Crossing cultures: a pre-Chile reflection

On Saturday I’ll be aboard a plane bound for Santiago with seventeen of my classmates from Notre Dame. Even the prospect of a twenty-four hour transcontinental trek involving multiple layovers can’t dampen my enthusiasm, because compared to the agonizingly slow study-abroad approval process and subsequent flurry of activity sorting out visas, vaccines, and packing lists, getting to Chile is easy. But even though I have planned for a semester abroad since my freshman year, I haven’t really reflected yet on what that means.

My classmates and I will be in Chile for about six months, living with host families and taking classes at La Católica, a large university in Santiago. Along with classes in Spanish, Chilean Politics and Society, and a few electives, we are all taking a seminar called Approaches to Poverty and Development. We’ll each pick a site and volunteer there weekly throughout the semester, an experience that will take us out of the comfortable university neighborhood and into parts of Santiago that we wouldn’t otherwise see.

Most of us in the Santiago group have experience volunteering locally and have already started to learn the tough lessons about service: that real social change takes time, that it’s not always possible to help everyone in the community, that despite volunteers’ best efforts some people may never escape poverty or attain educations, and that volunteering is not always fun or easy.

Things get additionally complicated in international development efforts, where even volunteers with the best of intentions, convinced they know exactly what assistance is needed, may not listen to the community in their rush to fix problems. Worse, some may not understand the cultures or even attempt to learn the language of the community they travel to serve. Finally, efficient use of resources is a major issue. In preparing for our semester in Santiago, we read a piece by Joanne Von Engen that originally appeared in Catapult magazine, in which she points out the money people spend to travel to do international service for a short time could be sent directly to organizations and achieve much more. This has the additional benefit of employing local labor and empowering citizens by letting them work on their own projects.

So if volunteering is so rife with problems, why bother? Why not just send checks to development efforts and call it good? My answer is that direct service has its own value, which lies in what you learn from taking part in a community—particularly one that may be unfamiliar at first.  Experiencing other cultures helps us realize the human connections that unite us. Such cross-cultural experiences are just as easily attained through work in any large U.S. city as they are in traveling halfway around the world, and thus don’t even require large amounts of money or time. Either way, volunteering teaches in a way that donations can’t, even if it is not as efficient.

One of the reasons I am excited to work with the Jolkona Foundation is that it combines the efficiency of direct donations with the personal connection to each project. Both elements are important for development efforts, as well as listening to the community in charge of the project. I’ll be keeping these themes in mind as I embark on my excellent South American adventure.


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    July 6, 2009 at 7:46 pm

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  2. Bill Bartmann / September 17, 2009

    Cool site, love the info. I do a lot of research online on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,

    A definite great read…:)


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