Then and Now: How my Perspective on Volunteering Changed

This is a guest post by Georgia Rodgers, who changed her own perspectives so much after volunteering that she wondered if other volunteers had been similarly impacted.

The post is being simultaneously shared on her own blog, Use You Privilege for Good.


“Action without learning is ignorance. Learning without action is selfishness”

–   The Learning Service Book

At 16 years old, I set off to India in the hope that I could make a significant impact by teaching English in a slum. At 18 years old, I followed a similar path and booked a trip to Tanzania with the hope of making a difference in a small orphanage. Over the years, after a lot of reflection and a degree in International Development, I have completely transformed my view on what those experiences meant and who they helped. I have written previously on this blog about my own experience of changing and adding nuance to my perspectives after volunteering.  But it has made me wonder, is this a process many returned volunteers go through when reflecting on their experience? I reached out to a few people, from a variety of backgrounds and stages of life, to try to compare an individual’s thoughts prior to their volunteering experience to their current feelings towards such choices. After all, developing a learning mindset is the first, and if not most, important step in contributing to the world effectively. From these reflections, there is a hope we all can continue to learn from past experiences.


Introducing Our Volunteer Voices

John was 49 years old when he booked a one-month service trip to India through an Indian-led travel business. India was a destination he had always wanted to go to as a tourist, as he was fascinated with the culture. Although having a tertiary education in teaching, along with post graduate degrees, John had no prior experience within the development field. His choice to volunteer whilst visiting India, was out of the desire to assist those he felt needed help.

Karissa was 23 years old when she decided to book a four-month volunteer trip to Tanzania through International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ); a large volunteer travel business based in New Zealand. Karissa was assigned by IVHQ to assist special needs children within a school, as well as work within an orphanage. Karissa had recently graduated from a Bachelor of Psychology prior to her departure, however, did not have any previous experience of international volunteering. Her choice to volunteer travel came from the desire to want to give back.

Sian was 15 years old when she also travelled to Tanzania for a one-month service trip through her high school. Sian’s role, once placed in a community within Tanzania, was to teach English, repaint school classrooms and develop agriculture for the community through the establishment of vegetable gardens. Sian had an Australian year 10 level of education at the time, and no previous experience in education or agricultural studies. Sian’s choice to travel overseas came from her recently becoming aware of the many injustices in the world and feeling extremely passionate to be a part of the change.

Luke was 21 years old when he pursued a one-month service trip to Nepal. Luke’s service consisted of teaching topics such as English and environmental sustainability at a local secondary school. Luke had no prior experience with international volunteering but was undergoing his last year of a Bachelor of Teaching. This service trip was credited as an academic placement for Luke. Luke’s desire to pursue his teaching overseas came from the interest in learning a different teaching style and culture.


The Lack of Knowledge is a Prerequisite

A common idea expressed by the volunteers we spoke to was the desire to help and give back. As well as this, many also wished to experience a culture different from their own. Words that surfaced during these discussions included having a ‘fascination’ and ‘interest’ in these differing cultures. It is important to highlight that prior to our participants’ departures, none of these individuals had any in-depth knowledge of the cultures they were about to immerse themselves into. This is usually the case with people who decide to volunteer overseas. This lack of knowledge and fascination with the ‘other’ can cause significant issues, especially when coupled with the western tendency to make ethnocentric assumptions, without fully understanding the cultural, political or social contexts of a community. ‘Fascination’ can also lead to a romanticised view of a particular culture; resulting in limited and stereotyped perspectives, instead of listening and learning from local people first.

Karissa reflects on this point in saying, “although I made the most with the education I had at the time, I wish I would have learnt more about the culture. My experience expanded my horizons, but my perspectives changed after my trip. I quickly realized that my experience was more for myself than the children I worked with. I still have a desire to work with non-profit organisations, but I want to have more of an education and understanding of the cultures I’m participating within first. I think it can be very extremely detrimental to the growth of a community, when volunteer work is done with no understanding of the community”.

