The Faux Pas of the Well-Intentioned Westerner

A peek into the realities of “helping those less privileged”

“The new thing Admissions Officers are looking for is a hook,” the college counselor at my College Prep school proclaimed. A crowd of attentive parents nodded eagerly and scribbled down notes as their Ivy-League bound children feigned interest while texting secretly below the tables. “They want to see that you are passionate about something—something unique—and are taking initiative to do it. They want to see it in your list of extra-curriculars, and they want to see it in your personal statement. ”

Ah, the personal statement. For a group of white, wealthy, and sheltered teenagers like my high school classmates and me, this 500-word menace was the subject of many heated conversations and sleepless nights. How does one distinguish one’s self as a member of a group so homogenous and so privileged? For many, the answer was “service”—increasingly, in a country other than our own.

For most, this idea was rooted not only in a desire to alleviate the pressures of the college application process, but also in a genuine desire to “do good.” Helping those less privileged. Teachers, school administrators, and even our parents had been urging us to do that our whole lives. And if we also happened to get a weeklong trip to Ecuador or Senegal and kick-ass college applications out of it, then who were we to complain, right?

For unrelated and unremarkable reasons, I did not participate on a “service trip” while in high school. In fact, I never really thought about service until I took a gap year before college and spent three months in Nepal. In doing so, I was able to learn firsthand about development. For the first time, I started to think critically about the involvement of Westerners (read: foreigners, aliens, members of a group in power) in “third-world countries.” I started to see the parallels between the euphemistic “civilizing” missions of European and American colonialism and white people with generous intentions traveling to help brown people abroad in the 21st century. Helping those less privileged.

I visited rural village communities that were days’ walks away from roads, and I felt the immeasurable distance, the unyielding barrier that existed between those people and myself. We were each speakers of a different language, practicers of a different religion, livers of a different lifestyle. I developed an immense appreciation for the silent, laughably unproductive interactions we exchanged. I developed an understanding of myself as an outsider.

In hindsight, this was an integral and formative step in my personal, ongoing process of attempting to understand development and attempting to understand my position as a wealthy, educated, American who wants to “do good” in the world.

A year later, a close friend and I spent our winter vacation from college attempting to travel through 4 developing countries in 4 weeks. As we planned the trip, we talked about making our best efforts to “help out” and make a positive contribution while we were there.

We realized, quickly, that we possessed neither the vocational and language skills, nor the knowledge of local circumstances, nor the amount of time to give necessary to affect positive change on any level greater than the interpersonal. We learned that sometimes, the best way to “do good” is to do nothing at all. At times this made me feel like a selfish traveler, but I knew that, under these circumstances, the best way to affect positive change was to be friendly and kind to the locals with whom I interacted and do nothing more.

Without even leaving the U.S., I have been able to continue my personal education on this topic through an online resource called Learning Service. It was founded by Westerners who traveled abroad at young ages with desires to “do good” and who have spent years living in developing countries and dedicating their lives to these issues. It offers toolkits, videos, and an upcoming book all designed to help the well-intentioned Westerner “develop the skills and mindsets they need to be of ‘service’, not just for a few weeks on a volunteer trip, but for the rest of their lives.”

As a “well-intentioned Westerner” myself, I have found Learning Service, in addition to my travel experience, to be an invaluable resource. I want to be a positive contributor to the wellbeing of humanity and the earth—and I’m sure many of you feel the same way. I believe that cultural exchange can be achieved in a way that is beneficial for both parties, and I believe that we, the human race, are still in the process of discerning the exact ways in which we can do that.

My studies, my travel, and my writing of this article are conscious decisions I make with the intention of furthering my place in the unending process of becoming educated on issues of development, social justice, and human interaction. I invite and I implore any of you who are interested in the same to join me in this journey, engage critically with these issues, and share your discoveries with those around you.

Learning Service is currently running a video campaign and contest to increase engagement in issues of international volunteering. View the first out of six here.

Rebecca Waxman is currently a student at Wesleyan University who misses her hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area deeply and the towns to which she has traveled abroad even more.