“We Just Want to Feel Useful”

Making Sense of Student Frustration as an Outcome of Critical Service-learning Experiences

By Willy Oppenheim, University of Washington and Omprakash
Alex Knott, Omprakash

Introduction: Critical Approaches to ‘Doing Good’ Across Difference

In the burgeoning research and practice related to critical service-learning, it is increasingly commonplace to point out the pitfalls of superficial ‘voluntourism,’ and to strive for pedagogical and programmatic approaches that push students to think more critically about their own positionality and the root causes of the social issues that they seek to address. This paper explores the lived experiences of students engaged in a program that seeks to cultivate this sort of critical consciousness, and highlights two particular challenges that emerge from such an approach. First, students who engage in deeper reflection on the implications of their intentions to ‘help others’ often report feeling a sense of frustration, alienation, discomfort, and deflation rather than a sense of success or satisfaction at having ‘helped.’ Second, in some cases students end up directing their frustrations towards the work of their own host organizations, especially when they perceive these organizations to be providing ‘band-aid’ solutions rather than addressing the root causes. How are we to regard such outcomes? Are these frustrations a reasonable—and perhaps even necessary—outcome of critical reflection in service-learning, or have these students missed the point?

In this paper we explore these questions by focusing on three examples of students volunteering in particular thematic and geographic contexts, but our aim is to provoke broader insights relevant to a wider range of educators who aim to encourage reflexivity and uncertainty in their students. We draw our examples—as well as our broader orientation in this field—from our work as research-practitioners within a nonprofit organization that connects students with volunteer and internship opportunities around the world and explicitly aims to encourage critical reflexivity amongst these students before, during, and after their field-based experiences. The organization, Omprakash, provides students with online pre-departure training and mentorship via its ‘EdGE’ (Education via Global Engagement) platform, and enables them to browse and apply for internships within a network of 180+ social impact organizations in 40+ countries around the world. While our cases may seem specific to the work of this organization or to the particularities of students engaged in service-learning activities, our deeper pedagogical and existential questions are relevant to a much broader array of situations in which people cross significant differences of power and culture with an intent to ‘do good,’ and with an accompanying critical awareness of the difficulties of doing so.

As critiques of volunteering and service-learning have grown more prominent (see, for example, Mostafanezhad, 2014; Crossley, 2012), program administrators and participants have increasingly emphasized the importance of student learning and ethical global partnerships rather than ‘service’. Scholars and practitioners have worked to define ethical standards and pedagogical best practices for global service-learning (e.g., Crabtree, 2013; Hartman et al., 2018; Hartman & Kiely, 2014; Lasker, 2016), but there is a lack of substantive literature exploring how such learning actually occurs (or doesn’t) within the messiness of everyday experience.

More specifically, scholars have seldom considered the ironies that emerge when volunteers trained with a more ‘critical’ perspective—that is, a perspective attentive to questions of power and positionality—focus their critical lenses upon the work of their host organizations and are concerned or disappointed to find that these organizations are entangled with some of the same problematic narratives, power dynamics, and incentive structures that volunteers have (hopefully) sought to avoid. This sort of honest critique sometimes seems like a refreshing improvement upon sentimental narratives about ‘local organizations making a difference,’ but can also risk creating perpetuating stereotypes and colonial hierarchies. Our ultimate question is not a normative one about whether these critiques are apt or warranted, but rather a pedagogical one about how to channel these moments of tension and frustration into opportunities for mutual learning and reflection.

‘Corruption is Deeply Cultural’: Student Conflates Structural Violence and Cultural Difference

Our first case study involves a gap year volunteer at an organization in Cambodia that focuses on natural resource management in rural communities. Like many international development organizations, the work of this particular organization is dependent on grants, and a significant amount of their resources go towards donor relations and the documentation of their projects. At the time of the volunteer’s arrival, several projects had recently been concluded, and the organization’s focus had shifted towards monitoring and evaluation, as well as research and grant writing.