It is also important to highlight the barrier and limitations that come with the lack of language skills. The extent to which an individual can help someone becomes extremely limited when communication is challenged. Although English is a commonly spoken language globally, the majority of countries that host volunteer projects do not speak it as their first language and as a result, volunteers are confronted with significant language barriers. Despite this, the implicit expectation of many volunteers is that everyone should accommodate them by speaking English. With these expectations come usually unspoken but always detrimental values of culture superiority, which can be akin to a colonial mentality. For example, if volunteers are only exposed to ideas that can be expressed to them in English, then they may have a warped idea of a situation, and give those perspectives (and the people who express them) undue power. Luke describes his struggles within a Nepal classroom:

There were times where, in the classroom, I would struggle with the language barrier as my Nepali was basic. As such, there were instances where I would doubt my purpose of being at the school and second-guess whether my presence truly was benefitting the students I was teaching, or whether my teaching style was a hinderance because of the language barrier that I more or less introduced into the class; a challenge that they would never usually have had.

Sian highlights the importance of empowerment and self-determination in situations involving ‘vulnerable’ communities. Volunteers often take the position of a local individual capable of that same skill. In doing so, the projects undermine the ability of local people, as well as place the volunteer and their ‘abilities’ as superior.

Voluntourism can enforce a harmful relationship between the developed and developing world and has become a business that prioritises profit. Volunteering can be a great opportunity for skilled/trained individuals/groups to share their knowledge and resources to empower communities to become self-sustaining, but I just think many changes need to be made to ensure volunteering is done in the best interest of those on the receiving end. The goal should be giving communities a ‘hand-up’ rather than a ‘hand-out’ so that the impact is long-lasting, respectful of the local culture and does not replace jobs that can be done by locals. There is no altruistic reason for me to be painting the walls of a primary school in Tanzania, when the money I paid the program could have employed a local to do the same task”.


Band Aids and White Saviours?

Throughout each of our responses, our participants described the feelings of uncertainty they developed during their volunteer time. Through their cycle of service and learning, these volunteers began to question their impact and the purpose of their stay.

John describes “developing mixed feelings towards the idea that I was a ‘band-aid’ solution. I began to realise that there was no real structure to what I was doing and that the next group of volunteers would be in the same position of not knowing what had preceded them. I felt that the attempt to educate was futile and became more concerned around how the kids must feel about people coming and going and them remaining in this uncertain position. It didn’t take long for me to feel that my impact was futile, and the problem was always going to be bigger than my contribution.

I felt we flew in and out. Our short-term stay added nothing to the resources that were desperately needed. In the end I thought our insignificant contribution added more to the problem. We had created dependency where local solutions needed to be sought. Rather than being a solution, in a way… I added to the problem.

Sian began to feel that the service she was doing was ‘tokenistic’. “In hindsight, I became very aware of my position and my contribution to ideas surrounding the ‘white saviour’ complex, I felt like an intruder at times.

I was quick to notice at the school I was volunteering at, that we were not the first volunteer group to have been there, as it was evident in the way the children almost expected us to gift them coloured pens, stickers and bracelets, and then take out our cameras to snap photos of them dancing and playing. It felt as if I was objectifying the children. I wouldn’t have done the same if I visited a school in my home town”.

In response to reflections on their intentions to volunteer, our participants were very open and honest on how this had changed.

John reflects: “I am sure there was a sense of romanticising about what I was doing – gaining self-gratification and even applause from those who knew where I was and what I was attempting to do. My intentions were pure, but without it being properly resourced and structured it really amounted to naught. Those we encountered may have benefited from our contact, but it was not significant or comparable to the input. Don’t get me wrong, I am richer for having experienced it and learnt so much, but that wasn’t what it was supposed to be about. It was those I went to help that should have gained. If any good came from it, it was a realisation of just what needed to be done and how inadequate my contribution was.

Volunteer travel is nearly always well-intended, but it doesn’t mean the positive intention will manifest as a positive impact”.

Luke highlights that “volunteer travel has turned volunteering into a market which is being exploited by wealthy travellers who are merely feeding their own self-satisfaction by convincing themselves that they are helping people ‘needier’ than them. Although their hearts may lie in the right place, the truth is, that most often than not, they have no real skills which justify their volunteering. Along with African nations, Asian countries receive a bulk of the volunteer visits, which could be interpreted as the idea that ‘Westerners are superior to their Eastern counterparts’ thus, they have an obligation to ‘save’ them”.


Final Reflections on Learning and Action

When asked to reflect on their volunteer experiences overall, here were our participants’ responses:

The experiences I had in Tanzania were lifechanging, but I wonder how I could have gone about it differently whilst learning the same lessons. What could have been changed to make it more of an empowering experience for the community that hosted me? Our facilitators led daily learning activities about topics such as public health, privilege, and leadership, which fostered my desire to use this knowledge/experience for good, but I don’t feel I needed to fly overseas to learn these skills”.

