Short-term volunteers built a wall in a developing country. And it’s awesome.

When friends ask me what I do, it’s easy to see the negative reaction many of them have. Short term service learning trips have been given a bad name by a few organizations that do it poorly.

When I tell them I help develop programs like these for EF Educational Tours, their thoughts are predictable:

So you let privileged Americans feel good about themselves?

How much difference can a bunch of kids make? Especially in just a week?

I’ve heard about these; kids build a flimsy wall just to have it knocked down and rebuilt by the next group.

I’ve worked on programs in communities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and I am incredibly proud of the work that these unskilled “laborers” have done. There are three reasons why.

The customer is always right

And the customer is not just the American students. For me, the customers are also the communities we work with. If an American group wants something that conflicts with what the community wants or needs, I defer to the community. They are the ones driving the projects.

Long term commitment

The work doesn’t end when the students leave. If a building gets half completed by the end of the travel season in July, it doesn’t wait for students to come in February and complete it. When a student invests in a service learning tour, some of that money goes to ensuring that projects can continue year round — not just when groups are there.

Students are students, not laborers

When you compare student work to that of skilled laborers, of course it falls short. However, the goal is not just to get a lot of work done on the ground. It is also to make a change within the students themselves. That’s where the learning piece of service learning comes in.

The ripple effect that can start by building a wall in the Dominican Republic can lead to a summer volunteering, or a new recruit for the Peace Corps. It can lead a student to be more involved in their home community when they return. I know, because I’ve seen it. And for all the students who don’t take any of these larger steps when they return, the experience of rolling up their sleeves, getting out of their comfort zone, and working alongside people from a completely different culture is one that sticks with them. They draw on that experience when they make decisions about future jobs, or about where (and how) they want to travel with their families. When you take this long term effect into account, the impact that comes from a student becoming an engaged global citizen is simply amazing.

Building the wall

The wall in this particular story is at a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic. This organization is one of many that helps give students the education and skill development that is lacking in their typical half-day of school. When we began working with them, they had a small campus that was in need of a lot of work. One thing they said they needed: a wall. A wall to separate their campus from the surrounding area, and provide a safe and comfortable space for their girls.

Week after week, American students would arrive to this beautiful area excited to help. Some had done service projects before, but many hadn’t. No matter their experience, students were eager to learn about responsible tourism, the Dominican economy, education policy, sustainable service, and of course make new Dominican friends. The difference that being abroad makes to each student’s learning is incredible. It instantly puts students out of their comfort zone and into the “challenge zone”, which is where all learning takes place.

And the educational experience happens on the Dominican side as well. While working and playing with the Americans, the Dominican students are getting an international experience they otherwise could never have at this point in their lives. And the opportunity to practice their English with native speakers has incredible long term effects for their careers in this economy so dependent on tourism.

The wall was built by American students, Dominican students from the center, and local construction workers, all working side by side. There is an amazing amount of work that kids with no background can do, from bringing more cinder blocks to the build site with a wheelbarrow, to mixing concrete, and — under the watchful eye of a foreman — even laying the blocks.

Once the wall was done, other American groups helped the local students make it beautiful. Turning the gray cinder blocks into a work of art helped make the center feel more like a home, and more like a place that local students want to be spending their time.

Amidst all the criticism about “voluntourism”, there is still some great work being done around the world. Every wall — or classroom, or latrine, or water system — that our students help build not only builds up communities around the world, but also the next generation of active global citizens.

And that is something I’m proud to be a part of.

Please recommend if you liked this — thanks in advance!

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.