Service of Charity II

July 26th, 2011

Categories: Charity, Education


In “The Do-Good Zeal of the College Bound,” Caitlin Flanagan reported that “many of our most ambitious high school students now prefer combining international travel with community service experiences in desperately poor countries. The elite college-bound teen now wants–with the zeal of the convert and the focused intensity of a safe cracker–to ‘give back.’ Never, ever get between a Yale applicant and his or her chance to give back. You will be mowed down in an instant.”

waving-goodbyeIn her Wall Street Journal article Flanagan answers the question of how parents can feel comfortable sending their teen to these remote areas: “The answer, as always, is to throw money at the problem.” She notes that for $5,000 plus $2,400 for the flight from JFK Airport, organizations like Global Routes and Global Works will deliver a student “to an unpronounceable village in Cambodia” or for a “service and surf” experience in the Fiji Islands.

peace-corps1The students do what their Peace Corps predecessors did-“build schools, teach English, advance the cause of global understanding,” Flanagan maintains. “The difference was that the Peace Corps generation (who are the parents of the Global Routes kids) did not see their efforts as quid pro quo. Yet I doubt there has ever been a Global Routes kid who hasn’t uttered the incantatory phrase, ‘This will look good on my college applications.'”

Flanagan, a former college counselor at a prep school, observes, “Admissions officers at elite colleges see these trips for exactly what they are: worthwhile endeavors undertaken by well-intentioned kids, but no different from a Grand Tour of Europe–just the current fashion for wealthy youngsters, who are supervised and pampered at every step.”

shopping-bagsFlanagan adds “The ‘I just want to give back’ kids are starting to exhaust all of us because what they’ve really become good at is taking. They take up most of the spots in the best schools in the country, they wrap any scurrilous activity they can think of–from fraternity keggers to middle school make-out parties–in the banner of heart-rending causes…”

I also question the intention of most of these kids. The strategy is clearly to pork up their resumes and their parents are on board. That’s OK, but in this economy, the way they are going about it gives me pause. I mentored a public school graduate who excelled at a city college, took a full course load and strenuous, high profile paid internships at the same time. On graduation, he earned a fabulous if stressful job at a Fortune 100 corporation where is is now. At 25 he continues to make time to mentor high school students and run charitable initiatives. He’s helped others since high school, all on his own. In addition, I’ve met scores of scholarship students who beef up their resumes the old fashioned way: With incredible internships combined with any paying jobs they can get and excellent grades.

There are so many essential ways that these Global Routes/Works students could help while feeding their resumes right here in the good old US of A and in most cases, not 50 miles from home. Shame on them and their parents for supporting an empty suit approach to charity. Instead, they might send to charity the money they spend to ship their kids to these offshore programs and watch their children grow by really helping others, close to home. Agree?


14 Responses to “Service of Charity II”

  1. Catherine C Said:

    There is certainly merit in the old saw, “Charity begins at home,” and I believe charity is best when it comes from the heart. I’m glad to hear that colleges can spot those who are merely dressing up their applications. As host of a radio talk show devoted to showcasing individuals of all ages who address social needs/problems/potentials by rolling up their sleeves and creating a solution (a foundation, a nonprofit, a project, a push for legislation, etc.), I have interviewed young people who are DIY World Improvers according to that definition. Some of their efforts are, indeed, focused on things like providing education for young women in developing nations, fighting malnutrition, etc. Others are focused on issues here in the U.S. I have also interviewed young people who went on trips similar to those you describe, came back and got more involved in meeting the needs or solving the problems they saw while on those trips. I’ve also talked to young people who are guides on trips like those, started a DIY World Improvement project in the country where they are based and get contributions for their project through kids who’ve formerly been on a trip and their parents. So although I agree with you for the most part, it’s not completely black and white.

  2. Amy C. Said:

    How can she even compare these programs to the Peace Corps? These kids are 16 years old! If I was their mother, you’re absolutely right I’d want them supervised at every step. Why is she portraying this as a bad thing? Did she SEE those trials of the women suing the Peace Corp because they turned a blind eye to complaints that the female volunteers were being sexually assaulted and robbed when doing their 2 year stint abroad?

    I don’t know, maybe my perspective is skewed because I WAS one of those 16 year olds that went to Europe for the summer. I’m hardly in the silver spoon set, but my parents sent me on a study program that had me in the classroom learning Irish History, Art, etc for part of the day, and seeing the sights around Ireland for the rest.

