The University has over 800 student organizations — students can choose to involve themselves in the arts, debate, advocacy, politics, sports, dance and far more. A focus for many groups, however, is service. Students volunteer their time to support local, national and even global causes. Despite these efforts, professors, fellow students and external communities voice ethical concerns with students volunteering outside the University community. In particular, issues with power dynamics and the long-term impacts of student volunteering have yet to be addressed at a large scale.
United2Heal is a CIO that donates unused medical supplies to under-resourced health systems overseas. It’s president is Narjes Bencheikh, a public health graduate student.
“[We donate things] from blankets to syringes to blood pressure cuffs and gauze … anything that can't go bad,” Bencheikh said. “We've worked with Haiti, Syria and refugee camps in Jordan.”
The group contacts local hospitals in Charlottesville — and more recently in Northern Virginia — to determine whether clinics have excess medical supplies. Members then collect those supplies alongside a sister chapter at Virginia Commonwealth University and ship them overseas to various clinics.
Another student group, Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development, works with global clients long-term. SEED is affiliated with the McIntire School of Commerce and Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Enrique Unruh, SEED’s co-vice president of projects and third-year College student, is responsible for connecting students with clients in need of pro-bono consulting.
SEED offers consulting services which range from aiding in the design of products, writing grants, developing client websites and giving financial management advice. The group’s partners include organizations like PureMadi — which created an inexpensive water filter for communities in South Africa — social-entrepreneurship ventures all around the world and local foundations in Charlottesville.
“We prioritize organizations that are more focused on impact rather than profit and provide them with assistance,” Unruh said.
While SEED members work with clients for months or even years at a time, students rarely travel to the areas they support.
Alternatively, Engineers Going Global develops technology for global use while encouraging students to actually travel abroad to build infrastructure and implement that technology.
“Our mission is to inspire students to be proactive and contextually aware engineers who empower and strengthen communities to achieve a higher standard of living,” said fourth-year Engineering student Kyle Limpic, EGG’s president.
One of EGG’s current projects is the Rapid Adaptive Needs Assessment kit — a project advised by their faculty sponsor Dr. Garrick Louis and Professor of Engineering Systems. It is a portable, lightweight water quality testing device that can assess whether water is safe for drinking. The ultimate goal is to deploy the kits after natural disasters when clean water is often inaccessible.
EGG is also working with the Charlottesville EcoVillage Sustainable Design Team to design sustainable housing materials and the Building Goodness Foundation to renovate homes, schools, clinics and community spaces in Posta Azul, Guatemala.
These are just a few examples of the many student-run CIOs which work globally. Others include Global Medical Brigades, Global Medical Mission Alliance, the Hera Initiative, the Blossom Together Association and more. There are also larger, national groups such as Alternative Spring Break and classes or study abroad opportunities that include a global volunteer experience.
University students travel and work all over the world collecting donations, building infrastructure and volunteering, but what exactly is the impact of students’ work in these communities? And, even more importantly, is it beneficial?
History of Development
Countless documentaries, books, podcasts and academic endeavors have tried to determine whether service work in global communities truly serves those whom it is meant to serve. The history of global development is complicated, and the ways in which it has evolved are complex.
Global Development Professor David Edmunds explained the development field is in many ways a response to decolonization after World War II. During the competitive Cold War environment, “governments in Western Europe and the United States are wondering how they're going to maintain influence [once colonies] get their independence,” Edmunds said.
One way Western countries — often referred to as the Global North — sought to maintain control was through Structural Adjustment Programs. These loans, provided by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, came with policy caveats — for example, requiring that states cut back on public spending in health and education. At the same time, SAPs put the Global South — non-Western countries — in crippling debt that many countries are still working to pay off. These loans remain one of the primary reasons for enduring financial and developmental disparities between the Global North and the Global South.
SAPs are a form of neocolonialism — a term used to describe when Western countries use economic policy and globalization to retain a colonial control of former colonies. Additionally, colonialism, and now, neocolonialism, has led to the spread of Western ideals and traditions and the devaluation of Eastern traditions and knowledge. Today, the development field continues to be ingrained in those same colonial mindsets.
“Development is framed as those in the West being the ultimate standard for what a good life is and what a developed society looks like and their noblesse oblige is to help poor countries get to the same place that they are,” Edmunds said. “The dominant development institutions, and I think that includes the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation … they’re still steeped in that legacy of Western superiority [and] American exceptionalism.”
The disparity of wealth and sovereignty between the Global North and the Global South has created power imbalances. Students must be aware of these disparities when working outside of the University community.