I would encourage others to only volunteer if they have a substantial education and skill that will positively contribute to the community. I also feel like we can give back more by learning about international causes and financially contributing to positive, high reputable organisations that have been shown to have a positive impact. People can also simply give back by supporting the travel industry – responsibly”.

If people want to pursue international volunteering, I would encourage others to do their homework on the morality and ethics of the situation they wanted to participate in before they entered it. At my core I believe we need to help others; it’s just how we go about it. It is searching for a way that does not add harm or remove responsibility for others- that is the challenge”.

I will always encourage people to volunteer, but only if it is in an area of my expertise, where I could guarantee that I was bringing some sort of developed skill. I would never volunteer if I wasn’t confident that I would have the ability to positively contribute to some aspect of the volunteering. I would never endorse unskilled labour almost anywhere, regardless of what nation we talk about, and would encourage others to give back in a way that promotes the use of skilled labourers who have experience with the form of ‘giving back’ that is being attempted”.

Sian perfectly captures the main lessons of Learning Service in suggesting that “the best way we can ‘give back’, is really by looking inward and thinking about how we can reflect our values in our own lifestyles and actions”.

It can be quite challenging to receive critical feedback when society feeds us nothing more than praise and admiration for what is perceived as benevolence. However, what is needed within these situations is education, and with education comes the responsibility to adhere to creating and contributing to a better, safer and more equal world for everyone; not just for our own self-gratification. Although our four volunteers clearly went through a huge change of perspective, it isn’t enough for this to be left to trial and error. It is estimated that over 10 million people go aboard each year and seek to enhance their travels through altruism; these are big numbers, with bigger impacts. Through learning effective service and reflecting inward on our values, individuals can learn from our volunteers’ past experiences and begin to collectively challenge these current destructive systems and contribute to a more just and sustainable world for all.


Georgia Rodgers is studying for a Master’s in Community Development in Melbourne. She blogs at

Yes, But: The Power of Transforming My Own Defensiveness

This is a guest post by Lindsay Clark, about her experience of volunteering in Fiji and what she learned in the aftermath.


Yes, but I’m not a bible-thumper out to save the children…

Yes, but I was invited back to Fiji and welcomed by the elders…

Yes, but we asked the community what they wanted and delivered only that: English classes, the basics of sports medicine …and then First Aid and then hygiene and other stuff we knew [and they “needed”]!

You see the trend. The defense. The fragility. The implications. And the struggle to understand what was really going on. The struggle to absorb a lesson that goes counter to everything I’ve ever been led to believe: about how to exist in the world, about the way to live, about myself.

I hope you can see it. If not, let’s talk.

That was my thinking back in 2010, halfway through a two-month self-initiated service project in the interior of Fiji’s main island. I built a wall around myself with those thoughts while talking to a fellow traveler at a beach bar, one of the many times I came down from the rural Highland village to use the wifi.

This man—an eavesdropper to the conversation I was having with the Fijian bartender—offered me a gift that I couldn’t appreciate until years after I left the South Pacific.

“Why do they need lessons on soap?”

He waded into our conversation with a kindness I didn’t deserve, given my exasperated tone that all my efforts were landing flat, “one step forward and two steps back,” not making the kind of “progress” I expected in two months.

“He gestured towards my ethnocentrism, and I considered it for the first time, as if a fish discovering water.”

“I’m sure you’re doing good things and all, but don’t you think we’re somewhat to blame for this situation? They were fine before we came to them and told them they needed more: soaps, Western medicine, English lessons…We define a gap and then come back to fill it.”

In an instant, this bystander poked a hole in my entire foundation. What led me to spend all my money, leave my family at a pivotal time, and lure other travelers to join me on a “noble” quest to “do good.”

FIJI, 2014

He spoke of “we,” though I saw myself apart from colonizers, past and present. He spoke of “they,” not knowing those 300 village residents but knowing them in concept enough to know the age-old score. They being people that already used soap in every necessary context, about as diligently as my home population. They being a community that politely accepted my offer to live with them for free in exchange for my teaching services, my transported medical donations, my good friggin’ will.

It didn’t feel like it at the time, but I was lucky to meet this guy. He was the first person to introduce the possibility of imposition. He ventured into contentious territory questioning the premise of something I had been financially and emotionally committed to. He gestured towards my ethnocentrism, and I considered it for the first time, as if a fish discovering water.

