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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