Creating an impactful international service experience

Faculty member Eliza Wethey serves as the Associate Director for Global Engagement.
Eliza Wethey

Posted on March 15, 2016

Questioning international service

The popularity of international service work on college campuses and throughout American culture has brought attention to important social issues and humanitarian crises outside the U.S.

However, many have long criticized the effectiveness of these types of trips and raise a variety of important ethical questions.

Critics ask: do these projects have any community benefit? Or are the projects were designed only for the benefit of the volunteers?

Why spend thousands of dollars on a group trip when you could just make a donation to nonprofit in the country? What impact can an outsider have on a community they have no knowledge of? Why travel abroad at all when there are plenty of pressing issues to tackle in the U.S.?

At VT Engage, we grapple with these questions when considering any service trip, but especially when we travel abroad.

Below, Eliza Wethey, VT Engage’s Associate Director for Global Engagement, describes her recent trip to the Dominican Republic and breaks down how we design these trips to benefit both the community and our students.

Partnering with a strong organization

After months of preparation – Skype calls with our community partner, pre-trip meetings with students and many logistical preparations – we were off to the Dominican Republic on January 6, 2016. It was my first time leading a trip from the U.S. to a developing country.

I spent many years on the partner side, receiving student groups, and it felt odd to be ushering a group of students through the airport, helping them through immigrations and customs to be met by someone else.

Community Service AllianceBut, it was comforting to know that most of my part was done. No worries for me about the bus arriving late or the projects not being organized, those kinds of issues would be dealt with by our local partner, Community Service Alliance (CSA).

The Community Service Alliance is a Dominican non-profit that was founded in 2004 by a Dominican and U.S. couple who were frustrated with international development interventions in the country.

They wanted to find ways to work at the grassroots level to be able to hear and understand a community’s needs. Their focus since then has been on public health interventions through a series of projects in three areas of the country. The three communities were chosen based on need, strength of local leadership, and interest from residents in working with a non-profit like CSA.

After talking with residents to determine what needs to prioritize, CSA developed focus areas:

  1. Improving access to clean water through water filter installation and training,
  2. Creating means to access to fresh vegetables and fruits through garden projects, and
  3. Empowering youth through baseball and vocational training.

Aligning with VT Engage’s values

Virginia Tech’s partnership with CSA began with the YMCA in 2005, and our center began working with them in 2012. CSA’s focus on long-term community development is key for our relationship; at VT Engage, we choose partners who develop community-driven projects, which is especially important in an international context.

Traveling to a work site in El Cerrito.
Traveling to a work site in El Cerrito.

Often, organizations will prioritize the volunteer group’s needs over what is best for the people they are there to serve, and not consider whether volunteers’ work will have a negative impact.

CSA’s staff members work in specific communities year round, including a small village outside Hato Mayor called El Cerrito, where we go each year.

Because of CSA’s strong development model, VT Engage trips are able to make an impact with only a week-long presence in the Dominican Republic with the knowledge that CSA’s staff is continuing to do follow-up on the projects that we were involved in.

On this trip, I traveled with 14 students, two student leaders and Angela Simmons, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs. Our students ranged in age from freshman to seniors, will majors ranging from Engineering to Religion and Culture to Aerospace Engineering to History.

The seniors leading the trip, Carolyn Vickers and Jared Latham, were chosen based on their work with our STEP UP program. In this program, student leaders are trained to work with partners, develop service programs, and lead reflection.

Student participants applied and were chosen through an interview process led by the student leaders in which they explored questions relating to their previous service experience as well as their motivations for service. Several of them had participated in other VT Engage trips, and others were new to us.

The service work & social issues

During this trip, our group focused four projects:

  1. Building a new community garden,
  2. Working with six families to build their family gardens,
  3. Installing a computer lab in the primary school, and
  4. Building the foundation for a future outdoor classroom.
Delivering computer equipment to El Cerrito's primary school
Delivering computer equipment to El Cerrito’s primary school.

These projects were the continuation of projects that, in some cases, started several years earlier and had evolved as CSA’s work continued.

The community garden is a new initiative designed to provide seedlings for the smaller family gardens at individual homes.

