Jace Tor Bulger, University of Wollongong

This blog provides a student perspective on volunteer tourism or global service learning (GSL) programs. These programs are ever increasingly catching the eye of white, privileged students. For many, they represent an appealing way for people to experience emotional growth through feeling like they have done something good for humanity.

It is important to note that cross-cultural learning for young students is vitally important. Those experiences allow for the growth of understanding and cooperation between people globally, which is highly important in an increasingly globalised world. However, how these connections are formed is important – as is ensuring that a hegemonic position is never taken by one side. In this context, the white hegemony refers to imposing certain dominations, whether cultural or economic over a community, especially ones who have already suffered colonisation.

The majority of GSL programs take place in the Global South and are largely undertaken by white students from the Global North. These young people can, at times, leave behind harmful but unintentional impacts due to the complexities in cultural differences and racial structures that contribute to reproducing neo-colonialism (Larsen & Jensen 2020). This includes ongoing social and economic control in communities that can occur from volunteer tourism or aid. If students are not aware of their impacts and how racial structures and white hegemony intersect with social and economic control, they can harm communities through power imbalances and one-sided relationships.

Pre-departure learning centred around cultural differences and race is especially important for white students to ensure they do not reproduce neo-colonial structures through aid work.

Further, the intentions of the sending institutions also have an impact on how pre-departure learning is centred. GSL trips present opportunities for marketing, and placement within the global workforce as well as for genuine cross-cultural engagements. In some situations, important aspects of pre-departure learning can be missed.

What needs to stay

The GSL pre-departure and post-trip learning that I did, covered a number of topics that were incredibly important:

  • Education on cultural and political differences that allows for an understanding of the social and economic climate.
  • Reflection on experiences with reference to academic literature for students to process what they have seen to avoid negative attitudes developing.
  • Reflections on what it really means to ‘help’ without being condescending or placing yourself on a pedestal.

Aided by reading and reflecting on Gronemeyer’s (1992) “Helping”, students undertaking a trip to Tanzania from the University of Wollongong were able to come to understand that helping and providing aid can become an exercise of power.

This is incredibly important for students to learn about, as GSL trips are often primarily done for the student’s own benefit, as the experience is emotionally, academically and socially rewarding (McIntosh & Lakey 2023). Ultimately, however, this then validates privilege and white hegemony without creating a chance to foster a deeper understanding of racial structures and their role in volunteer aid.

GSL students and studies

Olcon (2023) and McIntosh and Lakey (2023) conducted separate studies into GSL programs and students, recording reflections and attitudes toward the intersection of the Global South and providing aid. These studies highlighted key issues that require improvement.

Olcon’s (2023) three-week study focused on social justice and human rights students from the USA undertaking a GSL program to West Africa. The most notable outcomes from interviews included:

  • An avoidance of discussions on racial matters; and
  • Only focusing on what students deemed as “pleasant” topics (race not being one of them).

The topic of race can be an uncomfortable one, yet that is why it is important for white students to understand colonial racial structures and recognise their biases.

McIntosh and Lakey’s (2023) study was over the expanse of three years and included 70 students and their reflections at varying stages of each project.

There were three general narratives that most students followed:

  1. Students participated in the trip as it would look good on CVs;
  2. The local communities really needed their help, and were so grateful for it; and
  3. Students remarking that they would never be able to live in those conditions and are so grateful to be home.

The narratives all focused on the students themselves, with a lack of consideration for outcomes in the community they volunteered in. This is disempowering for communities as it allows for the white students to be placed socially above the community members they aim to help.

Both of these studies highlight that one of the most important, but frequently missed, topics of pre-departure learning is how racial structures are embedded by colonialism.

What needs to change

A good starting point would be moving away from the Western narrative of the Global South being the ‘Other’. ‘Othering’ has allowed for the West to become centralised in GSL programs, making GSL about the student. This can be done through highlighting the interconnectedness that states in the Global South have with the rest of the world.

Changing the narrative of how the Global South is perceived by the Global North changes how students perceive their experiences and what they take away from a GSL trip through reflections. Encouraging unjudged honesty helps students move away from biased racial thinking patterns.

The most important aspect of pre-departure teaching, however, is students having a deeper understanding of colonial history and neo-colonialism through teachings of white hegemony and Western racial structures.

Finally, the majority of white students do not realise their own biases, which can contribute to neo-colonialism when participating in aid work, but through continuous honest critical reflection, decentring the West, and pre-departure teachings on racial structures and white hegemony, students can get the most out of GSL programs that can be better beneficial to the community, whilst working toward a more even power dynamic.


Gronemeyer, M 1992, ‘Helping’ in W. Sachs (ed) The Development Dictionary: a Guide to Knowledge as Power, Zed Book, London, pp.53-69

Larsen, R Jensen, S 2020, ‘The imagined Africa of the West: a critical perspective on Western imaginations of Africa’, Review of African Political Economy, vol. 47 no. 164, pp. 324-334.

McIntosh, M & Lakey, E 2023, ‘Going global (again): gratitude and service learning in post-pandemic times’, Higher Education Research and Development, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 382–396.

Olcon, K 2020, ‘Confronting Whiteness: White U.S. Social Work Students’ Experiences Studying Abroad in West Africa’, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 318–335.