That poked hole launched the start of a decade-long perspective shift. He exposed the weakness of my worldview, but it took years to diagnose. I started reading up on Fiji and international development. Only with time did I feel comfortable telling my Fiji stories, and it took even longer to tell them the way they needed to be told—incorporating more than my bruised perspective.

And for years I struggled to accept the possibility that my good intentions inflicted emotional violence on members of a community I loved. Perhaps even a financial burden or the threat of legal or diplomatic turmoil.

I tried to fit my hasty exit from that village into my narrative that there were a “few bad apples whose greed ended our otherwise promising initiative.” I replayed in my mind the arguments, the deception, the drug abuse, the physical abuse, and I chalked it all up to the actions of others. Because I couldn’t accept that I could possibly be like them: the white saviors. The ones who imposed and assumed. The ones who regarded themselves higher than others.

In my limited view of this insidious complex, there was no spectrum.

But then something knocked me out of my ignorance. Five years later, I went back to this community in the beautiful, forested Highlands of Viti Levu. I called the elders, asked for permission, negotiated room and board, booked a flight, and rode the creaky carrier up twenty-seven kilometers of mountain road to encounter my past self and the lives I impacted, one way or another.


That return was clouded with extreme emotions, root causes of which I couldn’t define. I saw the kids I taught, their same sweet faces now on much larger bodies. And I saw the people with whom I had disagreements, the people I feared, the people who felt wronged by me. We shook hands. We spoke about our families. And we found ways to address our past mistakes and move forward from them. It didn’t take long, because as they reminded me, the sun sets and then it rises, after all.

When I started the project, I believed I was conscious of the important considerations when conducting service abroad. I was invited. I had a local liaison to help me understand our utility and bridge the language gap. I reacted to their stated needs. I met with elders and had plans approved. I prioritized informing the community rather than banking on word of mouth. I arrived open to any suggestions of how I could be of service.

Yes, but as life took over and all our norms were challenged (theirs and mine), I went to a protective and judgmental place. I saw right and wrong starkly. I trusted some gut sense of justice that didn’t consider the local perspective. I started separating myself to feel like myself.

Yes, but I needed to be aware at all times how my actions could be interpreted. How not wanting to eat chicken feet or not prioritizing the acquisition of Fijian language would imply I thought both weren’t worth my time or taste.

Yes, but I needed the right liaison who could be honest about those power dynamics, someone who could see what I was missing, someone to clue me in to the fact that Fijians often pay lip service out of politeness, even when asked for honesty.

Yes, but I needed to be aware of how my relationships with liaisons could influence their sincerity. The more opportunities I provided, the more they had at stake if my plans started to crumble.

Yes, but I was ill-equipped to perceive how my whiteness would work for and against me constantly. “Wear sunscreen, you’re not cooked yet,” I would hear in jest, “we’re already cooked.” For some, my whiteness implied intellect, stature, and wealth. It also implied physical incapability and sexualization. I was babied and venerated, bubble-wrapped and disregarded. And because I had the privilege of sidestepping considerations of race up to that point in my life, it came as a major surprise. I always wanted the treatment I wasn’t getting, and I never knew the cause for any effect.

The whole of life, from the moment you are born, to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

–   Quote taken from Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, page 16

Fiji was the biggest test of my humanity, but understanding what happened in Fiji has been the most valuable lesson of my life. I’ve since replaced my fragility and ignorance with a hunger to learn and to share, a breakthrough only possible with the acceptance that I am in constant evolution.

Books like Learning Service have helped me uncover the greater narrative of which I was unknowingly a part and to what extent our society encourages such behavior without question.

The dominant perspective of our society will support these missions without question. But they should be questioned. We should question our own intentions, question our friends to make sure their intentions are producing the intended impact, question how we speak about other cultures, question schools and NGOs and governments about the local support for their programs. We should teach about all these considerations in the classroom, and we should consider ourselves lifelong learners beyond.

“For some, my whiteness implied intellect, stature, and wealth. It also implied physical incapability and sexualization.”

When my project soured almost ten years ago, one family extended themselves immeasurably to help me recover and move forward. To this day, they are my umbilical cord to Fiji. Without them, I couldn’t have rectified this burning memory. I wouldn’t have returned nor felt welcomed to. They are why I’m capable of a path towards knowledge and growth.