The computer lab was a long time in the making. Volunteer groups had donated computers to the primary school, but since the village doesn’t have electricity, the computers had gone unused.

CSA’s strong ties to the Ministry of Education enabled them to get a solar panel for the school to provide electricity for the computers.

By the time we left, we were confident that the projects we had started would continue with the CSA staff who visited El Cerrito to put on trainings each week.

Reflecting on the experience

Though I had lived in Peru for about eight years and spent about a year in Central America (in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama), I had never been to the Dominican Republic and wasn’t sure what to expect from the service work or the country itself. I was first struck by the rapid pace of the Spanish spoken in the country and the stark contrast between the capital city of Santo Domingo and the rural countryside in which sugar cane surrounds you on all sides.

While I felt that we had prepared the students during our weekly pre-trip meetings, for many of them, this was their first experience abroad.

These meetings discussed Dominican Republic history and culture, motivations for service, and community perceptions of service. However, once we arrived, it quickly became clear to me that there were many nuances about the Dominican Republic’s history and culture that I was not aware of.

CSA and local experts provided insightful lectures about the island’s history and their recent independence from the Haiti, and explained more about the tensions between the two countries. They also discussed tension with the U.S. dating back to the 1960s, when the U.S. invaded with 22,000 troops to forestall the establishment of a “communist dictator.”

Group pose by a family garden
After installing a garden at one of the six family homes, our students and CSA staff pause for a group photo.

We also learned more the importance of baseball in the country and CSA staff members’ personal experiences training to try out for Major League Baseball as a way out of poverty. The emphasis on baseball was evident during our trip; there were signs for training centers all over, and numerous fields in each town (with an apparent absence of soccer fields.)

One of CSA’s focuses, vocational training and empowering youth to stay in school while also training for baseball, is crucial as way for youth to have alternatives if their hopes for being drafted into the majors aren’t realized.

Throughout the week, our students were pushed to question their notions of service and privilege. For most of them, access to education, running water, or food was never an issue.

Many of the children we met during the trip mentioned that after eighth grade they no long be able to go to school. Since the nearest high school was over an hour away, they would need to find a way to get there; their families could not afford to pay the bus ride, and the government does not provide transportation.

We grappled with these and other questions in our evening reflection sessions as students attempted to understand the broken education system. We debated the Hatian bateys (sugar cane communities), and discussed how much of the sugar we purchase in stores in the U.S. comes from these systems of indentured servitude.

Haitians come to work in the Dominican Republic with the hope for a better life and pay, but are instead treated like slaves. They often have no access to education (though recently the sugar companies are building schools), and face discrimination and racism on a daily basis.

What’s next after returning home?

I believe that we all left a bit changed. We were forced to question our privilege, realizing that many things we take for granted in the U.S. are luxuries in the DR. Students noted a change in their perspective regarding service describing it as a “synergistic learning experience” in which service benefits both you and the community. They realized the importance of working with community members and the value they add to the project, as opposed to their initial perspective on service as being more transactional (where only the volunteer is adding value to the project.)

Painting the fence lining the village's baseball/softball field.
Painting the fence lining El Cerrito’s baseball/softball field.

Many also identified issues with our health and education systems in the U.S. as we reflected on the problems we saw abroad. Although we were only in El Cerrito for a week, many students gained intercultural competence skills that could take others years to learn.

Returning to the U.S. after such a powerful experience can be difficult as you are faced with questions about your trip.

It can be challenging to articulate the profound experience you had, and sometimes your friends and family aren’t interested in hearing the details of your story or can’t relate to your experiences.

To help students reflect after returning home, we met a few weeks after the trip to discuss reentry challenges. Additionally, our group plans to continue to meet throughout the semester, including planning a service event together, and forming an intramural softball team. Many are planning to learn a second
language and participate in future service immersion programs. They also report feeling more present, empathetic, patient and flexible in their daily lives.

Is international service worth it?

Are our trips perfect? No. But, we believe by carefully selecting and working closely with a partner that has a strong record of making an impact in a community, the groundwork is laid for a good partnership. Then, it’s up to us to make sure students are prepared for and educated on what they’ll encounter, and help them process their experiences along the way.

