A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Helping and Hurting in a World of Inequities – The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
When I went to San Lucas in Guatemala for a service trip during my time at St. Scholastica, I found that when I later told people about my trip I was always hesitant to add in the part about it being a “service trip”. I felt a bit ashamed about it, despite the fact that the San Lucas mission struck me as an authentic experience that was completely respectful of the community in which it existed and served, avoiding the “pity trap.”
For me, the idea of a “service trip” and volunteering abroad has always been a gray zone. I`ve heard so many stories about useless service trips, about white people coming to talk about their faith, about those from the US coming to “save” the underprivileged and take a picture with a child from another country for their next Facebook profile picture. At the same time, I`ve heard some wonderful stories and met some wonderful people who have participated in service projects and organizations that allowed them a cultural experience and, at the same time, allowed them to realize that the idea of swooping in and “saving” people is entirely unrealistic and, at times, offensive.
One organization that I work with runs an after school program for students, providing them with programming in art, music, dance, English, and homework help. The students that the organization serves range in age from 6 years old to 15 or 16 years old, and the organization is mainly staffed by licentiatura students (university students studying to be teachers) as well as a few random foreigners such as myself.
After working with the organization for a few weeks, the director revealed to me that the organization has a parent organization based in the United States. Suddenly, the random pictures of people from the United States all wearing bright T-shirts with the organization’s logo in the hallway made sense to me. All of those people had once come to Colombia on a service trip.
The director asked if I would be willing to come to the organization on a Saturday night to act as a Skype translator for the children at the organization. There was to be a “gala” in the United States for the parent organization, and the members of the United States organization had supposedly asked to be able to Skype with the children at the Colombian organization.
I showed up on Saturday evening.
The wall behind the computer that had been set up to showcase the fifteen young students that had showed up was covered with “traditional” skirts, hats, and flower garlands. The students all crowded excitedly around the computer screen, refusing to stay put in their plastic chairs. The computer was knocked over twice before a Skype call had even been sent, and the younger children cried when they felt like they couldn`t be seen in the webcam.
They were, to say the least, excited.
When the Skype call had gone through, we were introduced to a young high school girl who said she would be our translator. (Thus, my job was rendered obsolete, but I sat in the group of children to try and calm them down and keep them from hitting each other).
Finally, an old couple walked up the screen, saying happily “Hola! Como estas” as the students around me all leapt out of their chairs and shouted back compliments, telling the people that they loved them and that they had beautiful clothes on. The couple asked the girl to ask for a student named “Juan Pablo”. Juan Pablo was not in the crowd of students around us.
They left, disappointed.
In the end, a small handful of approximately fifteen people spoke to the students over Skype. They asked them their ages, their names—very simple questions—and the students adored it, trying to ask question to the people on the other side of the world and getting drowned out by the other students shouting in excitement.
Through the hour and a half long Skype call, I continuously heard a bell ringing in the background and I finally asked the girl we were speaking with what it was about. She explained that they would ring the bell anytime somebody donated money to the fund they were raising for the students in Colombia—the students nobody wanted to talk to.
“How many people are there” I asked, translating for one of the students that wanted to know how many people filled the fancy room in the background of the call.
“About 400, “ she answered, “And there are still people arriving.”
Four hundred people decked out in their fanciest clothes went to the gala on the other side of the world to raise money for the “poor” children in Colombia, and out of the four hundred and counting, only fifteen took the time to talk to the children they were raising money for.
I’ve always been desperately interested in volunteering abroad, working abroad, and organizations based on providing aid in other countries. However, I had never experienced the relationship from the other side. That is, I’m not trying to say that I was an integral part of the organization’s base in Colombia, but I had never experienced the ability to perceive a volunteer organization in the United States without a preconceived bias brought about by working with the organization in the States. I had never been a part of this organization in the states. I knew nothing about those particular “Americans”, as the children called them, and so my perception of them was only influenced by how they treated the children they wanted to help, not by their good intentions to help them.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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13 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Helping and Hurting in a World of Inequities – The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal”
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I agree that service trips fall into a grey area. Good intentions don’t always mean good results, and I think it is so sad that so many of the people didn’t want to speak with the children. I work in an elementary school and I had a perfect vision of the kids bouncing around full of pure and innocent excitement, all because they got to talk to someone new and strange to them. I think because of this reason service trips and fundraisers and the like can often leave behind their intentions and turn into a social experience for the donors and forget about those they are helping.
