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Travel | November 7, 2012

Traveling, serving, learning


Schools encouraging students to visit other countries for a cultural volunteer experience

Andrew Rotolo making lunch in Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy photo)

Andrew Rotolo had little time to think. A young boy with a deep cut on his foot had just limped into the Kenyan nursing office where the Duke University student was spending his international service trip. The boy desperately needed water, a scarce resource, to clean his wound of blood and dirt. After saying a quick prayer, Rotolo managed to find a bucket and began to wash the boy's feet.

A few summers before, Samantha Young trembled as she peered out over the dense treetops. She could hardly fathom the safety of the platform would soon disappear as she ziplined through the Costa Rican rainforest. Conquering her fear of heights, Young let out a breathy scream and sailed through the forest, an exhilarating experience. The opportunity was one of many adventures Young embraced during a month volunteering abroad, partnering with a conservation agency to protect sea turtles.

As more and more college students pursue new international and cultural experiences, many decide to focus their travel on service projects and volunteering. Universities increasingly weave international service into their curriculum. Organizations that offer volunteer trips focus on creating experiences that are both valuable to students and beneficial to the communities in which they serve.

Young traveled to Costa Rica in 2008, the summer after her freshman year at the University of Oregon, through International Student Volunteers (ISV). The program organizes sustainable development projects around the world and has sent more than 20,000 student volunteers to various countries. For two weeks, Young worked with WIDECAST, an organization that helps recover and sustain sea turtle populations. She spent the remaining two weeks on an adventure tour, ziplining, rappelling down waterfalls and white water rafting.

ISV programs aim to ensure that projects actually benefit local communities. With an office in every partnering country, residents participate in the discussion about what projects would effectively meet the communities' needs, said Simon Costain, ISV's international marketing director. In this way, it's not all about the students' experience but achieving goals on behalf of the communities, he said. Most of the projects focus on sustainable development, income development and conservation.

The variety of projects encourages students to possess a greater awareness of responsible living. Students often return home with stronger inclinations to recycle, conserve resources and promote volunteerism, Costain said.

While ISV is not affiliated with any university, some schools have incorporated international volunteerism into their campus culture. In 2007, Duke University created DukeEngage, a program that allows students to seek an immersive volunteer experience in the United States or abroad for a minimum of eight weeks. A $30 million endowment funds the program and covers all travel expenses.

Rotolo, a junior at Duke, traveled to Nairobi, Kenya the summer after his freshman year to work with an agency that serves youth in extreme poverty. For 10 weeks, Rotolo cooked meals, applied first aid and mentored Kenyan students while experiencing a "raw sense" of urbanization's effects on the city's people.

Rotolo acknowledged that the trip was about more than simply dishing out maize into bowls. Instead, he came to understand how laboring alongside people of other countries can bridge cultural gaps and continue the mission that Christ began on earth: "When you look at scripture, it's pretty clear that our lives are largely supposed to be given to serving others in the world," Rotolo said.

Though he does not believe that everyone is called to serve internationally, Rotolo feels blessed for the "sobering" opportunity to work alongside Kenyans to ease the poverty that plagues their home country. Students are valuable in that they bring additional resources to projects around the world, said Eric Van Danen, director of communications for DukeEngage.

Many Westerners tend to think that money will solve the world's problems, but it's difficult to give money well, said Greg Parsons, global director for the U.S. Center on World Mission. Partnering with local communities provides a much more effective approach, he said. Instead of simply donating money, organizations should strive to establish tools and programs that communities can continue with their own resources. Collaboration is key.

Many highly intelligent people live in developing countries but struggle to initiate projects because of a lack of resources, Rotolo said. International service provides opportunities for collaboration among cultural groups.

Because communication is vital for the programs' success, engaging a culture's people leaves an imprint on the students, Van Danen said: "The chance to make a difference, if even just a small difference, and learn from communities through these experiences are what student participants tell us makes their engagement meaningful and memorable."

Rotolo will never forget the experience of helping the young boy who needed simple medical attention: "There was nothing else I wanted to do but wash his feet. It was one of the first times that I had really started to feel what it's like to have a heart like Christ had for people in situations who need love and care."