After one month at her host organization, the student reached out to her EdGE Mentor with the following email:

This organization is corrupt… There’s barely any program work (at all, not just for me to do), there’s no leadership, and there’s not any accountability to the communities that the organization is trying to serve. … I’ve been sitting here in an office in Phnom Penh for a month, and I haven’t seen anyone work on anything besides reports to donors. I know that it might be cynical, but I think that everyone is in it for the money. The organizational structure isn’t built around program work, it’s built around funding for the admins.

In this case, the student’s primary critiques of her host organization were related to the bureaucratic nature of the organization’s work—a common critique of nonprofit organizations. The volunteer was frustrated by the time taken for the organization to move forward on projects, and by what she saw as an excessive focus on donor relations. She was surprised to see the amount of the organization’s funding that went towards their human resources, as opposed, presumably, to project materials. However, rather than critiquing the larger system in which the organization was embedded and upon which it was dependent, the student explained her observations in terms of a ‘culture of corruption,’ attempting to make the link back to material from the EdGE online pre-departure curriculum:

It reminds me of that last slide that I was looking at with regards to cultural differences with women’s rights and gender inequality. Corruption is deeply cultural in Cambodia, but does that make it right? Appropriate to be intervened in?

The student is referencing a section of the EdGE pre-departure curriculum that aims to complicate the concept of ‘culture’ by inviting students to consider possible limits and justifications for cultural relativism. However, a key cautionary point of this section, and one that this particular student may have missed, is that reifying the idea of ‘local culture’ can obscure important internal differences and distract from broader contextual factors and power dynamics. While this student apparently internalized the discussion regarding cultural relativism, she still ended up interpreting issues with her host organization through the pejorative and reductionistic framework of a ‘culture of corruption,’ rather than pursuing a more nuanced understanding of the context in which this organization was situated.

Part of the student’s frustration also stemmed from her disappointment at there being ‘nothing to do.’ By her own admittance, this was in part because she did not feel qualified to do the sorts of tasks that would be most useful to the organization, such as grant writing. But she had also anticipated doing more ‘program work in the field,’ rather than office-based tasks such as report editing and grant research. Indeed, when speaking to an Omprakash admin after returning from a field visit, she remarked that “it was nice to see what the [organization] actually does.”

While the volunteer remained frustrated with her organization throughout the duration of her internship, she did acknowledge that her experiences working with this particular organization were linked to broader trends within the field of international development:

This experience, though, really highlights the core problem of NGOs: they are not responsible to the people whom they serve. Even at an organization whose stated values are community-based work and transparent leadership, poor people in rural communities take a backseat to donor reports and proposals for funding.

In this case, the volunteer was able to realize some potentially problematic trends within international development—inflated bureaucracies, the need to cater to donors—but rather than exploring the ways in which the organization sought to work within these structures, and supporting their efforts to do so, she reverted to explaining what she saw in terms of ‘corruption,’ and wrote off her internship altogether.

“Outsiders”: Student Reflections on Positionality and Local Authority

Our second case study involves an EdGE student volunteering with an organization focused on education in Costa Rica. This student was a professional teacher in the United States, with a particular interest in equity issues in education. What is notable about this particular case study is that both the volunteer and the staff members of the organization came from the same country—the United States— but differed in their positions of privilege within that society, and this became a point of contention as the volunteer considered her own positionality in relation to her host organization and their local constituents:

The stark differences between the lives of Ticos and gringos in Samara was sometimes too reminiscent of the way things were at home. As a black woman from California, I already knew that the people who would have the biggest houses, the most leisure time, and the most access to travel were almost always fairer skinned, and not from Samara.