You give a wonderful background on the dangers of service trips gone wrong. The fact that so few people who are willing to donate money, but not to talk to the children the money is going to is sad. I would imagine that many of them would want to talk to the kids, especially when it is so easy and available. Maybe if people took the time to talk to those who they are giving money to the money could be better spent and put to better use.
The idea of a service trip being good intentioned, but not always good in practice is a relatively different from my experience with people that would talk about their service work in foreign countries. The dangers that you report make perfect sense, I can utilize my imagination and some deductive reasoning now to see a large number of flaws with the intentions of service trips. The control of money and the allocation of proper funds seems to be an idea that is universally struggled with and prime example is yours. The worst case scenario for many idealists going to down to a foreign country to help is that it turns into a self serving trip and they completely forget about what their actual objective is.
This article was both interesting and troubling for me as a reader. As mentioned in the comment above written by Bryce, service trips often become self serving trips. Volunteers swoop in to ‘save’ the underprivileged around the world and only do it for their own self-betterment. Although I believe self-reward is a part of the volunteer/service process, I shy away from it as a motivator. I believe it is important for volunteers to be humble and learn from those they are attempting to help, instead of assuming that since they are the privileged, they have all the answers. I never knew, however, that these types of events occurred in certain organizations. It makes me sad that it is easier for people to simply donate the money than it is to actually see the face of the receiving end.
As travel seems to become more and more appealing to our young generation, it seems the grey area you mention only expands. The temptation to show our friends and family how significant of a difference we’re making in these “undeveloped” countries begins to outweigh why we actually go on service trips. Social networks, have, in a sense, destroyed an unfortunate majority of the authenticity involved in said trips. The spread of wifi has only helped the problem become larger. However, the more our generation realizes this issue and faces it, the sooner we can solve it, and become genuine once again.
This article put an interesting point of view in my mind through only 15 people wanting to talk to the kids. I like how you were able to express the students’ emotion during the Skype video. Do you know what the funds are going towards for the students? Overall interesting article thank you for sharing your experiences.
I couldn’t agree with the whole idea of service trips falling into the grey area. I mean no one wants to talk about go on service trips because it can be perceived in so many different ways. What i really enjoyed was how you explained the difference between the event in America and the one in Colombia. If you really think about it if they didn’t rent that huge ballroom and have catering they could have donated far more. Great Article!
I certainly would agree that volunteering abroad presents certain ethical problems. To me, I think the biggest issue is that the volunteers seem to somehow know what the best solution is for the people they are helping. I also wonder if the intentions of volunteers is in the right place. For instance, if it is to be a tourist first, but the trip is advertised as a service trip, I will likely question it. I also think the cost of the round trip plane ticket might be put to better use if it were just given to people who need money — no strings attached — than spending it fulfill the volunteer’s desires.
I think service learning trips become more self-serving when an individual’s motivation for helping is coming from the wrong source. Some are more concerned with appearing as though they are helping than actually helping. And, in some cases, I believe people would rather throw money at a cause to say they helped rather than getting to know the people and making connections. It’s hard to criticize because they are still helping, but I think there’s value in building relationships with the people who are being helped.
It is very true that the service trips do not always help the people. For, how do we know that we are truly helping them? We not even know how to live in a place unless we lived there ourselves. It kinda of angered me to find out that so many people came to donate but very few actually went to Skype with the kids, when they could, that wanted to see them so badly.
Not only yourself, I’m sure many people have no idea what is like being on the other end of the call. Its very interesting to me that out of all 400 people that attended the “gala” only 15 actually took the time to get to know who and where their money is going to. Regardless as to how many people truly care for the cause or just need to show face, the excitement to want to meet these individuals that the children were expressing. You would think more people would choose to say hello. Great to hear from the other side of this situation.