With the model for international service we’ve developed, we hope to make an impact on both the community we work in and the students who join us on the trip, while continuing to develop a long-term relationship with CSA.

My next stint leading a trip will be in May, for VT Engage’s first service immersion trip to Peru. I’m looking forward to returning to the country I lived in for so long, and to experience it through the eyes of our students.

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What does 1700 hours of service look like?

Erica Wood
Erica Wood

December 18, 2015 

Erica Wood finished her year of AmeriCorps service in early October. She served 1,700 hours over the past year in the VT Engage office as our College and University Liaison member.

During her term, she coordinated National Days of Service projects, professional development meetings for members of our AmeriCorps Network, and served on special projects with both of our community partners (Smart Beginnings New River Valley and the American Red Cross).

She graduated from Virginia Tech in spring 2014, and decided to join our network that fall for the inaugural year of the program.

The following post highlights some of her favorite moments, and chronicles the ups and downs of the past year. (Want some tips to make your AmeriCorps term great? Check out Erica’s article on the “don’ts” of AmeriCorps service.)

Thank you, Erica for your dedication to service, positive attitude, and work ethic- we enjoyed our time with you!

Why I applied to AmeriCorps

I thought about doing the Peace Corps after graduation, but I wanted to stay stateside, and serve in some capacity. I stumbled across AmeriCorps when looking for positions that were service related, tied into what I had done at Tech during undergrad:

From Erica’s application to AmeriCorps: My time in Blacksburg has been primarily based on service. My most recent volunteer position has been serving as a childcare provider and classroom teacher for my community church. I am able to watch the church community children while parents attend functions and/or attend the church service on Sundays.

For the past month, I have taught the children on topics ranging from friendship to having hope in difficult situations. This past year, I also served as the Undergraduate Representative to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. This position consisted of keeping an open line of communication between administrators, faculty, and students, giving quarterly reports to the Board, and planning outreach programs for the undergraduate population.

While this position was unpaid, I worked a minimum of 20 hours per week ensuring that the undergraduate voice was heard in university matters. I wanted to serve in this capacity in order to give back to a university that has given me so much.

(I’ve learned that) service helps us to grow into better citizens, people who can empathize and be compassionate towards everyone we interact with.

It enables us to see from different perspectives, breaks previous paradigms, and lean where we want to travel in life. For me, service has rewarded me in such ways.

When I applied for this position, I expected to do hands-on service with Smart Beginnings and Red Cross, and focusing student presentations and recruiting people from college campuses (including Tech). Reality was a bit different- and I really had to advocate for myself to get engaged in both organizations.

Expectations vs. reality…

AmeriCorps food drive 2014
AmeriCorps food drive 2014

This is a photo from the very first project that our network participated in.

Facilitating a food drive in conjunction with our AmeriCorps VISTA’s Hunger: A Call to Action month, we collected over 400 pounds of food for Feeding America.

I loved this day because the newness of everything was still around. I was excited to get to know everyone, we were doing some tangible service work in the NRV, and my AmeriCorps polo had yet to shrink in the dryer.



Slide forward a couple months, and here I am with Karlee, an AmeriCorps VISTA in our office.

Here we are, accidentally matching in our VT Engage shirts, preparing (more like playing in the rolling moving bins) for our office’s move from Burruss Hall to New Hall West.

Although Burruss was an older facility and further removed from the buzz of student life, I liked the office’s family feel and the connection to old VT campus.

At this point in my position, I realized my expectations for my position weren’t in line with what I was actually doing, and I was feeling confused about what my role should look like within the Network.

So, I started to advocate for myself to make sure I was involved in meaningful projects.

…shifting my expectations 

January – February

After re-aligning my expectations of what my position should be, I shifted my service focus to a different need within our Network: organizing our Network’s National Day of Service response to Martin Luther King Day. By this point, I had found also ways to help support both Smart Beginnings and the Red Cross.

The book drive we organized for our MLK Day efforts was quite successful! After collecting books for a couple weeks, we ended up with 1,226 total books, including 873 children’s books.

