Campus groups push for more training for students volunteering abroad

BUILD: India was one of the groups represented at a Nov. 22 panel to discuss training for students volunteering abroad. Seen here is a scene from the group's conference, held earlier this year. Courtesy of Marian Woznica

Representatives from on-campus groups working to increase training and preparation for students who volunteer abroad held a panel discussion in the Alumnae Lounge on Nov. 22.

The discussion, called “Global Impacts: Questioning How Tufts Engages Abroad,” included groups and programs through which students often travel and volunteer internationally, such as GlobeMed, BUILD: Latin America, BUILD: India, Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Tufts Hillel, Tufts Rwanda Trip, Tufts Timmy Global Health and the International Relations Program.

During the panel itself, representatives from five of the groups discussed the potential cultural challenges of being abroad and how to best deal with them, according to the event description on the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) website.

According to Marian Woznica, the director of policy for GlobeMed at Tufts and one of the panel’s principal organizers, panelists recounted stories about challenges that they faced abroad, as well as where they felt that further support and dialogue from the university would have been valuable.

While the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) oversees groups such as BUILD and EWB, other groups that travel abroad to conduct service like GlobeMed don’t have this kind of administrative oversight.

Woznica spoke at the panel about ethically ambiguous situations that Tufts students traveling abroad can encounter. According to Woznica, students from GlobeMed, which partners with the non-profit Practical Help Achieving Self Empowerment (PHASE) Nepal, tried to make local communities in Nepal comfortable working with them, an avoid conveying an attitude of superiority.

Alexandra Boden, a member of GlobeMed’s policy team, explained that during one recent trip to NepalGlobeMed’s trip members were asked to speak before a community on behalf of a hospital, and that members were seated with community leaders.

“[The students] felt that it was inappropriate for them to be put in a position of power,” tin Boden, a senior, said. “It created a poor dynamic [that separated] them from the community.”

Ultimately, a translator for the students and a community worker ended up addressing the village instead of the volunteers, according to Boden.

Juan David Núñez-Hurtado, the consulting director for Human Connections at BUILD: Latin America, also spoke at the panel about the importance of student training. He explained that before joining BUILD, he worked at a non-Tufts-affiliated non-profit in Quito, Ecuador, where he felt that the student volunteers could have benefited from more training, especially since they worked in education.

“We were not trained…and a lot of the volunteers didn’t even speak Spanish,” Núñez-Hurtado, a senior, said.

According to Tufts Timmy Global Health member sophomore Nile Abularrage, the group, which aims to provide sustainable healthcare in the communities in Ethiopia and Guatemala, faces the challenge of educating local populations without acting superior.

“One of the most important things to us as an organization is to be culturally educated and culturally sensitive,” Abullarage told the Daily in an email.

Abullarage said that policy changes for training in cultural competency and sensitivity make sense, but should address the needs of individual groups, especially since many of them are already supported and overseen by national organizations.

Boden added that there should be “a list of standards that each group has to address in their own way” prior to trips.

The panel included a keynote address by Mindy Nierenbergprogram director at Tisch College, who praised the work of the groups in attendance while encouraging them to continue to be vigilant and introspective.

“When student groups go abroad to make a difference, the challenges that arise can be complex and have the potential to not only derail your efforts, but to create harm,” Nierenberg said during her address. “[The panelists] understand that, when Tufts speaks of ‘transformational experiences for students,’ it cannot be at the expense of communities.”

Nierenberg talked about the need for oversight and training to ensure that volunteer trips do not result in unintended consequences, like inadvertently displacing locals from their jobs.

Woznica said she believes that Tufts should provide a professional resource for future volunteers so that they can negotiate ethically-challenging situations. She said that many panelists concluded that the university should lead workshops, help students develop basic language skills, require training in cultural competency and create a new board to oversee trips abroad.

Heather Barry, the associate director of the IGL, said that the institute works to ensure that members of its affiliated organizations, which include BUILD and EWB, are prepared for trips abroad. She explained that the IGL makes sure that groups have conducted research and assessed a community’s needs before traveling there.

Barry said that the IGL also runs preparation workshops to instruct students about methods for international development and how to know whether or not their work is effective, and also encourage students to take courses in research methodology. She added that more training and preparation from Tufts would be helpful, as long as it is geared toward the needs of individual groups.

“If there’s a workshop…that gives a broad overview of the things to think about and the things that are important, I think that could be great,” Barry said.

Since not all international service groups are overseen by the IGL, however, they do not receive this kind of university support before leaving on trips. Student group representatives hope that the recent panel will help change this.

According to Woznica, the different international service groups have never had the benefit of communicating and collaborating with each other.

“We all have very similar problems, but we’re struggling with them by ourselves when we could have a structure that supports each other,” she said.

Boden and Woznica said that when students return to Tufts from their trips, groups should debrief collaboratively, so that students can share lessons they learned from their trips with other campus groups and hold themselves accountable.

Gautam Kapur, a member of the 2013 BUILD: India 2013 trip, explained that the group faces difficulties in helping to create permanent economic development in places such as India because local volunteer trips are so brief and infrequent. Kapur, a senior, explained that BUILD: India works to improve sanitation, education and the economy in the Indian village Thottiyapatti, but that the vilage is isolated and volunteers do not stay in Thottiyapatti for long enough.

Elissa Ladwig, a senior who also went on the trip, said the group tried to supported the local community by setting up soap-making and bag-making schemes for income-generation, but that those initiatives have not delivered the necessary sustained economic development.

“What the community needs is…more job opportunities in a larger sense, not bag-making or soap-making,” Ladwig said.

One of the other groups at the panel, BUILD: Latin America, works on sustainable development through consulting for non-profits in Latin America instead of mainly focusing on having students volunteer abroad, according to junior Nitya Agrawal, the group’s president. However, members of the group still recognize the need for Tufts to better prepare students prior to trips abroad.

Emily Ng, a member of the Human Connections team at BUILD: Latin America, said that the groups from the panel plan on continuing to coordinate next semester.

“The purpose of this panel was so that there was a support network for these sorts of issues here at Tufts,” Ng, a first-year, said.

“The point of this panel was for us all to…be self-reflective, be self-critical, talk about the issues that we’ve had and challenges when we questioned our presence in a community,” Woznica said. “The reason why we were able to have a collaborative panel is because everyone sees the need for change.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated that BUILD: Latin America does consulting for non-profits instead of having students travel abroad, but the group does help plan and lead volunteer trips abroad, despite the fact that this is not the organization’s main focus.