Your “Moral Tourism” Volunteering Essay Shouldn’t Have Gotten You Into College

As I complete my first month as an Amherst College first year, I’ve noticed that the topic of the college application process still hasn’t quite left my mind. Whether through the tours of high school students or Voices of the Class show from Orientation weekend, I’ve had frequent reminders of the Common Application essay that I worried over for three months.

According to the Common Application website, the most commonly used prompt is the fifth: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth…” During the college application process, I read several essays responding to prompt five, and soon realized that this prompt lends itself well to a very specific type of essay: the Volunteering Abroad Essay.

It’s easy to imagine the narrative these essays follow: a student with a passion for helping others discovered more about that generous, worldly part of themselves when they travelled to a developing nation and formed connections with the people that lived there. The essay’s form is ideal for students who hope to present themselves as so-called “global citizens.” These short-term international volunteering opportunities, however, shouldn’t be fodder for application essays. They are similar to the programs I encountered while trying to plan the gap year I took between high school and Amherst.

As we look at the “savior complex” these sorts of essays invoke, we must begin to question the purpose of these trips as means of self-presentation. The concept of walking into foreign countries and “raising” locals out of their poverty is a fundamentally flawed one, and two-week excursions with lofty goals do little to influence the greater world, though they are often presented otherwise. In fact, even with the best of intentions, trips and programs that promote international voluntourism can harm communities and prohibit actual progress, especially if volunteers are ill-prepared. This is not to discount the emotional connection that can come from international volunteering opportunities. Students who travel abroad for short periods of time will no doubt meet people unlike those who live in their hometown. But how can we continue to validate these trips if they mostly benefit the white tourist?

Not only is the practice of international voluntourism harmful, but the way that it is presented in the “international experience” essay also ranges from slightly uncomfortable to dangerous. The problem is that the typical “global citizen” essay doesn’t tackle the complicated ethics surrounding short-term-volunteering, or discuss the potential colonizing or mono-cultural impacts of sending hordes of well-intentioned but ill-prepared young people abroad. The presentation of people in developing nations as poor and needy dehumanizes them – the antithesis of that connection which these trips are designed to enforce. Why should an ideal college student feel an obligation to “help out” and “do their part” abroad, and how is that related to their sense of privilege?

It’s time to stop writing one-dimensional essays about international volunteering and change the narrative around service trips. Being interested in working abroad is not an inherently bad quality, but it’s not a simple one either. Taking advantage of opportunities to travel and work in other countries should not be a decision you make lightly. Let’s stop presenting it as one.