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Alternative Spring Break: Not Just Voluntourism

All photos are those of the author.

Volunteering—one of my favourite activities. If you’re from Ontario, you probably first volunteered in high school to complete your graduation requirements. I’m in the same boat. I started volunteering at my old middle school and really enjoyed it. I quickly completed the 40-hour requirement, but continued to volunteer. By the end of high school, I had completed almost 1000 hours of community service!

University was a different story. The first two years were hectic and I couldn’t make the time to get as involved in the community as I wanted to. This year, however, I finally decided I needed to volunteer again. Crunched for time during the academic year, I applied for the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program and got in! I was very excited. I had always wanted to go on a service trip. I thought they were a great idea: you got to see a different country while helping someone in need. Plus, I had heard great things about the ASB program at Western. But when I started to share my excitement with others, I didn’t receive the same reaction in return. Instead, I was hit with judgment. Many questioned my intentions: was I going to volunteer or for voluntourism?—the latter was not positively perceived by many.

Voluntourism is a type of tourism in which the travellers also participate in volunteer work. Many regard this concept negatively, hence why many questioned the integrity of my trip. This doubt quickly washed away my excitement. I started to question the trip too; after hearing the concerns of others, I wasn’t sure it was going to be what it was advertised as. I’m writing this article to share my ASB experience and why I think this program is not just voluntourism. I want to provide some personal insights to change some of the negative air around foreign volunteer trips.

The ASB program provides participants with more than just volunteer experience. One of the main focuses of the trip is cultural exchange. You don’t just sign up, pay, pack your bags and off you go—there’s a lot more to it. You learn how to appropriately experience another culture. This is critical. As Canadians, we have a lot of privileges that we don’t realize or actively think about every day. When entering a foreign country, sometimes our perceptions and judgments are biased by these privileges, preventing us from fully taking in and appreciating another culture. Leading up to the trip there is a lot of training to prepare you mentally and emotionally to deal with what you will be experiencing. You learn that as a participant you are being granted the opportunity to experience someone else’s culture, not that people from another country are being granted the opportunity to have their lives fixed.

It’s important to understand that the purpose of the trip is not to go fix all the problems in another country. ASB participants go to help people in different countries, not change someone else’s way of life. The way others live their lives is different, but not wrong. We are helping them fixes some issues they need help with. The locals are the leaders and we’re the helpers—we could never help them resolve all the issues they’re working on within the short span of a week. We are there to learn and provide some help.

Apart from lending a hand, you get to experience a whole new culture with new people. The specialness of the trip brings you and your trip-mates close together. You meet new people, try new activities, learn new things, try new food, and more with your group. By the end of the trip, you have all experienced the ups and downs together. It can be a lot to take in, but the daily reflection is very helpful. The reflections are structured and well thought out. Reflections included journaling, hanging out and group discussion. They help clarify your thoughts and feelings, and you realize that others are feeling something similar. This is helpful because many parts of the trip can be overwhelming. The reflection process strengthens and supports your group.

Each trip has its own focus. I went to Trinidad this past reading week. The focus of the trip was community sustainability and development. Along with volunteering, exploring the culture and nature was another major focus. We swam in rivers, visited the ocean, went hiking, toured different types of communities, and visited a bird sanctuary.

Overall, my experience was positive. To me, ASB was more than just voluntourism. ASB allows you to not just travel to another place, but also experience a new culture. You develop new friendships and with these new friends you not only learn a lot about another country and the people that live there, but you learn about yourself. You understand your place in the global community and the power you have. You come back with a new outlook.

To learn more about ASB and hear about other trips, come out to the ASB showcase Wednesday, March 21st 2018 at the UCC.

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Medical Science and Ivey student at UWO  
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