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Jan 24 2012

Alternative Student Break: Helping Rich Kids Feel Good About Themselves Since 2007

This is my column for the Daily Northwestern this week.

This week, students from all over Northwestern will be applying for Alternative Student Break, a program that sends students to other parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work for a week. ASB is popular because it’s so hard to find anything negative about it. Traveling! Helping poor people! Making friends! What’s not to like?

I’ll concede that ASB is a great learning experience and a good way to bond with other NU students. It’s important to make yourself aware of the difficulties people and communities face elsewhere in the United States and in the world. However, I’d stop short of viewing ASB as some grand act of charity, which is the way that many students seem to view it.

First of all, as volunteer work goes, it’s not cheap. Domestic ASB trips usually cost at least several hundred dollars while Hillel’s trip to Cuba this spring costs a whopping $2,900. That’s probably twice as much as I’ve ever had in my bank account, and I’m comfortably middle-class.

It seems that many NU students assume that several hundred bucks for a spring break trip is small change. After all, chances are that many of the students who will spend their spring break on ASB in Kansas City or Pittsburgh will have friends vacationing in Paris, Madrid or the Caribbean. But given that you could just as easily volunteer at no cost right here in Chicago (not exactly free of its own problems) or in your hometown, one really has to wonder about the sense of paying to volunteer elsewhere.

More troubling than ASB’s price tag is the implicit assumption it makes about service work: that it’s something wealthy people do for poor people. This assumption may seem like common sense at first; after all, what are poor people supposed to do? Help themselves?

Yes and no. I do believe that those with the resources to help improve their society should do so. Sometimes it’s the richer people who have the time and money to do things like march in protests, call their representatives in Congress, donate to charity and go on ASB trips. But I think that the highest level of helping is to help others help themselves, and sometimes that means making a commitment that lasts much longer than a week. It means becoming a mentor to a child at risk of dropping out of school or volunteering at a job skills training center for unemployed people. It means starting a ripple effect by helping people raise themselves up, so that they will keep rising long after you’re gone.

Although throwing money at problems rarely helps, there are still ways to use money to help people improve their own lives. Microlending, which has really taken off in recent years, involves giving small loans to people in developing countries who want to start their own business and make it out of poverty. Loans can be as small as $25 and Kiva.org, one of the most well-known microlending websites, boasts of about a 99 percent loan repayment rate. It’s like giving to charity, except you get your money back.

But I get it. Giving some money to a stranger across the world doesn’t make nearly as cool of a story as spending a week rehabilitating abused animals. Nobody’s going to gaze at you in adoration because you gave $100 to a man in Tajikistan so he can buy seed and fertilizer for his farm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have done a really important thing.

If you’re interested, NU even has its own microlending organization. It’s called LEND and it supports Evanston businesses. If I had several extra hundred dollars lying around, I’d invest it in this organization or in a Kiva loan. After all, when you take an ASB trip, a substantial amount of the fee you pay goes towards things like travel, lodging and food. What if you took all that money and invested it directly? Such an investment means that all the money you have to spend goes right to the people who need it most.

Just as ASB neglects the long-term view, it neglects the roots of societal problems, such as discrimination, ignorance and bad government policies. Are ASB programs helpful? Sure, to a certain extent, they are. But they treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The houses you build during your week on ASB may help people, but they do nothing to solve the problems that made those people homeless.

NU is quite an apolitical campus, but it still boggles my mind that many NU students love helping poor people so much but take so little interest in the government policies that keep those people poor. The sorts of changes our society would need to make to end poverty and make ASB trips unnecessary are much more far-reaching — and perhaps less compelling. These changes take years, and they include things like educating yourself and others, talking to members of Congress, starting campaigns and teaching your own children to vote intelligently and with empathy.

This is why I feel that ASB is really more about the students than about the people and communities they’re helping. It’s more about the students’ experience, their desire to learn about others, their need to feel helpful. To put it less charitably, it’s a way for rich kids to feel good about themselves.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t go on ASB trips. Go ahead and go. Have a great time. But always remember that your responsibility to the world doesn’t end after a week of building houses or tutoring kids.

2 comments

  1. 1
    Spanish Prof

    Oh yeah, the alternative spring break. They have them in my campus, too, although I think they are structured somehow differently (it is really cheap out of pocket, but students (as groups) are supposed to do a lot of fundraising to get funds). I have my own reservations regarding them, the first of which is that a student seems to be in charge and the leader of the group. They are required to have a faculty member traveling with them, but the faculty has no input whatsoever (except, I guess, take care if something really bad happens). I think I am more sympathetic to the ones inside the United States than those outside: it is more likely that a student will gain some perspective that their own country isn’t perfect if they see poverty in Appalachia (and I put this region in particular because it tends to be white poverty, so it breaks certain stereotypes), than if they go to an orphanage in Ukraine. I’ve seen ASB that go to El Salvador and partner with organizations that will tell them a lot of history and the US involvement in death squads in that country. I still prefer that they go volunteer in their own backyard.

  2. 2
    Mayor Gia

    Interesting. I had something like that in my college too, and there was no way I could afford to go on it — it just shows the kind of lifestyle these kids come from (where throwing down a couple of thousand dollars for a service trip is NBD).

    College kids are pretty self centered– I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing that the experience is for them and not the people they’re helping. It’ll plant the seeds in some, who will probably get interested in this type of work later in life. And other kids who don’t go on the trip will be interested in this type of stuff nonetheless. (I work for a nonprofit that does some of the work you talk about in your article).

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