We often use “service learning” to describe volunteer programs and international volunteer travel, emphasizing learning through service—service that teaches life lessons that help both the traveler and the world. The profound lessons that international volunteering can bring is one of the main reasons that academic institutions are incorporating it—and sometimes requiring it—in coursework.
But the concept of service learning is outdated. We are firm believers in the power of international travel to help people gain experience, perspectives, and skills that can help them improve the world, but think that going on a trip billed as “serving others”—when the travelers themselves are often the ones who disproportionately benefit—can undermine these effects.
Globalization, mass communication, and ease of travel have brought about a new sense of global interconnectedness, often accompanied by an increased sense of responsibility. Traveling to a place that exposes people to the realities of poverty and other global issues can spark complex emotions and a desire to take action. In our research on volunteer travel, we found that the motivation behind international volunteering was overwhelmingly the desire to “help” or “give back.”
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