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Issues revolving volunteering overseas "Gaining experience abroad" and beyond

Yukino Iwai
Associate Professor, The Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC)

Global trends in volunteering

Opportunities for university students to participate in volunteer programs abroad have increased rapidly in the past few years. Major travel agencies now sell more volunteer and internship programs abroad compared to when I first started working at the Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC) 10 years ago. Accordingly, the number of intermediary NPOs for these programs has increased. While the inward-looking attitude among Japanese youth has been widely recognized as a problem, I believe the number of students who visit developing countries is increasing. I often meet students who have joined or are joining a volunteer or internship program to go to South East Asian countries or even African countries.

University students serving as international volunteers is often viewed as a positive experience, but is this really so? In this article, I would like to consider this point from perspectives of both the student volunteers as well as the local communities.

Volunteering abroad, a mirror reflecting social issues in Japan

Students tutoring immigrants in Malaysia

Volunteering abroad usually results in a mind-opening and life-changing experience for students. These students can broaden their perspectives and expand their understanding by exposing themselves to the lives and values of people from different cultures. They can also make friends with local residents and other volunteers. They may feel a sense of self-esteem if the local residents welcome them.

However, what these student volunteers really need is not this type of positive experience. Their volunteer experience becomes truly meaningful when they (1) find themselves powerless and (2) realize Japan also has the same social issues as the host countries.

Many international volunteer programs, including ours, rarely produce substantial outcomes during the student’s stay. Issues addressed by volunteers have been formed historically by political and economic influence of the host country, and these problems are still unresolved today. It is easy to imagine that Japanese university students who do not understand the local language, have no specialized skills, and stay for only a short period are unable to tackle these problems. Still, students start to gain insights into themselves when they start to hold interest in those local issues and find out whether they can contribute to make a difference. They can discover how to live their lives (or what careers they should pursue) by asking themselves what is missing from their mental and physical capabilities, what they need to learn, what they really want to do in life, and what they place value on.

Contemplating social issues during their volunteer service allows students to focus the same issues occurring in Japan. These issues are surfacing in developing countries because their governments are weak and social welfare systems are not as organized. When students think about problems such as income inequality, discrimination against women, and immigration, they may wonder about the situation back home. This is when students become more conscious of such ongoing problems also happening in Japan.

Volunteer activities abroad reflect the volunteer’s own country as described above. During their stay, students look into a mirror. This mirror not only reflects their new selves but also Japanese society. I believe this experience makes volunteering abroad extremely meaningful to students.

Negative effects on local communities

Students in Tanzania helping a project to drive away elephants that damage crop fields

Student volunteers must be careful not to create negative effects on local communities. Obviously, they enter the local community as volunteers and never intend to offend local residents or cause trouble. However, it is not uncommon for them to cause trouble or disrespect the local culture without realizing what they have done.

A student volunteer group, which I was appointed special advisor, hurt the feelings of local residents due to their arrogance. Local residents reacted to the volunteers by saying, "We do not want our country to be criticized by the students who don't even know much about their own country," and "We do not want you to sympathize with us if you do not mean it." In another incident, a student volunteer group upset local village residents because the group engaged in activities only with the village chief who took in the students and his faction members. Not understanding the local situation resulted in causing conflict in the community, separating those who received benefit from the volunteer activities and those who did not.

In order to avoid these types of problems, we must strive to understand local situations and always explore ways to minimize negative effects of volunteer efforts.

The value of volunteer experience after returning home

Realistically speaking, it is not easy for university student volunteers to produce significant outcomes in foreign countries. They will be wrong to assume there is something they can do once they arrive. In fact, they must understand that they are required to devise a creative plan for activities and programs and cooperate with host groups and local communities.

I still hope that young people will proactively participate in volunteer programs abroad. They can rediscover themselves and their society only after they look into the mirror. After returning home, I want them to take a close look at their reflection as the next step, meaning, examine their own volunteer experience. They can never appreciate the profound value of the volunteer experience if they just take a glance at it.

WAVOC offers a course called "Contextualizing Self in Society” to help students contemplate their volunteer experience. We have designed this course because students often have no idea exactly how they should reflect on their experience, understand the local situations, and reexamine themselves when they are asked to do so. I would like to further focus on improving volunteer programs abroad for both the students and host communities and support returned volunteers to reflect upon their valuable experience.

Yukino Iwai
Associate Professor, The Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC)

Yukino Iwai, Ph.D. in Human and Environmental Studies, obtained her doctoral degree from the Division of African Area Studies at the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University. Prior to her current position, she worked as a Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteer (JICA volunteer), and she serves as representative director of NPO AFRIC Africa to present day. Her areas of expertise are environmental sociology, African area studies, and volunteer education.

- Shizen wa Dareno Monoka—Jyumin Sankagata Hozen no Gyakusetsu wo Norikoeru[Ownership of Nature—Overcoming the Paradox of Community Conservation] (co-authored, Kyoto University Press, 2016)
- Guroobaru Shakai wo Aruku—Kakawari no Ningenbunkagaku [Walking in the Global Society—Human Cultures of Connection] (co-authored, Shinsensha, 2013)
- Sekai wo Chotto Demo Yoku Shitai—Sodaiseitachi no Borantia Monogatari [Making the World a Little Better—The Story of Waseda University Student Volunteers] (co-authored, Waseda University Press, 2010)