Courtney, thank you for this thoughtful piece. I think think you strike a good balance between the risks inherent in study abroad programs and the potential benefits. It all comes down to how the relationships between all the stakeholders are designed, what kind of training the US students get on the way in, and their ability to approach the whole endeavor with humility and empathy and realize that they are there to learn primarily, and to support when possible — but not to “save” anyone. They are the primary beneficiaries of the program. Part of getting the relationship structure right is recognizing that the host organization has to invest a lot to make it all work, and needs to be compensated for these investments. In general I am very weary of “free” programs where the host organization is “excited” for the “free labor”-to me that is a bright red flag that the whole structure has not been thought through carefully.
I am admirers of Robin Pendoley at Thinking Beyond Border and Abby Falik at Global Citizen Yaer. We run a program based on many of the same principles and values in Nicaragua at our organization blueEnergy. I would also like to recognize just a few others that I think are approaching study abroad in a very positive, effective manner: Willy Oppenheim at Omprakash, Jacen Greene at Impact Entrepreneurs (Portland State University) and Eric Popkin at Colorado College.