Service trips are common at ZIS: the CWW trips to Ghana, Nepal and Sri Lanka are always something students have to look forward to. I feel lucky to go to an international school, where funds enable usto go on these types of trips. Of course, I’m very grateful to be able to have access to these trips, but I can’t help feeling an internal conflict when on them. Who are these trips really for? The poor kids in these distant, “exotic” locations, or for the rich, spoiled kids of Zurich International School?
Please don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely love these trips. I get to travel, and at least feel like I am helping out. But, the reason why I love them might be the exact thing that is wrong with them.
The reality is that these are short term service projects, which will do little to benefit the lives of the people we are supposedly helping. Short term service can do more harm than help, as you are basically interrupting people’s daily lives, schedule, and essentially way of life to provide your assistance. Furthermore, this assistance does not make much of an impact. Then, when you leave, everyone has to return to their normal schedule, something that can be hard to do with an interruption.
I went to Ghana a year and a half ago. We spent most of our time at Bosomtwe International School, our sister school, that we often raise funds for. We did do some service, like painting fences and hoeing the gardens, but mostly, we played with the kids. The children were taken out of their scheduled classes to spend time with us. The amount of excitement spilling out of them was amazing. Their simple way of life left us astounded, and we too, felt an indefinite amount of luck that we were given the opportunity to come here.
Then the day of our departure arrived. The children were heartbroken. It’s difficult to understand, but these children look forward to us coming every year. This made me feel like we had unnecessarily taken these kids on an emotional rollercoaster; we acted like rich people from a rich country who were there to “save the day”.
Did the children really need this in their lives? Even the service we did, the painting and the digging, was unnecessary. Those teachers at the school, or even the kids themselves, could have without a doubt painted the fence better than we did, and they could have certainly drawn straighter lines than we did on that basketball court.
The truth was this: The trip to Ghana was not a trip to help them, but it was to help ourselves. We wanted the experience of going to a distant country. We wanted to feel noble, like we had done something good for the world. We wanted to make ourselves feel a little less guilty about the privileged lifestyle we lead by saying we have gone on a so called “service” trip.
But, the biggest gift the trip gave us was helping us understand the way of life in another country. How materialism does not result in happiness, and that happiness can be obtained by simplicity. We learnt about culture, saw the sights of Ghana, and developed strong friendships with the kids there. We were clearly able to see the strong contrast between our lives here in Switzerland and the lives of those kids in Ghana.
Whenever I volunteer, or go on these types of trips, the same question always flashes into my mind: how much of a difference am I actually making? Unfortunately, there’s no way to tackle this question, as much as my logical type A brain would like to. One cannot quantify how much of an impact they are having. But, most of the time, I realize that it’s only a little.
This article is not meant to discourage you from volunteering, or participating in service related activities – it is simply to make you aware. Definitely volunteer this school year; it’s an enriching experience, and you’ll gain loads from it, like I did from Ghana. But don’t walk away from it thinking that you are the most marvelous, moral person, because you’ve done your part to save the world. That’s just ignorant. Force yourself to ask these types of questions. Realize that your work is for yourself more than the people you are supposed to be helping. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is unequivocally something you need to be conscious of.
Ishika Gupta ’21