A Plea to American Volunteers Abroad

Danya Firestone is a student at the College of Charleston and a former ISA Featured Photo Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA Serive-Learning in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

One of the reasons I chose an ISA program was for the opportunity to engage in Service Learning. I have been committed to service at home and abroad since I was young and was excited to give back to a community that would graciously host me for four months of studies and adventure. However, my definition of service abroad since before my work here has changed, and this new understanding has consequentially augmented sensitivity to the role I play as an American volunteer abroad. Something that has become strikingly evident to me in my volunteer work here in the Dominican Republic is that, because I am American, the relationships I am creating between the community members at the organization and myself, the volunteer, are fragile and need to be handled with empathy and care.

Every week for the last two months, I have spent several hours volunteering at a children’s dining hall in Santiago, Dominican Republic, whose mission is to provide meals as well as academic and personal growth support for children and teenagers in poverty. I was encouraged by the host organization manager to consider giving some of the older children charlas, or group discussions/ teachings on various life skills and other atypical educational subjects that they would otherwise not receive. This suggestion and the consequent search for meaningful teachings fueled the issue I wrestle with now and have struggled with similarly in other volunteer abroad experiences: what is it that I should be providing for these children, and, more generally, what is my lasting impact after I leave?

“I wish I lived in the United States.”

“I wish I spoke English.”

“Can I see your cell phone?”

It was these questions and comments from the children at my host organization that guided me to my answer for the concern posed above. Hearing these words reflected back the image of me that these children perceived but I couldn’t previously recognize as myself. I was a representative, a symbol, and a metaphor for their pre-existing understanding of America as richer and better than their home country. I felt the weight of my influence start to overwhelm me as I searched desperately for ways to change their understanding of America as better, and—even more disheartening, of Dominicans as lesser.

This helped me develop a new understanding of service learning as that of an experience of mutual exchange of knowledge and culture, framed and guided by the mission of the host organization. In this exchange, the host group feels pride in their culture and wants to share it with the volunteer. This contrasts with the unfortunate dynamic that sometimes occurs in which the host group feels an imposed domination and superiority of the English language and American culture from the American volunteer, though this is usually unintentionally inflicted. I began to structure my charlas with the goal of meeting the kids exactly where they are and empowering them within the context of their own economic circumstances, Spanish language, and Dominican culture to be the best versions of themselves possible. In this way, the kids feel supported in identity search, confidence building, and pursuit of dreams without regard to the power dynamic that I inevitably bring to the table because of the stereotypes I represent as an English-speaking American.

Especially now, when international relationships, empathy, and conversations that help us understand each other are of the utmost importance in the United States and abroad, I urge you to take seriously the immense amount of power you have in your actions, words, and comportment to influence. The most powerful thing you can give another is belief in his, her, or their self-worth.

The world awaits…discover it.

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