Can a Teenager Really Change the World on a High School Service Trip?

Yes, but not necessarily the way you think. When I came up with the name for Atlas Workshops, I was sitting in my apartment in Nairobi, Kenya. I had just spent the day in the Kibera Slum – famous for being the largest slum in Africa – working on a research project with local friends for small businesses in the community. While in Kibera for the day, we saw a group of American students on a high school service trip repainting a local school. Kibera has lots of challenges, but a lack of craftsmen and painters isn’t one of them. High School service trips are increasingly popular, but the spectrum of quality and impact is huge. Before you decide to do a summer service imagining that you will “help children in Africa” or “volunteer at an orphanage in India,” there is a lot you need to think about first.

We started Atlas Workshops to provide students an opportunity to create real impact, but not by reinforcing the mindsets and problems often caused by traditional international service trips. We believe that innovation, collaboration, and creativity can lead to world-changing ideas, and that we need trips oriented in this way, not ones conceived based on what we perceive as someone else’s needs.

What could possibly be bad about volunteering on a high school service trip?

American High School students can be eager, smart, driven, and creative, and our Global Innovators Summer Trips harness this for real ideas and impact at home and abroad. But the major problem right now is that many potential student participants and their parents have a specific image of what international help and service looks like. These preconceived ideas frequently lead to choosing one of the following types of trips which may actually lead to more harm than good:

  1. Painting or Building a School, House, etc.: There are a lot of organizations that will put American students to work on manual labor service trips in other countries. Despite how often I read articles about the problems posed about this type of voluntourism, I still see these programs growing in popularity. The problem is that countries like Tanzania, Ghana, Haiti and India have plenty of man-power for this type of unskilled work. For the cost of the trip these students could have funded 10X the number of homes, and local craftspeople could have got a job. The value of a global trip should be greater than this for both the participant and the local community. On Atlas Workshops trips, we might include some hands-on work, but only because it builds relationships, helps our students gain understanding, or allows us prototype an idea.
  2. Working with Orphans: Volunteering in an orphanage is another type of summer service trip that attracts a number of students. Unfortunately, this too is an area that can be particularly problematic. In many countries, orphanages aredriven by demand from orphan volunteers. In some countries up to 60 percent of orphans have parents alive — but the demand of donations and volunteers makes sending a child to an orphanage a financially attractive prospect. We have a “no orphanage” policy on all Atlas Workshops trips — though we love to work with community leaders and good organizations who support youth and education efforts.
  3. Working with Animals: Volunteering with exotic animals in a poor country is another task that can be done more successfully by local community members with a long term connection to the animals and sanctuary. A place that really cares for their animals will be very selective when choosing volunteers, and this is another area where demand from volunteers creates these centers. If you aren’t donating more than the cost of your trip, you are the product and not the service. On Atlas Workshops trips, we occasionally work with animals if it is core to the project mission, but only with local, sustainable organizations that we can support – the result is that our time with them might be a lot less photo worthy.

Shifting the Discussion: What should a service trip look like?

On many of these high school service trips, students are coming from wealthy countries and communities to “help” a poor community.  This implies an assumption that a group of students can help people who are poorer than them, without a lot of relationship building and learning first. Global communities can benefit greatly from foreign support and partnership, but we need to begin by looking back at ourselves first. Poor communities don’t need wealthy laborers who have never used a hammer before, inexperienced childcare experts looking for a college essay topic, and novice animal keepers looking for Facebook photos.

This might sound a little bit harsh, but so are the the real outcomes of many well-intentioned service trips, despite best intentions. Sometimes the reaction to this information is to not travel at all. It is not our intention to advocate against traveling – rather, we want to encourage students to educate themselves and be mindful travelers.  Global impact has to start with ideas and learning, not just with assumptions and good intentions. We need curious, passionate students to be the next global innovators.

Looking Forward: What does the future of service trips look like?

Atlas Workshops hopes to shape the path for the future of service trips.  Our high school trips and Global Innovators Summer Trips aim to change the way students view the world through use of research, partnership, design thinking, and creative problem solving.  The trips often tackle specific problems in the fields of community development, sustainability, engineering, city planning, education, economics, technology, or health care. We are always looking at local challenges and global issues that impact communities around the globe, and we frequently turn the usual service trip paradigm on it’s head, challenging our students to take learnings and examine their own assumptions or their own communities.

By keeping our trips very focused, we help our students to become experts on their project as they learn about themselves and the world around them. This approach represents the future for service-learning and short-term service trips. Our goal is that some of our trips will lead to impactful projects in the short and long term, but that all of our students will return home equipped to work on big ideas, public service efforts, social enterprises, and careers that change the world.

So…yes! On the right kind of trip, we believe a teenager can change their world and even the world around them. To learn more about the types of trips we believe are effective in doing this, check out ourGlobal Innovators High School trips for 2016.