    While not exactly academically rigorous, the program taught me how to work in a group (something that some people NEVER learn), how to live without the safety net of my parents close by, and most importantly, that there was a bigger world out there, just waiting for me to explore it. Today, I don’t think I would be as brave or as capable of traveling solo without a program like this.

    Maybe these kids aren’t exactly changing the world out in “some unpronounceable village in Cambodia”, but at least their eyes are being opened. This woman just sounds bitter.

    Oh – full disclosure, I absolutely intend on volunteering abroad sometime in the next few years. I’ve found many fellow travelers (long out of college) that have done it and say it’s both educational and fun.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What a relief to know that some of the students return from their trips with a mission to help others. I guess I’ve observed or met some of the other kind.

    And if, as you note, charity is best when it comes from the heart, everything else falls into place, something that many never catch on to or “get,” which is their loss.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Amy C,

    I, too, went to Europe as a teen–South America as well–and I agree with you that learning about and living in other cultures is a wonderful bonus and benefit. But your class work wasn’t billed as “charity” nor were my trips.

    I am lucky in that I know you, Amy, and I know where your heart is. You are a very generous, level-headed, talented person. Those you help as a volunteer will benefit. I wonder if you have met some of the students Caitlin Flanagan describes. I don’t think you’d like them. Perhaps Ms. F, as a former counselor to a chunk of them, has experienced an overdose.

  5. Richard P. Said:

    Thank you for writing this post. That higher education is a mess is no secret, but you have focused on a sordid side of it about which I previously knew little.

    One of the most brilliant lawyers I’ve ever known, the late Stanley Cohen, who graduated first in his class from Harvard Law School in the mid 1950s used to complain about that venerable institution now requiring students to take ethics classes. His point was that in his day anybody who didn’t know what ethics were would have been unlikely to have been admitted to the place, and if he were admitted, would have lasted two seconds before being expelled. The business of parents is to teach ethics. The business of Harvard Law School is to teach the Law.

    Similarly, the business of a college is to educate. Charity does begin at home, and should stay there. It has no business being hyped, at no doubt huge expense, by lazy educators as a substitute for learning. I even know of one prestigious institution which gives course credits to students for chopping wood for monks at a local monastery. It is appalling!

    As to the “pseudo” Peace Corps “experience,” I served briefly in 1962 as a well-paid young executive – my office was next to the Director’s — at the headquarters of that brilliant Kennedy PR brain child, until I resigned in disgust at the hypocrisy and intellectual, and often real, dishonesty of that “beacon of shining goodness.” The “pseudo” experience must only be worse!

    If you really want to do something for your kids, don’t inflate their superiority by parading them in comfort to see the misery of sick starving people without hope. Most of them already have egos desperately waiting to be punctured. Instead, insist that they enlist in something tough like the Marines. That experience will do them far more good.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Richard P,

    I can’t believe that each and every Peace Corps experience is as you describe it.

    I like to believe that the Peace Corps is a little like a PR or advertising agency: As good as the account people assigned to a client. You could be at the best place in the world with an arrogant, ignorant bunch of greenhorns and at a tiny place you never heard about before with a hardworking, bright, dedicated staff. In some outposts were no doubt fabulous, well-meaning, smart volunteers and at others…maybe not so hot.

    Lillian Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s Mom, was a tough bird. If I was a native and saw her coming to help my village, when she served in India, I’d think that I’d learn a thing or two from her. Her son certainly continued her legacy of helping others. Charity was/is real for them both.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    I can’t pretend to know what’s in the back of a students mind when he applies to an international program, but I am highly suspicious of anyone questioning someone else’s motives – even if she writes for the Wall Street Journal. Has this reporter actually seen what she is talking about, or is it mostly hearsay? In addition, I would like to know what’s wrong with beefing up a resume with honest statements regarding ones activities? Looks as if there’s a big bunch of sour grapes being swallowed here!

    Considering the insular existence Americans have in relation to the rest of the world, it’s a good thing that some of our youth show interest in other cultures, and make efforts to help out when and where assistance is needed. So they’re rich! So what? Perhaps seeing the squalor in which others live will give them a sense of what’s needed to better the planet.

    That said, there’s an embarrassing amount of poverty and hunger right here at home, and there are young people trying to assist in those areas as well. Those with differing tastes will lean in equally productive directions, without having to listen to disapproving murmurs from the sidelines.

