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Memoir of a Voluntourist

“Some girls want to look like Barbie,” Ana said in slow, broken English. She was my host mother on a trip to Antigua, Guatemala. My two American housemates had just abandoned Ana and me at the table mere minutes into dinner, leaving behind full plates of noodles, fried eggs and fresh bread from the panadería across the street. I laughed at Ana’s remark and exchanged my already empty plate for the meal one housemate had skeptically prodded before she returned to her room for a dinner of jerky and fruit snacks. Ana and I sat at that table for a few hours, enjoying each other’s company and stories told in choppy combinations of Spanish and English, some laughs of word-finding frustration spattered throughout. We talked about her daughter and grandson who lived with her, the colorful birds that were caged in her open-air courtyard, and the fact that I had come to Antigua from North Dakota. As fond as I am of this memory, now that eight years have passed, I look back on my time in Guatemala with some degree of uncertainty about my intentions. I was what many would call a ‘voluntourist.’

The first time I traveled to Antigua, Guatemala, I had just finished my junior year in a Catholic high school. The trip to Guatemala was advertised as a ‘mission trip,’ and much fundraising was done as a class and as a school so that we could travel there. The trip was organized through the God’s Child Project, which has its roots in Bismarck, North Dakota, my hometown. Since first grade, I, along with all my Catholic school classmates, had been involved in fundraising for the God’s Child Project by making and selling crafts and holding raffles. I was certainly excited to see the fruits of our fundraising efforts, as well as the tireless efforts of its founder, Patrick Atkinson. At that point in my life, I had only traveled outside the country once and I had already become enamored by the thrill that traveling offered. Even more enticing to me was that the trip to Guatemala was structured and had a specific purpose. That purpose may have been perceived differently by everyone who went on that trip, but the variations probably went something like this: “Travel on someone else’s dime without guilt, because we are helping people who need our help.”

I returned to Guatemala on two more occasions as a volunteer of the God’s Child Project. As a volunteer, I was expected to build a house, serve at the homeless shelter, visit the malnutrition center to feed and play with the kids, organize clothing distributions and harvest vegetables from a large garden for a food drive. To be sure, I was not particularly qualified for any of these tasks. In fact, I likely slowed each of these processes. After a week of hard work, we took relaxing weekend trips to Lake Atitlan, once deemed ‘the most beautiful lake in the world.’ We visited Monterrico, a coastal town known for its black sand beaches. We indulged in food, drinks and shopping. The poverty we witnessed and claimed to improve was juxtaposed with the wealth and gratification to which we were accustomed. At the time it was fun; as I reflect, it seems odd and unsettling. The God’s Child Project itself is undoubtedly a worthy cause, whose motto is “breaking the bitter chains of poverty through education, housing and healthcare.” The Project has established a school, a malnutrition center, Central America’s only homeless shelter and programs to teach families about nutrition and wellness. Yet I wonder: do the people of the project benefit more from the presence of a seventeen-year-old girl from North Dakota with a backpack full of candy, or from the money that it took to fly her and thirty of her classmates to Guatemala? Was this a responsible use of resources?

As a seventeen-year-old, I hadn’t yet solidified my beliefs, values or worldview. I wanted to travel, and this was a chance to do that with friends in an exotic place. I didn’t put much thought into the global impact of ‘voluntourism.’ In fact, that concept was nonexistent to me. Call me ignorant; I was. But now that I can retrospectively analyze my intentions and my impact, I’ve come to struggle with the idea of ‘voluntourism.’ It is defined as ‘a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.’ That sounds like a noble enough endeavor in and of itself, but it is more complex than that. These are just a few articles that describe some of the harms of ‘voluntourism.’ And if you don’t follow BarbieSavior on Instagram, do so. You’re welcome.

When faced with the admittedly alluring option of completing a one-month rotation in Peru during my fourth year of medical school, I couldn’t help but struggle with this concept of ‘voluntourism.’ In the past, students who had gone to Peru on this rotation reported that they hardly found themselves doing things related to medicine. Instead, they did things like distribute clothing and basic necessities, and they played with local children. It reminded me of the times I spent in Guatemala. Times that I truly cherish and for which I am grateful, but I’m grateful because of what I personally gained, not what others gained from my presence. Since I haven’t done the rotation in Peru, I can’t exactly claim that I know what it is like, and I do not mean to downplay the experiences of those who have gone and who will go in the future. I just wonder what happens to the people receiving care for the 11 months out of the year that our medical students are not in Peru? Is this ‘medical mission’ sustainable? I don’t claim to know, but I think it is worth pondering.

I still don’t know my stance on ‘voluntourism,’ nor do I think I ever will. I do, however, know that my experiences abroad have shaped my worldview and my career goals. I aspire to pursue a career in global health, and I am certain that my travels to Guatemala are to credit for that. In other international experiences and in my leadership of groups such as the International Federation of Medical Students Associations and the Global Health Interest Group, my perspectives have evolved, but my goal remains to have a career in global health. If I’ve learned one thing in medical school, it is to let the evidence guide your decision-making. International medical work is undoubtedly important, and it should be responsible, sustainable and evidence-based. I urge my colleagues to consider their intentions, goals and potential outcomes when participating in global health rotations and other such endeavors. There is certainly so much to personally gain from those experiences, but if that personal growth comes at the cost of causing global harm, maybe it isn’t worth it.

Anna Stecher Anna Stecher (3 Posts)

Contributing Writer

University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences

I'm a student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. I have a degree in Anthropology and enjoy international travel to places like Guatemala, Costa Rica, Morocco, and much of Europe. I'm interested in Oncology and issues in global health, including human trafficking, poverty, obesity, and HIV/AIDS. In my free time, I like to watch Game of Thrones, Parks and Recreation, and Friends.