Gaining perspective

As I sit in my Theorizing Global Justice class and discuss the ironically damaging effects of various international aid efforts, I realize just how difficult it is to truly help people who reside in spaces outside your own culture and experiences of privilege. I’m nervous to tell my classmates that I’m going to a Navajo reservation in Arizona this spring break on a “service” trip. Then I go to a trip orientation meeting, and I’m nervous to tell my group that I’m skeptical about the impact we are about to make. In fact, I’m worried we won’t just have a minimally good impact, not just a neutral impact, but a negative impact on people who are already occupying a space of disadvantage. I feel paralyzed, but I go on the trip. As I look back on the experience now, I don’t regret it.

Serendipitously, the Center for Learning in Action hired me to do research for them on alternative spring break trips, allowing me to explore what I think the true value of these trips is. These trips are not really about helping people, or at least, they’re not helping the people they purport to help. The amount of money I invested in plane tickets and food and lodging on my trip to Arizona would almost certainly have made a greater impact than the impact I made as a 20-year-old college kid that helicoptered in and helicoptered out of that place within a week. However, I still see value in these trips, because I, this privileged white girl from Williams, learned something valuable.

I learned a little bit more about what a life different from mine looks like. I saw systemic problems first hand. Through my interactions with high school students and their teachers, I now have a better idea, although still not as good as that of those students and teachers, about what is creating poverty and injustice in that one location. My alternative spring break trip was worthwhile because of all that, not because I taught any high school student anything, not because I drew a pretty picture with a seven year old that I will never see again.

So, my trip was worth it. But that doesn’t mean all trips are. Some trips don’t teach their participants anything. We must change how we perceive these trips in order to ensure they are productive and doing no harm. We have, perhaps unintentionally, already started to change our perceptions by calling these trips “alternative” rather than “service” trips. We must stop emphasizing the self-sacrifice of these trips and their purported benefit to others and start emphasizing the importance of these trips for ourselves. Simply changing this perception won’t guarantee our alternative trips are effective, but it is a good place to start.

It is a daunting task to ensure trips actually provide Williams students with powerful new perspectives on real-world problems many of us only read about for class. But, to recognize that task is the first step. To further confirm that an experience is worth its cost, participants must interact with the people they are “helping,” – they must at least be able to talk to them. Participants must change their goals and realize that these trips are about personal growth and learning, not changing the world in a week. Students must be willing to learn about the places they will be visiting before they go, and they must be interested in discussing what they see with their fellow students during and after the trips. The Center for Learning in Action as well as potential participants should look for trips that are recurring and based on established relationships. Professors should also consider adding trip components to their classes, especially during Winter Study.

Finally, we should not overblow the transformative power of these experiences on their participants. While I do not doubt his sincerity, Bill Zito ’16 falls into this in his article (“Break out of the purple bubble,” Mar. 5) when he claims, “I will never again ignore a fellow human being.” To suggest these trips have changed their participants’ behavior radically and forever is reductive – we will forget, and we will slip up. We must continuously work toward being in touch with the rest of the world; one trip is not enough.

However, these trips are ultimately better for the world, because the new perspectives students gain will enlighten their future choices, both big and small, and these choices do impact the world. Perhaps some participants will decide to devote their lives to real change like the teachers I met. Zito’s overall point is sound – we should all “seek out these uncomfortable moments,” because indeed, “the questions you will be forced to ask yourself will shape who you are.” But we should do this throughout our lives, not just during spring break, and we should keep our true impact in mind.

Katherine Preston ’16 is from Omaha, Neb. She lives in Prospect.