“Most students come into the University with the conventional service-learning model where [we feel that] we have knowledge and resources to go help poor people somewhere in the ways that we find easy and amenable,” said Edmunds. “Some of what we have to do at the University is to get students to question that [almost] missionary attitude towards engagements with the Global South.”
The exchange mindset
Questioning the conventional service-learning model that Edmunds references is the first step in examining the work students do abroad and the relationships that facilitate their work. Professor Phoebe Crisman, director of the Global Studies program and professor of architecture and sustainability often facilitates this examination.
“I don't like [the] service paradigm, because it suggests that you're just giving rather than also taking something,” Crisman said. “In any relationship, everyone is gaining something and giving something and feeling good about that exchange.”
This long and tumultuous history of globalism is missing that key paradigm of reciprocity, Crisman said.
“There are groups at U.Va. doing really important work that establish meaningful long-term relationships,” Crisman said. “So I don't think we should discount the possibility of developing a good relationship.”
Students bring skills and labor into a community, but the community also gives students insight into a unique culture and lifestyle. That type of equal exchange of knowledge and ideas is very positive, Crisman said, but there is a major issue of power — a power imbalance means students are taking control of a project without making room for community guidance and leadership.
However, Crisman doesn’t think that power dynamics mean that students should not work outside of their community—rather, she thinks students should be deeply reflective of their work.
“Start by asking yourself why you're there,” Crisman said. “What is your role in that place? What do you bring to it [and] what do you hope to take from it? How is that exchange established?”
In sickness and in health
When thinking about the flaws of development, one of the most important considerations is whether the work being done is short-term or long-term. Short-term work can be invaluable — for example, donating food and giving vaccines saves lives. This kind of service work rarely results in permanent change to the systems responsible for depriving people of food and medicine.
Water inaccessibility in developing countries is an example of the failures of short-term development work. Non-governmental organizations install water pumps, train a group of people to use them and leave. After a few years, the pump almost always breaks down, but the non-governmental organization has already moved on and the pump remains a relic of a failed development project.
This cyclic failure is because NGOs don’t cooperate with the residents and governments of the areas they work in. They fail to be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. NGOs from the Western world act as saviors — they go into communities and think they can do better, but often leave those communities worse off.
“That's often because there isn't a long-term, capacity-building relationship,” Crisman said. “It’s kind of a one-time ‘We're gonna come in and give you this and then we're gonna leave.’ But do students contribute to this? Are students helping in sickness, but never contributing to the reclamation of health?
Limipic is confident that Engineers Going Global has a positive impact on the communities they are working in.
“We strongly believe, as students that are a part of a service-oriented CIO at U.Va., that we have a responsibility to effectively put our technical skills, backgrounds, training and expertise to good use by finding innovative solutions to obvious problems,” Limpic said. “If [EGG] can positively impact some community in some way, regardless of the scale or future business opportunities, we have accomplished our mission.”
Additionally, EGG utilizes what they call an engineering perspective where engineers will identify an issue that needs to be solved, and then come up with a feasible and reasonable solution under the circumstances of the community they are working with. The engineering perspective requires that engineers take the lead — a position Crisman criticizes. A relationship in which students are taking lead is by definition a relationship that is not reciprocal.
While Limpic feels that EGG benefits communities to the best of its ability, Bencheikh recognized that United2Heal’s work only addresses a short-term need.
“[The clinics] are able to get access to medical supplies that they may not readily have on hand,” Bencheikh said. “In the long term, the only downside is [that] we don’t want them to be dependent on our work since it's not necessarily sustainable, and it does fluctuate depending on whether clinics and hospitals are able to donate medical supplies.”
Despite filling a short-term need, United2Heal has maintained relationships with clinics since the group's start six years ago. These partnerships are established via United2Heal’s national organization, while local chapters do local outreach and supply collection.
Bencheikh herself has never traveled to any of the clinics United2Heal donates to and most members have never spoken to a representative for those clinics. Still, the very fact that United2Heal has long-term relationships indicates a level of success, and according to Bencheikh, it’s because United2Heal really tries to listen to the needs of partner clinics.
“I know a lot of other organizations just go into a country, do what they think is right and then leave,” Bencheikh said. “But we're really trying to cater to [our clinic’s] needs, and let them lead the process.”
Likewise, SEED tries to support its clients.
“We do a good job of creating a balance,” Enrique Unruh said. “We really do our best to understand the spaces we’re taking up in a global setting ... prioritizing the client and the local [community].”
Still, Unruh expressed it is difficult to tell what impact development groups have on the communities that they are working in.
