As a proud Pioneer, our motto: “Private University for the Public Good” is something that has resonated with me since my first quarter on campus. I internalized the idea that we are supposed to train and self-educate at school so we can then go into the world and make it a better place. I’ve always been impressed with how many of our students are involved in philanthropy, the way that our Greek community makes it a priority, and all of the opportunities that DU presents to involve ourselves in our surrounding community.
However, things get a little sticky when you start taking that motto to the international community. What I mean by that is, I want to ‘help’ and I want to make the world ‘better’. How do I do that without stepping on the culture and identities of others? How can I help, internationally, without living out the negative criticisms of ‘voluntourism’
Last Winter Interterm I spent three weeks in Dharamsala, India, teaching English and computer skills to Tibetan refugee women. I signed up through DU’s International Service Learning programs, and went with a group of 15 DU Undergrad and Graduate students. We were a diverse group of students from all across campus, but all came together to study Tibetan Non-Violence, and to volunteer with a Dharamsala Non-Profit for the month of December.
My trepidation before the trip was whether or not my three weeks would actually matter to these women. I was concerned that I was going on this trip to make myself feel good about helping the world, regardless of whether or not I was actually even helping anyone. I bought into the idea that all of us university students are travelling internationally more for selfish reasons than to be selfless. I began to view my trip as just another exercise of privilege.
I had a lot of inner turmoil about my choice, and suffered from a bit of self-hate as a voluntourist. However, after coming back from my trip, and after interacting with the community, I learned a few very encouraging things:
- Teaching IS helping. Regardless of the fact that I felt 3 weeks was not nearly enough to help anyone, it was three more weeks that those women could be in a classroom with a native English speaker. The Tibetan Women’s Association didn’t have any other teachers during December, so I was actually able to provide them with a tangible service they would have gone without, had I not been there.
- Good Intentions can create positive results. Many critics of voluntourism bring up the idiom that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I get it. Maybe 18 year old college students with no trade skills aren’t necessarily better at building houses than local trained (but unemployed) carpenters. But… does that mean that we are useless? I don’t think so. I think that the services provided through non-profits often do greatly help communities.
- The power of story-sharing. Through interacting with the Tibetan refugee community, so many individuals repeated how cathartic and healing it can be to share their story. In a community facing oppression or expulsion from their home territory, these individuals have felt vindicated by receiving support from the international community. The opportunity to sit and let them tell me their story, no matter how serious or how silly, was enjoyable for me, and seemed immensely valuable to them. They knew that I couldn’t go home and demand political change from President Obama. But we could feel mutually satisfied through connecting with someone across cultures.
After my experience living in India for 1 short month, I felt rejuvenated that we truly can make a difference, that DU students interacting with the international community can benefit everyone involved, and that I’m still proud as ever to be a Pio that takes my university experience beyond the borders of our campus.
Tiffany Wilk, Study Abroad Assistant