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Next year I am planning on studying abroad for a year to work on the languages that I’m studying (Spanish and Arabic). In college, through watching all the volunteer options and talking to my international friends, I have become really aware of how problematic volunteering abroad can be. There is a problem in this country with how Americans in general approach “helping” people in other countries. Often the programs are designed to cater to the volunteers, not the needs of a community that might be better off if the volunteer had just donated the price they spent on the trip. I don’t think that any of this is malicious, but it is degrading to people who Americans try often to “save” by vacationing and volunteering in their community for a week. The speech, “To Hell with Good Intentions,” is really strong on this point.

Recently, I have been curious about how the problem translates into studying abroad. I do believe studying abroad is better than volunteering because, if it involves real interactions with a host country (like direct enrollment or living with a host family), it can create a genuine connection across borders. However, if someone travels to another country and stays within an American bubble, I can see it becoming really insensitive and intrusive. In this, I’m specifically talking about non-European countries or trips to countries with the intention of "helping" the people there. I think it’s a delicate balance that all comes back to respect, cultural sensitivity, and being self-aware.

 

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