“I have a very, very high opinion of the groups [SEED] works with, and I think that they are legitimately attempting a positive change within the communities that they come from,” Unruh said. “But I will say that’s only in the short term. Long term, everything's a little bit up for grabs. I don't know what externalities are potentially being created.”
While he hopes SEED’s impact is good, neither Unruh nor anyone else in SEED can be sure whether their work will be good in the long run.
Nonetheless, uncertainty over the outcomes of work abroad does not necessarily mean it should stop.
“You have to start somewhere,” Crisman said. “ I think starting with the intention that it's not a situation of dropping in for a few weeks and then never coming back again, but really starting to build those relationships. Actually, I would say building them prior [traveling].”
Reexamination and revision
For Edmunds, the ideal initiative is one formed in response to a very specific request or need from a community that the University or its students already have connections to — even if it means the CIO might not last forever.
“The Type A personalities at U.Va. want to start their own thing, and it's a really problematic part of this culture,” said Edmunds. “As a white cisgender man, our best position politically is often to follow and to listen. It is often to do what somebody else asks us to do and not to start our own thing.
None of the prior three CIOs were formed in response to a specific need, and they certainly are not thinking about dissolving any time soon.
Still, there are other changes Bencheikh wants to see from United2Heal.
“I think the biggest thing is trying to find a more sustainable way to have those clinics overseas have access to the supplies that they need,” Bencheikh said. “I think what we've seen throughout the pandemic is that [our work] is so dependent on the state of the United States, and that's not necessarily fair. I also think we could always go for more partnerships.”
Changes recommended by Bencheikh primarily focused on improving the structure of United2Heal and expanding its reach globally. Bencheikh said she had never considered donating medical supplies domestically, but when asked, said she recognized the value in donating supplies from resource-rich to resource-poor areas within the U.S.
“This need has especially been seen throughout the pandemic when it came to PPE,” Bencheikh said. “So I think that [the pandemic] really highlighted that there could be a potential need here in America as well. So in the future, there might be a shift, but it’s never really been considered.”
United2Heal may not be considering local work at the moment, but both SEED and Engineers Going Global are either considering or have started working with local partners in Charlottesville in conjunction with their global partnerships.
“[SEED] probably should begin to transition to working a little bit more locally,” Unruh said. “Being separate [from international clients] does change the dynamic a lot, especially considering that the communities we're serving, we've never actually been to. There's a couple of degrees of separation … [so] we're never going to be able to provide the perfect assistance.”
Things to consider
Still, Limpic feels that global experiences are beneficial, and that students should utilize their skills to help communities around the world.
“Leveraging the resources and education provided to students uniquely positions us to engage in community service both locally and globally,” Limpic said. “EGG believes that student engagement is the driving force in successful U.Va. sponsored service projects.”
Crisman agreed that there is value in global experiences for both the visiting and receiving parties. However, Crisman also said that the power dynamic must be taken into consideration when students are participating in global engagement.
Crisman noted students, especially those from the U.S., must recognize they are in a position of privilege especially as they navigate global engagement.
“[Students] are able to receive this kind of higher education,” Crisman said. “They're able somehow to financially allow themselves to travel to another country or another place. They may be receiving student aid or other ways to allow that to happen, but, still, it’s very much a privileged position.”
This privilege makes it easy to infantilize the populations they are working with or disregard the cultures and people they interact with according to Crisman.
Ensuring that a CIO’s work is ethical requires Crisman’s questions be asked time and time again as leadership changes and time goes on. It takes work to avoid disrespect, and Crisman believes consistent and regularly reinforced education is one way to do this work.
“I think any person entering another cultural space is not going to be perfectly aware of what they're doing no matter how many conversations or lived experiences they've had,” Unruh said. “So I think it kind of comes down to maybe more acknowledging that, and being able to like kind of practice a radical understanding of solidarity.”
Unfortunately, it takes time to learn about different cultural spaces and even more time to develop an awareness of radical solidarity. Students can educate themselves with academic classes, but these classes may not fit into students’ schedules and majors.
“[United2Heal] does attract a lot of like pre-med students that are majoring in biology or chemistry that wouldn't have access to global studies or public health courses necessarily,” Bencheikh said.
Edmunds and Crisman both say that all CIO’s should consider the ethics of their work, educate their members, and engage in critical reflection. But none of these CIOs engage their membership in that educational work.
Educating students through CIOs is challenging, especially as leadership graduates. The current system requires older members to educate their younger members and future leadership. Edmunds noted that this system does not always work, though. CIOs can lose sight of their mission as leadership transitions, and faculty and community members need to step in to ensure that the relationship remains respectful and reciprocal.