And I found my means of seeking accountability through writing a memoir meant to honor the community the way I should have from the start. With the elders’ awareness and in consultation with its citizens, I’m now taking the time to critically investigate the experience I manufactured, to cautiously represent a culture that is not my own, and to create an artifact of which its own citizens would be proud. The book will advise other hopeful humanitarians against similar actions, but it’s my hope such a message will be a drop in an ocean of thought and literature by that time.

We can’t blindly trust (nor doubt) the systems in place related to service opportunities. We can’t expect them to have done the moral lifting already that will align with our values and, more importantly, the long-term needs of the local community.

And we can’t be afraid to admit that perhaps we are capable of actions we once thought beneath us. The sooner we discover the water around us, the sooner we commit ourselves to doing actual good.


Lindsay Clark is a writer, videographer, and former international educator who blogs at She is currently writing a memoir about her time in Fiji, for which she will pursue traditional publication. In her spare time, she bakes sourdough, travels, and enjoys the nature surrounding her new home of Denver. The featured image is of Paulo mimicking his father cleaning the tanoa, or kava bowl.

The Power of Words and Images

Today’s guest post comes from Kenzie Yoshimura, reflecting on how travel companies need to pay attention to the way they market volunteer or work opportunities abroad.


It can be challenging and often confusing to sift through the many options, organizations, and programs available to you as a traveler interested in volunteering abroad. How can you know if the organization has a mission and motives that align with yours? Nonprofits and social enterprises give telltale clues in the messaging they use to tell their story and the stories of their stakeholders. Knowing what to look for and what to avoid in these words and images is one tool to help you make an informed decision about service or work abroad.


Savior complex

How often does the organization in question use words like save or help? While both terms are meant to describe a well-intentioned action with a positive outcome, they actually create an unequal balance of power, implying that one group is rescuing another group who is otherwise unable to better their situation. Look instead for words and phrases such as work with or collaborate that actively level that playing field and demonstrate a mutual exchange.


People first


If an organization were to publish a photo and a description about you, how would you want to be portrayed? The way a nonprofit describes the communities with which it works says a lot about its intention and the understanding of the people it serves. At Human Connections, we sit down with each partner we work with to collaborate on the bio we publish on our website, and have them approve the photos we post. It’s one way to ensure consent and accurate language and descriptors. Using the preferred language for an individual or group of people is a crucial part of cultivating respect and helping educate others.


A picture is worth a thousand words

The images used by nonprofits and social enterprises are of equal importance to their linguistic messaging. Take a close look at the photos and videos used on the organization’s website, social media, and other marketing materials. How does the organization portray its stakeholders? Are these images meant to invoke pity from viewers, or promote a sense of pride and progress? Positive images in place of “poverty porn” encourage positive action, not charity, while upholding the dignity of the photos’ subjects.

Words matter. And while there’s no universal guidebook for right and wrong nonprofit messaging, being intentional about the words and images used is one way for organizations to honor the people they work with, while educating and effectively communicating their mission. By doing your research as a volunteer, you can choose to work with an organization that truly shares your values and creates real impact.


Kenzie Yoshimura is the design consultant at Human Connections, a social enterprise that connects its local partners with travelers through cultural tours and student programs in Bucerias, Mexico. To learn more about Human Connections or book a tour, visit their website. The main image is Human Connections’ partners Naty and Rolando with a handwoven tapete. Photo by Sergio Medina.

A More Optimistic Outlook and a Change in Mindset on the Future of Voluntourism

Sixteen-year-old Daniel Ma went on a trip to Cambodia this spring break, armed with the Learning Service book and guided by our own author Claire! Here are a few of the things that he learned:


As a child, volunteering was always a prominent part of my life, and yet it was for selfish reasons. During summers, while others were busy playing in pools and soaking in the seeming brevity of precious moments, I found myself out and about, finding something to do. Yet, while the hundreds of hours I once accumulated look impressive on a résumé, for me, volunteering was a way of escaping the rat race and pressures of parents and home. It was an opportunity (as foolish as it sounds now) to feel good, make change, and be a better person.

As I grew older, I began to realize the naivety of this mindset. As this subliminal, pre-instilled notion that the impact I made volunteering would somehow ripple its effects across the world shattered, I began to grow skeptical of my efforts. I began to ask the questions: Was I really needed? Was I really contributing? What did I get out of this?