    The bottom line is much needs to be done here and elsewhere, and to criticise those who alleviate pain, whether here or abroad, is downright shameful.

  8. jeanne Byington Said:


    I can’t speak for the writer but given her background as a counselor at a private school, I’d bet she knew piles of spoiled children for whom everything is done and whose “foreign experience” is a whitewashed one. The kids have learned their expertise of blah blah at their father’s and mother’s knees. If their parents were in the Peace Corps, they have forgotten why or they were in the contingent Richard was familiar with. I think she knows what she’s writing about. I also think there are exceptions that Catherine pointed out. Thank goodness.

  9. Lucrezia Said:

    If I remember correctly, I was a private school student, and do not accept the argument that it was in another time and that people thought “differently” then. Altruism and opportunism lurk in us all, even in “rich” kids. The author, along with any logically thinking person should know that. Children are NOT their fathers and mothers, to the chagrin of many parents, not to speak of writers who presume to reach into their minds and reveal their motivations.

    I don’t buy into the notion that if someone is a counselor, they necessarily know what they are talking about – and the theory one can look into anothers mind, simply doesn’t wash – unless “psychic” or “mind reader” is part of the job description.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Not all students in private school come from wealthy families but there’s no question that today’s wealthy families differ from those of even 25 years ago and that life and priorities and business is conducted in a more cutthroat manner than before. No surprise that some of the kids follow this model.

    There are obvious exceptions, always have been, as in the preacher’s kid who commits dastardly acts and Mr. and Mrs. Nouveau’s child who prefers wearing rags to nice clothes. An overlay to this story, while not new, is the helicopter parent who micromanages a child’s every move, including how to lard up a resume. I’ve written previously that both corporations and colleges report that some parents expect to participate in their kid’s interviews.

    You don’t have to be psychic or a mind reader to identify the b-s artist and faker. There are some in every group.

  11. Martha Takayama Said:

    I am in wholehearted agreement with the ideas expressed by Caitlin Flanagan and you.

    It is difficult to understand the beneficence or nobility of purpose exhibited by the entitled using personal financial advantages to bear colonial style aid to other countries while as a nation we have endless needs to be attended to within our borders. Our current socio-economic and political performance is so bewilderingly disastrous, that I am amazed that we do not feel embarrassed to offer such assistance.

    In addition to the always poor and the newly poor, we have an ever-growing population returning from combat with problems of a nature we are not prepared or equipped to handle!

    The myriad declarations of good intentions generally fail to make sense on a practical level as they simultaneously fail to camouflage the many attempts at manipulative self-aggrandizement.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If we only knew that the poor in these countries were being given “colonial style aid.” Flanagan’s reference to “service and surf” in the Fiji Islands made me wonder about the quality and usefulness of this help, especially without instruction.

    I “taught” sewing to NYC public school kids when most of them knew how to sew better than my 9th grade self [or my current self, for that matter]. We were glorified babysitters.

  13. Nancy Farrell Said:

    I had a lively discussion with a friend recently over the topic of what motivates people to volunteer. She’d been volunteering with an organization and way trying to help very ill children go on fantastic trips and was dismayed that the families didn’t thank her and sometimes didn’t even show up for meetings. I don’t think that we should expect or need to be thanked because I believe that everyone gets something out of volunteering, whether it be a resume booster or just feeling useful as a human being or feeling closer to God or thankful for what we have–the benefits are endless.

    I don’t think that makes us selfish. On the contrary, I think that it means that we want to improve ourselves. As for these rich kids, if they and their wealthly friends want to pump some much-needed cash into economies that need it that’s fine by me. And if their parents want to raise money for charity by attending gala dinners and events and sit on boards so that they can give back I don’t have a problem with that either. As for these children taking up spots in the best schools in the country, well my dad has a saying that someone has to be at the bottom of the class, even at (fill in the name of elite school here).

  14. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Perhaps your friend has not had a very sick relative or friend–especially a child. Can you imagine how close to the edge you would feel if your child was as sick as these children must be? Thank someone? I wonder how the parents could remember to breath. That said, it is always nice to be thanked.

    I wonder how much cash these kids are spending in the countries they visit. I get the feeling that the money goes to the company that organizes the trips. Maybe for a bit after they return home some might send a care package or two or buy some baskets or weavings from natives. I may be very wrong, hope that I am, and that the kids do spend or give money or useful gifts while doing other “good deeds.”

    You Dad is very wise and his saying made me chuckle.

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