by Jackie Zhang, Staff Writer, December 2022

Are foreign service trips actually helping anyone, or are they just an excuse to get up to the 80 required hours of community service? Foreign service trips are one of the greatest opportunities Nobles prides itself for offering. EXCEL stands for Experimental and Community Engaged Learning and, from the school’s website, is described as “a wide variety of programs revolving around service, cross cultural immersion and hands-on learning in and out of the classroom.” From pictures on the website, to trip videos shown in assembly, to students sharing experiences of the places they’ve gone on through social media, foreign service trips play a large role in shaping the identity of the Nobles community. However, while service is important, understanding the meaning behind service is also crucial to making a meaningful impact. In many cases, volunteering without a concrete understanding of the systemic issues and without a clear objective can be comparable to putting a bandaid over a gaping wound. Can the service trips that Nobles and EXCEL offer sometimes be over-glorified and function as performative activism? 

Students describe their experiences as mostly positive and enriching. “I went to Guatemala in eighth grade and it was a really fun experience. We got to really immerse ourselves in the experience and culture and I was able to practice my Spanish skills a lot. We built sustainable houses out of waste and learned about the systems and structures that cause inequities.” Ava Neal (Class II) said.  Other students describe the importance of bonds they were able to form. “I went on a service trip to South Africa in my eighth grade year and it was a very good experience both bonding with my class and bonding with my teachers on the trip,” Emma Thomas (Class I) said. From the accounts of students, EXCEL foreign trips are great bonding experiences and offer opportunities for students to immerse themselves in a new culture.  

“I think there’s a lot of different ways that our students benefit from these trips. Going outside of their comfort zone, being with other students that might not necessarily be in their friend group, trying new things. You could take a risk on a paper but you might get a bad grade. There’s not a grade attached to these experiences,” Head of EXCEL Laura Yamartino said. 

As for the service aspect of the trips, students offered contrasting perspectives on the specific work they were assigned to do. Some students offered accounts of their experiences in a more positive light. “Physically, we definitely made an impact like helping to build a house and giving these people support. I think it was worthwhile in that we actually interacted with people and helped them,” Christian Figuereo (Class II) said. 

However, experiences are mixed as other students described less positive ones regarding the service they performed. Some reported that they were expecting to do more service based on what the trip advertised and were disappointed at the lack thereof. “For service at St. Brendans in South Africa, we didn’t do as much as I expected us to do. The only service aspect of that part of the trip, which was five days, was just picking up trash. Going on the trip, I was expecting more profound, larger-scale service aspects,” Thomas said.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about the language of community service; […]think about these trips as community engaged learning instead of our kids serving or ‘helping’ people in another place,” Yarmartino said. She added “I think it’s really important to acknowledge that when we’re sending a group of people somewhere, we are aware that we aren’t saving the world.” The difference between Thomas’ and Figuereo’s experiences indicate that not all service trips succeed in the goals that Yamartino discussed and that there is still work to be done in communicating the goals of foreign service trips to the students embarking on them. 

Figuereo suggested that foreign trips as a whole shouldn’t have that specific service aspect to them. “Coming from the Dominican Republic [myself], I know there are definitely service trips to the Dominican Republic or Haiti. And I know people [from these places] would talk about them in that bad way. I hear people from personal experience talking about it, and I don’t think they necessarily want us there,” he said. 

His opinion is that service work in his own communities often felt more meaningful and less intruding. “I think trips like the New Orleans trip and other ones in the United States helping them to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina or like the Middle School Day of Service are much more impactful in that we get to learn about our own communities.”  

Other students felt as if the structure of service trips could be altered to better educate students. Neal suggested “doing more hands-on learning about how systemic inequities lead to these people needing this kind of service instead of it just being us swooping in and helping these ‘poor disadvantaged people.’” Others agreed that having a certain awareness coming into the trip was essential. “I think that it should be made more clear what the service goal is, and that should be established before going on the trip. Why are you doing the service, who this is impacting. Not just going in and superficially fixing something” Thomas said.  If the possible adjustments to these service trips only alter the experiences of the students, it once again begs the question of who are these ‘service’ trips even for? 

The EXCEL office definitely has a ways to go in making sure that all of their foreign service trips do not fall precariously into performative activism. “Our team has talked a lot about developing a shared set of vocabulary, which is a school wide effort that will help students have cross-cultural competence and have conversations with people from different places.” Yamartino said. As EXCEL trips start up again, the department has some considerations to make before proceeding with the standard trips as usual.