This is a guest post by Liz Tuck, reflecting on her own long career in the volunteer travel sector.
Eleven years ago today I was readying myself to fly to Tanzania to spend a month teaching English in an island secondary school. Looking back, the thought process behind that decision settles somewhere between barbaric and ridiculous. I was an Educational Studies Undergrad at the time, studying not to be a teacher, but education and learning conceptually. I knew nothing about Tanzanian culture, the education system or curriculum, and not a single word of Swahili, but I really wanted to ‘help’.
My desire to do good through travel didn’t end there, a year later I spent a month in a Ghanaian orphanage, somewhat disappointed to discover that the children would be at school all day and not available to spend time with me until after 3pm. I continued onto a role in the volunteer tourism industry managing projects, setting them up in just a month, ready for new arrivals, ensuring that the visitors had plenty to do and felt worthwhile, above all else. I continued to a different organisation, one that had stronger support mechanisms and long-term aims and felt I had truly reached the top of the volunteer travel tree.
For eleven years I have been one of the biggest advocates for volunteering abroad – as long as it is done right, it’s great – has been my primary motto, as I shake off the criticism I see flying through the media. What’s shifted in that time however, is the meaning I hold to the concept of doing it right.
Two and a half years ago I moved into a role with World Challenge, one of the world’s leading school travel and expedition companies. I’d become disheartened by projects that depended on unreliable volunteer people-power, and priorities centred around customer service rather than the very communities they were intended to support. Throughout all of my years working with volunteers and communities overseas I had grown to understand that the real benefit lay in the change to the participants. Personal growth aside, I saw young people (and not so young adults) engaging with global issues and developing a greater understanding of their place in the world. Working with an organisation whose aim was to do just that, was an ideal fit.
This year I’ve moved into a new role at World Challenge, focussing on promoting best practice and responsible travel across all of their overseas projects. Once again I find myself challenging the concept of doing it right on a daily basis. I know now, that it is an ever-evolving notion, and am proud to be part of an organisation that not only acknowledges that, but invests resources specifically into seeking out the issues and implementing solutions. Though I can’t say exactly what the best way to engage with projects and global issues overseas is, I can say that the only way we will find out is by questioning our beliefs and challenging our preconceptions on a regular basis.
I’m certain that there is much more to come in this space, but it’s great once in a while to look back at my naivety all those years ago, when I thought that my presence in those Tanzanian classrooms was really going to help the students pass their exams, without even understanding what was required for them to do so.
Liz Tuck is the Community Partnerships Manager at World Challenge, a global provider for overseas school travel. Currently, Liz is working with colleagues, partners and consultants to develop a model for best-practice community engagement and embed responsible travel practices across the company’s portfolio. Previously, she worked for five years in the voluntourism sector in Ghana, South Africa, Mexico and Cambodia. The main image is a scene from Liz’s first trip to Tanzania.