Author Claire Bennett Shares Perspective on International Volunteer Travel

Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

Poorly planned service programs also fail the students themselves," said Claire Bennett author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel. Bennett spoke about her new book and her experiences designing meaningful international service learning programs for students in Nepal and Cambodia during a talk titled “Learning Service” on October 24. The event was geared toward the discussion of how to do service well while abroad, the perils of failing to craft appropriate and respectful volunteering trips, and how to inspire the right kind of volunteering among youth. The talk was hosted by the Office of International Programs (OIP) and the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement. 

Bennett began her talk with a story of a Australian volunteering trip in Cambodia that went horribly awry due to the organizers not having a good understanding of the community they were meant to assist, their needs, or their cultural sensitivities. While the students were meant to paint a school, they really ended up burdening the locals, offending them through their dress, and not actually painting the school effectively .“Everything that could go wrong, did ... And the worst part of this story was that the students left thinking that they had done a good job,” explained Bennett, and then went on to explain how these situations could be avoided with the right training and disposition toward international volunteering. 

Volunteering, Bennett claimed, often does not have a feedback loop that enables volunteers to learn from their experiences, as they often leave without considering the real consequences of their actions. “Often, we create experiences for students while overlooking the cause,” Bennet said. This is the phenomenon known as voluntourism, where people travel ostensibly for the purpose of volunteering, but often prioritize their own interests and experiences over those of their host community while doing so. 

This can be prevented, said Bennett, through the right kinds of questioning and planning, and through considering what she called her “three mantras.” These are to learn about the area  with which you are concerned before you go, emphasize learning from the beneficiaries of the volunteering, not just helping them, and refraining from thinking that you can make a large impact in a short period of time. Realizing the limits of our actions is essential to a more measured and beneficial volunteer experience for all, Bennett said. “The world is a classroom” Bennett said toward the end of her talk “and its people are our teachers.”