Cynically, I found the answer to the questions to be that while I entered with a preconceived notion of making an impact, nine times out of ten, I was nothing more than a mere peripheral gear orbiting around a cog of systems I was too tiny to see. While I once thought that my daily trips to the little care facility in the hilly slopes of Milton, Ontario, were selfless and eager, I now questioned the ethics that are the results of my actions. While I once thought that my hours sweating under the sun were sacrificial and important, I now realize I was nothing more than a busboy. Sadly, such is the truth for most forms of volunteering, even in the “developed” societies of Canada and the US. While we would like to believe that our contribution of time and effort causes an impact on the community around us, the reality is that we could be replaced. Or worse, we could be contributing harm in an unequally stacked system.

Reflecting on my own actions, I questioned the impact of my visits to a medically fragile children’s palliative care center, as I, amongst the hundreds that constantly visited, served in the role of in-lieu parents for children. Guiltily, I acknowledge the excruciating emotional impact that I must have had on these children, as I was only one amongst hundreds of strangers that came and went, never truly serving as the emotional connection so deeply needed in a child’s life. To see the children there live in a life constantly bombarded with others they barely know, while only desiring to see their parents again, made me question the ethics of my actions. Was I, in all my good intent, making an impact, or was I simply grinding down their time and discouraging a better system, to satisfy my own ego?

Discouraged, I began to grow seeds of skepticism that blossomed while reading the Learning Service book early on during my school’s spring break trip to Cambodia. Researching the country beforehand, I was bombarded by both streams of tacky tourism clichés and terrifying statistics about the seeming lack of “development” in Cambodia. Would we really be able to make even a noticeable indent on this community?

Of course, 7 billion people have 7 billion agendas. Yet, as we try to interfere with the agendas of others and convert them to become more like our own, we realize both how implausible and how inconsiderate our actions are.


Throughout the course of our trip, I read about both the exploitative and negative implications that plagued the world of voluntourism – hordes of naïve people with savior complexes and a goal to do good, flying halfway across the world for superficial work to fill their own egos. Yet, as we approached our third day on the lush, beautiful shores of Koh Pdao island, on the mighty Mekong in north east Cambodia, I felt frustrated, conflicted.

Although we had come with good intentions, it is not unfair to say that we were amusingly underprepared and unfit for the job at hand. To be frank, we were a group of unskilled, hot-headed students, some of whom had never worked a day of manual labor in our lives. Ironically, being privileged enough to fly halfway across the world, we were terrifyingly abysmal at even the smallest tasks at hand; what may well have been done with a single local person, such as painting a container, in turn took five of us, while we were equally inefficient in our ventures of mixing concrete and digging lanes.

As the locals gathered and looked on with amusement and a hint of pity at our efforts, I felt a tinge of connection between ourselves and all the unskilled, superficial volunteers case-studied in Learning Service. The reality was, aside from the comic relief we provided, we were untrained, low-level laborers, contributing next to nothing while simultaneously draining the community of resources to supervise, shelter, entertain, feed, train, and keep comfortable. With such a realization, I felt conflicted between an innate reaction to suppress such negativity, and a swell of frustration – at our laughable efforts, at my lack of ability to contribute more than mere physical exertion and foreign economic injections.

To some degree, the complex world of voluntourism is similar to that of other foreign interference in the 21st century. Although it may be well intended, it comes with a certain spectrum of pros and cons. Through my time in Cambodia, I made several changes in paradigm and observations regarding both the country’s socioeconomic state and my current perspectives on voluntourism (although I didn’t make them alone!). Here they are:

The concept of volunteering and service abroad has been ghastly taken out of context by tourism companies – this point such should not be a surprise. However, with it comes an inherent silver lining: thousands of travelers willing, or willing to learn, to do good and diversify their perspectives. While such might not always be the case, oftentimes travelers do bring an alternate source of economic benefit to the community. For instance, our stay in Koh Pdao has had a mutual benefit in allowing us – the travelers – to live with a roof over our heads, while simultaneously empowering, people, predominantly women in the community, to have more economic freedom by providing those services (e.g. the people who let us stay in their homes, the people who cooked for us). Likewise, with proper implementation, volunteering can allow organizations to complete locally-run ventures more efficiently and sooner, rather than eliminate the jobs of locals. For instance, in our project of building a water reservoir, although we may have been inefficient, 15 students and 3 locals worked a total 8 hours instead of 8 locals doing the same, unpaid, job.

