In the age of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which starts with the lines, “Take up the White Man’s burden—/Send forth the best ye breed—/Go bind your sons to exile/To serve your captives’ need.” Whether you perceive this poem to be satirical or serious, the words echo true today, in a new guise. “White Savior” is a new term coined to describe the tendency for (primarily white) citizens of Western nations to believe they need to save the (primarily not white) citizens of third world countries. 

To be fair, the average American college student doesn’t rape, pillage and leave a flaming cultural wreck behind him or her. But we do celebrate ourselves for making a difference in the lives of others, while rarely stopping to consider the impact on anyone but ourselves. 

These bold missions are frequently accomplished through some sort of volunteer work in exotic locations—part volunteer work, part spectacle. This is “voluntourism,” the prerogative of the white savior. College campuses are flush with wannabe voluntourists. We actively encourage our “very best” college students to travel to other countries to solve the natives’ problems.  It is very possible that most voluntourists know nothing about the people they are trying to save, and even more possible that they have no idea how to do it. 

A popular blog post by Pippa Biddle, a non-profit administrator, illustrates exactly this. It is sensationally titled, “The Problem with Little White Girls (And Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist.” Biddle described her experiences paying $3000 to go to Tanzania to build an orphanage. While this seems like a noble thing to do, Biddle writes that it “[t]urns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.” 

Much like the imperialists of the past, who caused ruin in countries when they attempted to fix problems they weren’t prepared to fix, American college students’ efforts at voluntourism tend to do more harm than good. 

They spend thousands of dollars getting there, money that could have been used to give locals the resources to make actually meaningful change themselves. 

Even worse, many college students come up with grandiose plans for saving communities without consulting the locals. Last fall, I attended the Millennium Campus Conference at Northeastern University, and listened to the story of a girl who tried to bring recycling to students in Egypt. The initiative failed spectacularly. The students rarely had enough to eat—recycling was far from their priority. I fear that many cross-cultural volunteering efforts on the part of American college students are in danger of ending this way. Improving a culture requires intimate knowledge of what needs to be improved. Yet, American students keep going to Africa or South America or wherever else is trendy, imposing values on populaces because they can reap the benefits when they return. Medical and law schools smile favorably on the experiences, and many competitive pre-professional students would do anything to enter a prestigious graduate school. 

But even more important than the educational benefits is the brag factor. It is so common to see Facebook profile pictures with smiling African orphans, or declarative Instagram photos about how building a house in Equatorial Guinea changed someone’s life. Volunteering has become a form of social currency, a way to show that you have time, money, and good values. As the journalist Teju Cole writes, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

These attitudes toward volunteering are not limited to an international scope. Every day we are encouraged to volunteer for reasons that go beyond the denotation of the word (which is “to freely offer to do something” emphasis on the “freely”). 

I frequently meet students who will openly admit to me that they are only acting as emergency medical technicians to pad their resumes, or that their charity initiative was a good way to get a job offer. These students are extolled for their work and offered up as poster children for a productive society.  

I am not saying that one must remove all self-interest from volunteering. That would be nearly impossible. Volunteering only out of self-interest, however, is a problem. It is unsustainable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall rates of volunteerism are dropping, despite a majority of college and high school students participating in some sort of volunteer effort, indicating that many Americans stop volunteering as soon as they are no longer obligated to do so. If we volunteer as undergrads, and then stop caring when we are rich investment bankers, we will never solve any of the problems we set out to fix. 

Even more unfortunate is that this seems, to me, distinctly un-Brandeisian. Social justice is about enabling people to have the opportunities to live equal, fair and fulfilling lives. It is not about bettering the lives of people for one day, a week or even a month; it is long term. I think Brandeis can do better with its efforts toward volunteering. Programs like the Commitment to Service Award, that gives participants medals at graduation for tracking their volunteer hours, or Celebrations of Service, that celebrate coups in helping the hungry with a party consisting of plates full of food, are not fostering sustainable and effective attitudes toward volunteering. They are a means to an end, which only serve to enhance the prestige of their participants and the University. I would like to see our campus be more involved in promoting formal and school sponsored nights of reflection, that call upon volunteers to consider how they helped people and how they could better help people in the future, or ways to get involved in volunteering projects that may last a lifetime instead of one Sunday. 

A truly Brandeisian idea would be to institute community events, where various clubs across campus meet to discuss social justice, and how they can help each other in accomplishing significant service. Only when we are thoughtfully prepared to volunteer—in it for the justice of it all—will we be able to make the change we wish to see.