During the EdGE pre-departure program, this volunteer had reflected on the idea of “learning service” (Papi, 2012) and had written that she “[intended] to spend a majority of [her] initial experience observing, reflecting, and gaining an understanding of the structure and mission of [the] organization.” However, about one month after her arrival in Costa Rice, the volunteer reached out to a program administrator with several concerns about the organization. She prefaced her concerns with the following reflection on her own perspectives:

I’ve been trained in Sociology and have spent most of my academic years grappling with social issues and issues of power, racism, and poverty for a long time. I realize that I have a tendency to see things that not a lot of people see or understand the effects of. So, what to me seems like an obvious solution, feels like a sanctimonious attack to others.

The volunteer’s concerns were related to topics discussed in the EdGE pre-departure program, including a lack of consultation and involvement of the ‘local community,’ and a privileging of ‘outsiders’’ perspectives. This volunteer was particularly concerned with the macro trends she observed in the inequality in the Costa Rican education system, and was frustrated that her organization was “not addressing these issues.” The administrator encouraged the volunteer to spend some more time asking questions, listening, and observing from staff members and various community members, and entering into respectful discussions about these issues as seemed appropriate.

Several weeks after the initial complaint, it seemed that things had improved: the volunteer had found what she perceived to be worthwhile projects, and she voiced a conscious effort to “[manage her] expectations, while staying vocal and keeping a critical but empathetic eye.” However, tensions between the volunteer and the host organization persisted throughout the remainder of her stay. The following is an excerpt from a blog post written by the volunteer towards the end of her stay in Costa Rica:

I struggle to write this piece because I in no way want to undermine the work of this organization or the positive impact they have had on the lives of students in Samara. But as a trained social scientist with a specialization in education, as someone who wants to tip the scales…what I will lay out are the issues I personally witnessed… The organization had been in the community for 5 years. …. The connections between the organization and the community felt like thin rope bridges over a large dark chasm.

In this case, it seems that the volunteer’s critical orientation enabled her to productively question the positionality of her host organization. However, she was unfortunately unable to get beyond criticisms of her host organization and their status as ‘outsiders’ in order to explore how the organization, working within this particular set of constraints, might be able to improve their relations with the community in which they worked.

“Just Filling in the Gaps”: Student Reflections on Organizational Sustainability and Efficacy

Our third case study involves several university students volunteering with an organization working to support refugees on a Greek island. It is notable that, in this case, volunteers were working within the context of an extended ‘crisis’ situation, or what has been called a ‘crisis in response’ (Tayyar, 2018). Given the specific challenges when volunteering within this context (see Knott, 2017), the volunteers were briefed by an Omprakash team member about the effects of the crisis on the island, and the need to be adaptable when working with mobile populations within a constantly changing situation.

Prior to their arrival, volunteers generally seemed unconcerned about the instability and challenges of working in this context. While volunteers’ individual motivations were varied, their primary motivator was a desire to work with and support refugees. The following excerpt from one volunteer’s Response to Unit 1 of the EdGE pre-departure program provides an example of volunteers’ hopes for their work with this organization:

I want to understand the needs and desires of the people in [the camps], and I want to grasp how this organization goes about meeting that need.

Volunteers imagined being able to connect with refugees, provide them with support, and understand their situation. In reality, many of the volunteers left feeling overwhelmed by the extent of the crisis, disappointed with the organization’s response to the crisis, and deflated regarding their ability to ‘help’ in this context. While some volunteers explained their frustration and disappointment in terms of the political situation on the island or feeling personally overwhelmed, others aimed their criticisms at their host organization. Volunteers’ critiques of the organization varied; some questioned the importance of specific projects, while others were critical of the organization’s lack of ‘consistency’ in their response:

There were multiple projects running during the month I worked with [the organization]; however, many of these fell apart due to inconsistency and lack of proper coordination. I do not feel comfortable supporting or working with an NGO that cannot maintain consistent work that is sustainable. I completely understand the difficulty of maintaining and receiving funds; however, every organization should be able to understand their limits and their purpose, and to provide services that are well out of the organization’s limits is irresponsible.

