Opening paths to understanding
‘Voluntourism’ among school students has grown exponentially in recent years
BENEDICT Wong still dreams about the ‘‘all you can eat’’ ice-cream offer for about $5 that he discovered on his trip to Vietnam as part of a World Challenge expedition in January last year.
But the Year 12 captain at St Ives High School on Sydney’s north shore knows it’s the deeper connections he forged while on tour that will endure and also that his exam results at the end of the year will reap the benefits of his journey.
‘‘The most profound experience was probably the teamwork and collective effort,’’ Benedict says. ‘‘Visiting a developing country of huge historical and social significance and seeing the experiences of everyday people also boosted my understanding of many of the topics I’m studying in history and geography.’’
Benedict is a new kind of traveller, one of the many alumni of school expedition programs such as World Challenge, which seek to shape a generation of global citizens by incorporating exposure to developing cultures and the delivery of a volunteer community project.
The market for ‘‘voluntourism’’ among school students has grown exponentially in recent years. By September, World Challenge will have close to 7000 Australian and New Zealand students enrolled in its programs, representing a sevenfold increase in the past four years.
‘‘Overseas travel is an important part of a school curriculum. In addition, most schools encourage their stu- dents to take part in some form of service activity,’’ says Daniel Donati, World Challenge Asia Pacific director of sales and marketing.
‘‘Almost every school now offers some sort of servicestyle trip to combine these two important elements of a student’s learning. World Challenge fills this gap by giving our ‘challengers’ the chance to gain a more global perspective, as well as doing something meaningful in the project work they undertake.’’
Vietnam is one of 50 destinations visited by World Challenge. Itineraries typically include cultural immersion, trekking, a community or conservation project and appropriate leisure time. ‘‘For the [Vietnam] project, we spent a little over a week in a kindergarten in Hue, helping to improve the environment of the school,’’ Benedict says. ‘‘We painted walls, built sand pits and got the chance to interact with some of the kids.’’
Students spend about a year planning their trip and are encouraged to pay for it themselves by finding part-time work. Participants report an improvement in selfconfidence, resilience, responsibility and decisionmaking skills. And for those who have travelled only to developed countries, the experience delivers a thoughtprovoking perspective on both independent travel and the poverty in which much of the world lives.
How do poor communities benefit from visits by children who come from relatively wealthy communities? ‘‘Whether it be the basic construction of a shower block or manpower to help dig a trench for a sewerage pipe, our teams have left many tangible legacies behind,’’ Donati says. ‘‘Sometimes just the presence of individuals from another part of the globe can enrich the lives of people who, in many cases, have very restricted access to the outside world. These communities also benefit from the opportunity to learn about a different way of life through sharing stories and ideas.’’
Sydney students Benedict Wong, right, and Boaz Ng trekking in Vietnam