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Men and Women for Others: Volunteerism or Voluntourism at BC?

Eagles strive to become men and women for others, and Boston College has likewise striven to to produce them. The “Red Book,” which has been distributed among enrolling freshman during convocation for a half-decade, reads that a Jesuit education ought to inspire attentiveness, entering into the lives of others so that the heart and mind may be challenged by an experience to seek change.

Whether for better or worse—a debate which is worth having—international volunteering or voluntourism, as others would have it, has gained considerable traction over the past several decades, especially among high school and college students. A 2008 study estimated a $2 billion expenditure by 1.6 million people on international volunteerism yearly. Who, then, is benefiting most?

An article by Jacob Kushner for the New York Times on March 22 shed renewed light upon this growing trend. Unfortunately, voluntourism may serve only as an opportune resume padder for some. However, Kushner does not discredit the often righteous intentions of many international volunteers, rather, what he calls into question is their effect.

Kushner effectively raises a number of major concerns regarding voluntourism and its shortcomings. Firstly, a significant portion of international volunteers are unskilled students, often compromising efficiency, and sometimes even displacing local sources of labor—another problem in and of itself. Moreover, many initiatives fail to address long-term goals in an effective manner.

Photo courtesy of Appalachia Volunteers of Boston College / Facebook

Photo courtesy of Appalachia Volunteers of Boston College / Facebook

BC boasts an abundance of opportunities for the would-be international or domestic volunteer. The question, however, remains: What distinguishes international and/or domestic volunteerism organizations at BC from any ordinary form of voluntourism?

Four major domestic and international volunteer organizations at BC—although certainly not limited thereto—are the Mustard Seed Organization, Arrupe International Immersion Program, Appalachia Volunteers Program, and Jamaica Magis. The Mustard Seed Organization is coordinated by the Lynch School of Education and the latter three by the Office of Campus Ministry.

Fr. Michael Davidson founded Jamaica Magis with the help of some dedicated students in 2012. Jamaica Magis is rather unique in light of its long term mission to support both the Holy Family Primary School and Holy Trinity High School of Kingston, which he attended himself. The word Latin word Magis means “more,” and, by way of the organization, Fr. Michael seeks to inspire others to be more.

Fr. Michael explains that “we may be different, but God calls us to be [human] to each other, brothers and sisters.” He also describes the organization as a means of uplifting the youth of Kingston, providing not only scholarships, but also role models.

“Upon their return from Magis, [BC] students will seek to eradicate segregation and be more inclusive,” added an optimistic Fr. Michael, who anticipates further growth of an already flourishing organization.

The Appalachia Volunteers Program confronts social and structural realities in the United States, rendering populaces marginalized and impoverished, especially in light of social injustices. Sarah Ramsey, CSOM '18, serves on the Leadership Council, which coordinates Appa programming in areas such as fundraising, publicity, days of service, weekly meetings, and site selection.

During an Appa project in Hollywood, SC, Ramsey met a woman named Beth, who “not only demonstrated what unconditional love looks like for those you serve, but she also defined what service truly is in a tangible way,” which inspired others in her group. Ramsey added, “the work we did in one week would save her [site leader] and two other contractors about a month’s worth.”

The Arrupe International Immersion Program, which is named in honor of the late Superior General of the Society of Jesus Pedro Fr. Arrupe, seeks to build “intentional life and faith-sharing communities,” according to its website. Undergraduates assume the real and complex political, economic, social, and religious perspectives of people from countries with developing countries. Trip leader Christina King, MCAS '17, described a conversation in Chiapas, Mexico, with four recent emigrants of El Salvador on their way to the Mexico-United States Border who sought to escape their crime-ridden homes. Arely, a woman she met on the trip, asked King a question that affected her deeply: “Does it bother you [that] we are coming?”

Photo courtesy of Boston College Campus Ministry / Facebook

Photo courtesy of Boston College Campus Ministry / Facebook

King held that Arrupe trips are far from voluntourism, adding, “we went to build community, to meet people like Carlos and Tia Norma. We went to hear their stories, to share our own, to be humbled, and to stand on holy ground. We went to have our security radically shaken, and we did just that.”

Despite the stigma surrounding some service trips, Jamaica Magis, Arrupe, and Appa all offer distinct takes on service-learning, each exploring their own facets of humanity. Of those mentioned, most don’t apply students’ majors or preprofessional tracks to their service roles. There’s always room for for more efficiency, but, nonetheless, these groups do reflect BC’s commitment to fostering students immersed in service of others, and with global perspective. BC students will undoubtedly benefit—in ways which resumes can’t always capture—from many of these experiences.

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