neared the end of my junior year, I felt a certain lack in my holistic experience at East Stroudsburg University. My professors have been supportive and inspiring, and I knew my approaching graduation would be well worth my efforts as a student in the English and Theatre departments.
As all university students may experience, I simply wanted more. Beneath, or rather, within my studious being quaked an adventuring cry and an altruistic longing.
The study abroad office and I visited on occasion, and I advised with several professors, but I finally fell into the International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ).
Dr. Kim McKay, chair of the English department and personal mentor, recommended to me IVHQ, a network organization that contracts various local volunteer groups.
With programs in nearly 30 developing countries and having placed nearly 40,000 volunteers since 2007, IVHQ has proven its credibility, while the program fees fall well below the costs of other study abroad packages.
By March 2014, I had paid my fees, booked my flight, been administered vaccinations, and taken off from work. Peru, for that program had fatefully continued to resurface in my search, beckoned.
As many with whom I have spoken would agree, an extracurricular or extra-national activity such as mine raises the level of satisfaction and personal growth a student receives from his or her college experience.
If volunteering appeals more than studying abroad, then IVHQ may be a solid and safe option. However, the growing industry of volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism,” carries drawbacks and pull-forwards.
I have a stirring stew of opinions about voluntourism. In agreement with fellow IVHQers, the immediate benefits of short-term volunteer programs are difficult to observe accurately. Those who remained in Cusco for six months would have a greater impact on the community than I had in my four weeks and certainly more than a volunteer of just one week.
IVHQ creates flexibility in its program to accommodate for the working or studying schedules in the Western nations.
In this way, Daniel, a pharmacist from D.C., could take two weeks away from his job and work in the Amazon.
It is wonderful that anyone with a little cash can make such a trip, but the journey itself becomes less about the work and more about the voluntourist’s vacation.
Máximo Nivel, the local Peruvian organization for which I worked, advertised tours and “adventure packages.”
While fantastic to have such opportunities to see the most breathtaking wonders of the earth — Machu Picchu is beyond imagination — this commercial tourism targeted towards the Australian springbreaker or American gap yeartaker deflates the very purpose of his or her journey.
One could, and I will, argue that packages and tours boost the country’s economy, an active and immediate benefit. Perhaps philanthropic ambassadorship satisfies the trip’s mission; altruism contributes an additional personal and external effect.
Particular highlights of my trip include my Spanish language development, which has greatly helped in my taking Spanish III this semester.
With individual languages holding their own secrets and cultural connotations, incomprehensible to non-speakers, language learning augments an individual’s life and global conception.
I have also experienced teaching for the first time. While frustrating and painfully littered with obstacles, the activity proved rewarding and inspiring.
Truthfully, I do not think that a couple weeks of short English lessons had permanently affected my students’ 9-year old minds, but interaction with a foreign language-speaking ambassador certainly should. Longer working hours required of volunteers may have increased program efficacy.
To speak concisely and honestly about my overseas experience has posed a challenge.
I have poured over journals and gazed at pictures; the journey was undeniably life altering, and I believe that whoever does not take the opportunity — especially in his or her college career — to expand beyond his or her immediate community sorely lacks.
With a trip abroad, you will reap benefits far beyond an item on your resume or a stamp on your passport. Your heart will grow; your consciousness will expand; your world will open up to the vastness of the globe; and you will find within you a fortitudinous traveler and global citizen.
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