With that said, a global attitude shift on the portrayal of foreign communities must change. While currently, with countries labeled as “requiring aid”, we are consequently bombarded with images of unsanitary conditions, poverty, and the like. Psychologically, a stereotype of the country is embedded into our heads, followed by a mentality of fearing the unknown. However, although what is being portrayed may be a reality in some circumstances, many inhabitants of the world hold attitudes towards life that are inherently different from our own. For instance, while the lack of possessions may signify to us a sign of poverty, in many parts of the world less influenced by the widespread use of corporate advertisement, materialism is simply not considered a worthwhile pursuit in life. While it may be difficult to get our heads around it, the concept of “living” and the values that it dictates, and “happiness” are immensely different based on culture. This includes the meticulous details in our trains of thought, such as the need for comparison between self and others that causes materialistic attitudes. What we need to do is instead view different cultures as equally valid, and focus on mutually accepted goals for human rights, equality, and safety rather than try to convert others to be more like ourselves. Quoting the words of a travel website: “teach English to monks in the mountains of Nepal”. But while a child living in a western environment may certainly need English, what good does English do to those living a life totally different from our own? A topic you should be familiar about by now – travel to learn rather than to change.


Lastly, while I won’t pretend that my short-lived, memorable 2 weeks in Cambodia somehow “changed my life” or “broadened my perspectives on issues facing …” (phrases all too often heard in university applications and social media posts alike) those 2 weeks were spent with some of the most genuine and caring people in this world. What the trip did teach me was the importance of learning before acting. Fortunate to say, my guides Claire and Yut were some of the best role models of my life, and their thinking, positivity, mindset, and lessons resonated with me. Of these, the singular, most memorable lesson is that of learning before you make change. On our trip, before diving into a service project, we chose instead to spend days learning about the fascinating country of Cambodia, dissecting the word “culture” into its components. Certainly, while differences in topics such as language and food are apparent, it was only through a thorough education on Cambodia’s history and current issues, that we were able to more holistically understand both the reasons for service placements, and pinpoint the amazing plus-points of the country. We spoke with NGO organizers on issues such as the country’s social and economic visions and challenges, gender inequality, empowerment of youth through technology, traditional mindsets and visions for life, and viewpoints on both familiar and world issues. And we did group activities exploring the drastic wealth stratification within the world. For me, the Cambodia trip was a fascinating opportunity to observe the history, culture, and people of the country, as well as an opportunity to learn, and an opportunity to immerse myself into their lives – even if for a brief time.

What the Cambodia trip did do, however, was far more than just broaden my perspective: it taught me an essential mindset. What I learned on this trip was less about doing things, but more about the mindfulness, self-reflection, and humble lessons I have taken away from a society far more than the North American stereotype of a “poor country”. While I certainly didn’t learn about every element of Cambodian culture, it provided me with a lingering gift and craving to learn. To take everything in, instead of being in a hot-headed rush to do change the world.

Reflecting upon myself, I now fully realize my naivety, and this story is a story of my journey of thinking throughout the trip and beyond. On a final note, as a 16-year-old, humbly, please take any pessimism and lessons I have taken here with a grain of salt, and I deeply respect other perspectives and ask you to share your viewpoints and opinions on this post. As a last word, certainly, there is more to learn, however, the future generation of volunteers are bright and optimistic, ready to take in and take on the world!


Daniel Ma is a grade 10 student currently attending Appleby College in Oakville, Canada, where he recently went on a trip to Cambodia with the educational travel company Where There Be Dragons, opening his eyes to the fascinating potential of volunteer tourism (If done correctly). In Canada, Daniel is an avid participator in volunteer initiatives, photography, and international councils such as Round Square, which sparked his motivation to travel in Cambodia!The featured image shows the beach of Koh Pdao island.

Transformative Learning and Learning Service

Kempie Blythe works in the field of international experiential education and transformative learning. In this post, she explores the ways in which looking at experiences abroad through a transformative lens can help better understand and facilitate the learning process.


While “transformative travel” has become a buzzword over the past few years to describe international sojourns with a personal development focus, the concept is far from new. International and experiential education have been fostering these types of experiences abroad for decades.

For some, the prospect of “transformation” – the opportunity to change – is greatly appealing. We are drawn to volunteer, travel, or study abroad for a multitude of reasons, but often a core motivation, at least in part, is the prospect of our own personal transformation through encountering unfamiliar places, cultures, and peoples.

