Are Teen Humanitarians Helpful?: CON
September 30, 2011
Among elite high school students, there is an arms race to feed the starving children in Africa. Ten years ago, feeding the homeless was enough to convince both the world and any college admissions board that you were dedicated to community service. But these days, that just doesn’t cut it. No sir, the new trend is to travel to third world countries to save the children, or punch AIDS in the face, or preferably both simultaneously.
Let’s get something straight right off the bat. As a lifetime admirer of Princess Diana, I can assure you that no one wants the children fed more than me. However, the difference between Princess Di and Johnny Harvard-Hopeful is, first, that she offered her help in feasible ways that made a difference, and second, she actually had a long-term commitment to humanitarianism in developing nations.
There’s a reason why there are no pictures of Diana building houses. That’s because she didn’t know how to build a house, and, most likely, neither do you. Developing countries undoubtedly need an enormous amount of help, but that doesn’t mean that sympathetic teenagers are the ones best equipped to help tackle these problems.
Unless you have an extensive background in construction, there is no reason for you to be building houses or schools. I cringe to think of anyone living or learning in a building partially constructed by a group of unskilled teenage girls. Members of the Peace Corp. spend months intensely preparing for their excursion, and most have projects that they are well-versed in and/or have a degree in. This is no small undertaking, and that’s why they are able to make an impact. Teens, on the other hand, are likely not equipped to contribute all that much. There might be realistic ways in which teens can help, but in many, if not most, cases the work is best left to experts who actually know what they are doing.
Therefore, the question must be asked: if these teenagers are unlikely to make an impact on these communities, why are they going in the first place? For some, the answer is that they truly do care deeply about improving the quality of life in undeveloped countries. Others, however, have likely jumped at the opportunity to pad their resume. Nothing says worldly like a couple of staged pictures with adorable children and a touching anecdote about discovering the importance of giving back.
The inevitable paradox is that once everyone can write about saving the children, no one can write about saving the children. The service trip essay is no longer a unique and touching narrative. It has replaced the now overused “my wise grandmother once told me…” essay as the new taboo topic that every college admissions expert advises against writing.
Unfortunately, this means that those who are sincere about humanitarianism are penalized. There’s virtually no way to discern in a mere 500 words who is genuine and who jumped on the superficial bandwagon. The kids who have been traveling to the Dominican Republic every summer since elementary school are indiscriminately lumped in with the kids who snuck in a quick jaunt to Ethiopia the month before their senior year. The fakers have trivialized the entire process.
My advice? If you want to stand out in a sea of overcoached, eager-to-please high school seniors, get a wildly unimpressive summer job. I’m waiting for the essay written by the kid who handed out samples in an unflattering hot dog costume at the mall. I’m guessing that that’s also a life-altering experience.