All of the books went on to build the libraries of childcare centers in the New River Valley.

A successful book drive!
A successful book drive!

At this point in my term, although it had taken awhile, it had sunk in with both organizations that I was a full time member, able and willing to help out both sides.

I ended up getting involved with the Red Cross when they needed someone to give a presentation to a youth group.

Me with fellow AmeriCorps member Michelle, and ERNIE, our friendly neighborhood ambulance robot.
Me with fellow AmeriCorps member Michelle, and ERNIE, our friendly neighborhood ambulance robot.

I was trained on how to deliver their Pillowcase presentation, which was a really fulfilling program for me to be engaged with. Pillowcase is a disaster preparedness presentation geared toward elementary school children.

Pictured on the left is a Red Cross volunteer recruitment dinner. It stands out to me because it highlighted the work that has been done in the New River Valley by the volunteers of the Red Cross.

Over 150 volunteers attended that night, including some who had volunteered with the Red Cross for over fifty years. At this event, I truly felt a part of something meaningful, and it was nice to see the collaboration of efforts quantify into something impactful.

When working with the Red Cross, direct service looks like home-fire prevention presentations, Pillowcase presentations, or fire canvassing. On my first fire canvassing experience, we knocked on the door of a trailer and waited about three minutes before the door opened.

We asked the woman if she had any working smoke detectors, and she said no. It turned out that one was not working, one was removed due to its incessant chirping (needed new batteries), and the last one had been ripped out of the wall due to proximity to the kitchen (went off once a day).

Smoke detectors truly save lives (three out of five of home fire deaths occur in homes without working smoke detectors), and helping to install some for this family felt really nice.

Erica and AlexHome fires are the most common disaster in Virginia (firefighters respond to 68 a day across the Commonwealth, and most of them are preventable), so these fire canvassing events can make a big impact.

Not all of our interactions were like this. Knocking on someone’s door to ask about their smoke detectors is awkward.

I did fire canvassing a couple of ways: sometimes we had a bit more legitimacy because we’d go around neighborhoods with firemen and a fire truck, other times we’d just show up in our Red Cross gear.

Not everyone would come to the door, even though we could tell someone was home. Other times, people would say they had working detectors, and that would be the end of the visit.


AmeriCorps is all about direct- service. I felt like I was doing the most impactful work when I was doing hands-on efforts like fire canvassing or installing this Little Free Library project in Radford, thanks to the Radford Rotary club.

Little Free Libraries encourage literacy by providing easy access to literature in common community areas.

Building a bird house


Steppin’ Out is an annual festival in Blacksburg. Most of the booths set up are by local merchants and restaurants.

I thought that it would be a good place to recruit for AmeriCorps members, but realized as the day went on that the audience we were hoping for (college students, community members with extra gaps of time in their schedule) wasn’t heavily present this day. The event ended up feeling like it didn’t have much of an impact.

However, a few weeks later, it turned out that two of our new members actually found out about the network via my table! After a year of recruiting, with oftentimes unremarkable results, this was surprising and uplifting.


StudentsI helped plan two events in honor of 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance. The first event was held on 9/11, serving with longtime VT Engage partner, Habitat for Humanity, on a build in Christiansburg, VA.

This was the first build to take place in the New River Valley area in several years.

The second event took place on 9/12 in partnership with the Red Cross in Roanoke, where we helped staff and participated in Roanoke Fire Department’s inaugural Memorial Stair Climb.

Stair Climbs provide a way for the community to remember the FDNY firefighters on 09/11 by climbing the equivalent of the 110 stories of the World Trade Center. The proceeds of these events help the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation create and maintain programs that support fire service survivors.

Do AmeriCorps. It’s worth it.

AmeriCorps has been challenging and rewarding. In addition to my service hours, I built relationships in the VT Engage office, Tech, and the wider NRV community.

Some of my favorite memories have been from messing around in the office (the constant sass, availability of Twix, smoothie runs, etc.) My year had ups and downs, but I walked away with relationships and memories to cherish.
Potato Drop Hunger Events


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