That being said, Edmunds feels students are getting better at critiquing themselves and their peers.
“As I've been here students have gotten progressively better about questioning their motivations, thinking carefully about what they're doing [and] trying to build more kind of respectful reciprocal meaningful relationships,” Edmunds said. “They just need to trust their instincts and follow through on those inclinations.”
Becheickh sees the need for membership education within United2Heal. “I think it would be a good idea to sort of have an introductory session talking about the impact and the spaces that we work in,” she said. “If you are doing work globally, there might be a requirement that your CIO has to do a training or seminar for all new members once a year.”
Bencheikh suggested these trainings could be facilitated by faculty and enforced via Student Council, but Crisman preferred a more grassroots approach to membership education.
“Ultimately, each CIO is somewhat different and their goals are different,” Crisman said.
Crisman recommended CIOs leverage faculty advisors to create a code of ethics and educate members about the work they are doing and the communities they are entering.
Both Crisman and Edmunds said CIOs shouldn’t stop at University faculty for advising — rather, they should include community members for the areas they are serving and alumni in their advising groups.
Crisman and Edmunds offered an example of this type of long-term, responsive and deeply reflective work through a project completed via a seminar they co-instructed in the Architecture School and Global Studies Department. The students worked on designing a cultural center for the Dakota tribe in South Dakota.
The two professors partnered with a non-profit called Nisto Incorporated, which is directed by Dustina Gill from the Lake Travis reservation. Gill provided students with text about the history, culture and beliefs of the Dakota tribe, and facilitated conversations between the class and tribe members via Skype.
Students learned about the reservation, the history of the tribe’s displacement from Minnesota to South Dakota, issues of tribal sovereignty, and some of the powerful leadership and activism emerging from the community. Students spent a semester learning about the community and speaking with community members before traveling to South Dakota, where they were hosted by the tribe.
When they arrived, students spent the first few days learning from the tribe in-person.
“We gave them a cultural experience so they would understand first-hand what we were talking about,” said Gill. Students helped to scrape a buffalo hide, heard the Dakota’s creation stories from the elders, and visited Gill’s father in the Earth house. “It really helped them understand how to move forward on designing the building,” Gill said.”
This was a diverse group of students made up of engineers, Global Studies and Architecture students — and their diversity in training meant that for some the act of listening before solving wasn’t a refined skill.
“We had to do a lot of that labor undoing their architect [or] engineer instincts to define [the problem] on day one and solve it on day two,” Edmunds said. “I will say they caught on pretty fast. I don't want to throw shade at engineers and architects because I actually think once you alert them to the issue of listening, they're actually pretty good at it.”
Once this paradigm of listening first was established, the design process was very collaborative.
“We were trying to set up an exchange kind of relationship,” Crisman said. “Rather than designing the building before we arrived and saying, ‘okay, here, what do you think,’ we brought our drawings and model building materials with us. [We] worked together on collaborative design.”
Of course, students did not master the skill of following on day one.
“The architects and engineers were listening and listening to the proposals that the Dakota folks were making,” Edmunds said. “But the Dakota really wanted rounded shapes, and the architects kept resisting and resisting and resisting.”
After some reflection, the architects realized that the reason they did not want a rounded building was that all their designs and building materials were for a square building. However, once this subconscious feeling was verbalized, the students were able to re-attempt the designs with rounded spaces.
“It’s a good example for me how… unconscious some of these prejudices that we hold are,” Edmunds said. “And how much time, work, communication and collaborative planning needs to go into these relationships so that we don't simply reproduce traditional hierarchies.”
The design process took a year — far longer than a summer or a spring break. But it also ensured that students entered the space with gravity, and likewise treated their work with the respect it required. Additionally, the students respected the lived experiences of the people living within the tribe making efforts to learn from them and then later engaging them in the design process.
“It’s about being really open rather than imposing your will on others,” Crisman said. “[It] requires a different kind of mindset than we typically use, which is that somehow we're expected to know the answers to everything. This is a case where you actually don't know, and the goal is not to know but to be open to possibilities and to learn from others.”
At no point are students ever “serving” the community. Gill’s work with the University embraces the reciprocity mindset where all parties bring unique but valuable skills to the table to achieve one common goal.
It is easy to come into global development work with an “intentions are everything” mindset, but good intentions are no longer enough — beneficial development work requires humility, education and constant reflection. Many students and CIOs must take up this educational and accountability work, and it is clear that experts and leaders are ready to support this transition. It’s time to get started.