The organization itself admitted that it was unable to follow through with certain projects for various reasons. In one case, local people voted to block their opening of a community center. In another case, one volunteer’s actions meant that volunteers were banned from operating in a certain government-run camp. As events occurred on the island, the leadership sought to shift priorities, with mixed responses from the volunteers caught up in these changes. One particular volunteer perceived these shifts as evidence that the organization lacked an “identity” as, unlike other organizations that stuck to one project, this organization was just “filling in the gaps.” This volunteer admitted that the organization’s willingness to adapt to changing needs was what attracted him to the organization in the first place, but that, as a volunteer working in that context for months, it became “too hard.” He suggested that after several weeks of doing boring and inconsistent tasks that did little to bring about sustained improvements to people’s circumstances—after all, as he pointed out, people just want to leave the island, and volunteers weren’t able to help with that—he and other volunteers just wanted to do something that made them “feel useful.”

In this case, EdGE-trained volunteers realized the inadequacy of attempts to improve the circumstances of mobile populations on the island, which caused many to feel dissatisfied with their own attempts to ‘help.’ While, for some, this led to a realization about the ineffectiveness of current immigration policies and the need to advocate for political change, others criticized their host organization for delivering what they saw as a piecemeal response in the face of an extended crisis situation. Regardless of the merits or demerits of this critique, what is worth emphasizing here is an ironic tension between the goals of critical pedagogy and ethical global partnerships founded in mutual trust and respect for local knowledge. One volunteer explicitly suggested that EdGE-trained volunteers tended to be more critical of the organization than volunteers that had not engaged in the pre-departure training: in his experience, while non-EdGE volunteers generally left feeling satisfied that “they had done their part,” EdGE-trained volunteers tended to leave feeling unsettled about the organization, their own role on the island, and the situation in general.

“We Just Want to Feel Useful”: Embracing Discomfort Alongside Good Intentions

Rather than providing volunteers with answers, solutions, and a self-congratulatory opportunity to ‘give back,’ critical service-learning demands that students ask more questions, challenge themselves, and realize the shortcomings of attempts to ‘help others’ without a radical change to global structures of power. To some extent, such a perspective, if internalized, is bound to leave volunteers feeling unsettled. While rigorous pre-departure training and scenarios may provide a test run of sorts for the kinds of ethical ambiguity volunteers may encounter, the realities of volunteering abroad may make it more difficult to invoke a critical lens, and particularly one that is directed inwards. Amidst this newfound ethical complexity, volunteers may grasp for clarity and a reassuring sense of having done something to ‘help.’ When they do not feel that this has occurred through their work with their host organization, volunteers with a more critical perspective may be inclined to look for issues with the host organizations themselves, rather than reflecting inwards on the limits of their own perspectives, or searching outwards to learn more about the contexts within which these organizations work. This sort of dynamic should raise concerns for program administrators who seek to help students and host organizations build relationships founded in mutual trust and respect—but at the same time, it would seem naïve and inauthentic to tell students that their frustrations are misguided or that their host organizations are infallible. Instead, we must remain comfortable wading into the complexity, and attempting to do so with humility and open-heartedness.

Although it is tempting to want to prevent or protect students from feelings of disappointment, alienation, frustration, and confusion, we submit that the student emotions we have explored in these case studies are to be expected and even celebrated when they emerge through students’ engagements with difference. These sentiments may even be considered evidence of students’ learning, especially insofar as our aim as critical educators is not to help students feel that they have ‘done their part,’ but rather to encourage them to realize the limits of their ability to create meaningful change without challenging dominant structures of oppression and inequality. This realization is rarely comfortable, but we contend that a healthy sense of discomfort about the shape of one’s world and one’s role within it is in fact a worthy learning outcome in and of itself. The bigger existential question, then, is how to help students work through this sort of discomfort with love and lightheartedness rather than allowing it to metastasize into bitterness and antagonism.