"Voluntourism? Not at Nobles." by Director of the Anderson/Cabot Center for EXCEL Ben Snyder
There is some irony that while I was in Rwanda over March break with 18 Nobles students and two colleagues (and while an additional 104 students and 20 Nobles adults were in New Orleans, Alabama/Georgia, South Africa, Romania/Bulgaria, Cambodia/Vietnam and India), The New York Times published The Voluntourist’s Dilemma outlining the many missteps that can be part of volunteering abroad. While in Rwanda I shared the article with our Nobles travelers (and have since had a number of conversations with other students and faculty who traveled in March), and it is clear that Nobles “does service travel” the right way - not the voluntourist’s way.
There are so many benefits to travel in and of itself - some say it is the best way to encourage personal growth over a lifetime - and we hope to imbue that understanding among Nobles students (about 80% of whom will have traveled with Nobles or studied away before graduating). But to travel “the Nobles way” is a unique experience.
First, the ongoing partnerships that Nobles has developed over many years (as examples, Kliptown Youth Program, Marathwada Gramin Vikas Sanstha, Romanian Children’s Relief, St. Bernard Project, Soleaid International and Agahozo Shalom Youth Village) allow Nobles to develop longstanding relationships that not only ensure productive work but engender a more profound educational experience for Nobles students. Our partnerships allow greater insight into the work done, the issues addressed, and the people doing the work. The preparation beforehand, the trust on the ground, and the meaningful (both financial and through hard work) contributions made give the experience greater meaning for Nobles students and greater value for our partners.
Second, Nobles service travel develops and enhances personal relationships between Nobles students and young people overseas as well as among Nobles students and the faculty leading these trips. Each experience provides opportunities for our students to connect with other young people from dramatically different walks of life - and to gain respect for and understanding of the intelligence, resilience, motivation and determination of young people growing up in circumstances very different than our own. Connecting across lines of nationality, race, class, religion, and educational background provides learning opportunities rarely found by American students. We have also discovered that our internal Nobles community culture is greatly enhanced by the mixing of Nobles students and faculty far afield. There are new friendships formed and greater respect developed among our students when they return to Dedham.
These relationships add depth to the building of perspective on our lives at Nobles and in the United States. Because Nobles trips are developed and led by Nobles faculty, the learning extends over a much longer period and is based on a community of trust that provokes greater honesty and deeper reflection as the experiences are processed. The connection to our mission of leadership for the public good resonates with our students and shows them the myriad ways in which that mission can reverberate throughout their lives (on top of introducing them to people who are living lives of meaning and purpose in traditional and untraditional ways).
The Nobles approach is rooted in the premise that we will learn as much from our partners as they will benefit from our work and donations. We are not traveling to New Orleans or South Africa simply to “give” or “solve,” we go to learn and grow. The data from Nobles graduates over the last 15 years affirms this approach - roughly 80% are studying abroad and are engaged in service (either domestically or internationally) in their lives after Nobles.
We also take great pride in making sure that every Nobles student - regardless of family financial circumstance - has the opportunity to participate in these experiences. Because the trips are led by Nobles faculty (who for the first time this year received a very small stipend for their work), the costs are significantly lower than those of commercial ventures allowing us to stretch our financial aid dollars further and provide broader access than is typically found in programs like these.
As I conclude each trip with Nobles students I share the thought that “once we know, we can’t pretend we don’t.” What I hope our students begin to know is that there are many ways to live a good life and to contribute to the world either right around the corner or halfway around the world.
Are we changing the world? Probably not.
But we are immersing ourselves in new environments, learning from others, and having experiences far beyond that of a “voluntourist.” What each student sees and experiences will remain, giving each a broader view of the world and her or his place and responsibility in it. And I’m good with that.