In my teens and early twenties, I was (and still am) a change-seeker. I sought out to opportunities to travel and study in destinations that were seemingly so different than my own in order to shock my system, prompt me to question why I held certain beliefs to be “true,” and think more deeply about who I wanted to be. Although I tried to be a gracious guest in these host cultures, my travels were definitely selfishly motivated by my own desire for learning, challenge, and change. These experiences felt transformative and altered my conception of the world, although I did not necessarily have a context to understand transformative learning until later on.


What does it mean to have a “transformative” experience? In 1978, Jack Mezirow developed the Transformative Learning Theory to explain the processes by which adults change their perspectives to become more inclusive and discerning. A key element of a transformative learning experience is working through what Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma” in which learners are confronted with a situation or concept that highlights the limitations of their previously held beliefs. This dilemma challenges them to engage in critical reflection and dialogue on the nature of these beliefs, ideally resulting in a more open worldview.

As a personal example, I participated in a study abroad program centered on learning about indigenous perspectives and movements across four continents. Although I was there to learn and was not planning on engaging in any sort of service activity, I found myself frustrated by taking so much wisdom from our hosts with very little to give. Perhaps I was feeling the imbalance of the varja – “learning without action is selfishness.” While I understood my place as a student in theory, I still had a yearning to contribute to the movements we were learning about, yet I did not know how to “help.” It was the first time I confronted the reality that my involvement, if any, in these spaces abroad was not asked for and often was not wanted. Solidarity was appreciated, but more often than not our hosts across continents would urge us to take this learning back home and appropriately apply it in our home contexts. This experience challenged my previously-held notions of development and autonomy. It also prompted me to critically examine my own positionality, privilege, and power. This is not to say that this transformative learning was complete. Rather it was a new understanding that led to changes in my thoughts and behaviors, but continues to be an ongoing  learning process in need of deeper critical reflection, dialogue, analysis, and integration.

In the context of volunteering abroad, Learning Service appropriately asks us to engage in transformative learning by confronting some of these potential disorientating dilemmas before setting foot on foreign soil: Why are we drawn to engage in service abroad? What are our expectations? What do we know about the context? This approach ultimately asks us to confront the limitations of and expand our knowledge before making a decision to volunteer abroad. Whether or not you choose to go abroad or engage in service, this critical reflection process can be transformative in itself.


In my opinion, facilitation through this transformative learning process is crucial. It is invaluable to have a facilitator (or at least resources like Learning Service) to guide us through these moments when our minds are trying to justify our less than culturally appropriate decisions and reaffirm our current belief systems. No matter how ripe we are for learning, our minds tend to hold on to our current worldviews in order to maintain a homeostasis of understanding the world and our role within it. We understandably resist entering into the gray areas of the unknown and holding contradictory narratives. Experienced facilitators can help us recognize our potential blind spots, navigate through challenging moments, and support us in translating our more expansive perspectives into actions as ultimately our learning is only as useful and powerful as the way it impacts our future decisions and behaviors.

We must also keep in mind that transformative learning abroad does not always align with responsible and sustainable travel. As guests in foreign land, we must move beyond our own personal development and, as Learning Service advocates for, critically consider our impact.This is something I thought less about in my youth, but became vital to my own learning and practice as an international experiential educator. Is our transformation coming at a cost? Are we, intentionally or unintentionally, imparting change on host communities? Are host communities willing participants in this change? Are their voices heard? How might historical factors such as colonialism impact their decisions and perspectives? These are the questions we must be continually asking ourselves and our hosts. In my opinion, if travel experiences are to be truly transformative they cannot overlook these issues of privilege, power, equity, and social justice. These are often the critical moments of deep and sometimes painful disorienting dilemmas in which we are forced to confront our deeply embedded cultural biases and this can ultimately lead to profound change.

I think there is little doubt from anyone who has traveled, studied, volunteered, or lived abroad that travel has the potential to transform. Feeling guilty about seeking this change ultimately will not serve us. It is admirable to engage in experiences with the desire to becoming more tolerant and open. Yet as the Learning Service approach emphasizes we have the responsibility to engage with this process in a conscious, critical, and sustainable way, actively questioning, reflecting, and learning throughout the process.


Kempie Blythe is the founder of Transformative Travel Consulting, which provides customized capacity building and professional development services to strengthen global education programs. She collaborates with schools, organizations, and individuals to intentionally design, implement, and evaluate transformative experiences abroad. With over a decade of field experience designing, leading, and managing international experiential education programs, Kempie is passionate about creating experiences that adequately challenge and support participants in their transformative learning process while respectfully engaging with host cultures and communities.