Volunteer abroad: The benefits of flying the coop

cassieturtlesArticle written by Green Life Volunteers alumni volunteer Cassie Daigle.
Original Article here in the Red and Black.

The desire to travel resides in a lot of us as undergraduates, stemming from that nagging voice in our heads reminding us that following graduation, we may not get the chance—overshadowed by real world responsibilities that wait. Eventually, passports will end up at the bottom of a heaping pile of student loans that remind us that we simply can’t afford to be adventurous anymore. Despite these looming realities, setting aside as little as a few weeks to volunteer abroad while we still have the time boasts many benefits, and allows us to go beyond the confines of the college town we hold dear for the experience of a lifetime.

One of the major arguments against volunteering abroad is cost, which may be valid if programs are done through universities—some school-sponsored programs are packed with exorbitant fees and hidden costs. What many students don’t know; however, is that there are ways around the system. Instead of participating in a UGA volunteer program, I went through a Costa Rican organization to help with sea turtle conservation. To justify the costs, I found a professor who agreed to give me three hours of general elective credit for the course work associated with the experience. The costs for a month in Costa Rica came out at about the same as what I pay for a regular three credit hour course at UGA in the fall.

Some might argue that one could just send the money to a particular cause instead of what they plan on spending on a volunteer program. I beg to differ, most of the fees paid to volunteer programs go to the cause; the company that organizes the trip doesn’t magically absorb them in their entirety. If it did, how would volunteers be able to participate at all? Programs worldwide rely on the fees paid by these volunteers to supplement villages and communities that are often poor. The program I participated in within Costa Rica is one example.  One third of the income for the host village of Parismina, Costa Rica comes from the sea turtle project and the fees it receives from volunteers around the world.

While the problem of “voluntourism” exists, I don’t believe it takes away from volunteer abroad as a whole. Sure, nestled among kids who come with an agenda to try new things, there are those that are trying to find the best cell phone reception. While these individuals frustrate the purpose, they are still paying money that goes to a cause—whether or not they accept their fate. Fortunately, most that travel to volunteer do so with an open mind, and those individuals are the reason these volunteer programs are successful.

If we never take it upon ourselves to upend our daily routines and humble ourselves in volunteer work abroad, we risk losing awareness of our world. We can research and donate to a cause, but we don’t witness tangible change ourselves and are not really apart of the change. A mailed thank you card for a contribution doesn’t hold a candle to how volunteer abroad programs shape and mold people for the better. Behind my computer screen, I won’t get the opportunity to sit next to a five hundred pound leatherback sea turtle and witness her continue the cycle of life like I was able to. It’s important to experience living outside the country we are accustomed to, the same one where infants are practically exiting the womb holding the latest iPhone.

We are so consumed in a culture of consumption that we forget a simpler, more beautiful way to live life—through each other. We search for technology or worldly items to fill a void in our lives when in reality we should resort to helping others—whether it be people or animals. People look at me like I’m crazy when I mention the conditions I lived in while in Costa Rica, but is it so strange to think I’m not the crazy one? I helped efforts to save an endangered species, and if that reality must come with braving huge bugs and cold showers I’ll pick the sea turtles every time—and I’ll pack extra bug spray.

— Cassie Daigle is the opinion editor at The Red & Black