Studying and volunteering abroad are highly valuable opportunities for pre-med students. While there are many great volunteer and study abroad programs out there, there are just as many organizations that aren't run well. These programs can lead students and volunteers into dangerous situations, often with disastrous consequences.
Depending on the program, what volunteers and students do overseas can either help or hurt communities abroad. This is especially true for pre-med students or volunteers in the medical field.
It's important to understand the ethical context of going overseas and the power and responsibility we all have as volunteers.
As someone who works in the field, I want to help you choose an ethical and safe pre-med study / volunteer program. To do this, I've highlighted pitfalls to watch out for and questions to ask to make sure your program is legit.
Volunteers Are Given Unclear Missions
When I was 18 and a freshman at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, I went on a week-long mission trip with a church headquartered in Waco, Texas. All in all, there were at least 800 college students that descended upon Juarez, Mexico.
Nothing stands out to me more from that time than being introduced to a weeping man, who I was told needed prayer. He was brought to me so I could "learn" how to pray better for other people, but I didn't know Spanish -- I still don't. To this day, I have no idea what was troubling that man, or if my foreign language prayers impacted him in any positive way.
In hindsight, I also wonder what happened to the enormous amount of money raised from more than 800 college students paying for a trip to Mexico. What did the church do with it? What lasting relationships did they have to the city of Juarez? I still don't have those answers.
Turning to the medical field is the story of Dr. Jessica Evert, Executive Director at Child Family Health International (CFHI). She traveled to Kenya to volunteer as a first-year medical student. During this trip, she was asked to do a spinal tap on a child, a procedure that she had only read about in books.
In her own words, “The child cried. He was held down, and there was no anesthetic. I ended up not doing the procedure right, so it delayed his diagnosis."
This occurred 15 years ago. Dr. Evert now leads CFHI, an organization which leads efforts to expose the ethical pitfalls of volunteering in hospitals and clinics and provides mindful global health fieldwork experiences. Even while CFHI and a handful of other very thoughtful, careful organizations strive to provide meaningful and safe international opportunities with vulnerable populations, the overall context of international volunteering remains troubling in key areas.
The Programs Aren't Sustainable and Take Away from Local Businesses
Returning to Kenya, an article released earlier this year reported that foreigner-led medical camps were shut down in the country after the discovery that many of those "doctors" were operating without a sufficient medical license. In addition, these camps were drawing patients and resources away from the local health systems that had licensed doctors and facilities, as well as continuity of care so essential for many health issues.
The result? The government of Kenya put a temporary moratorium on foreign doctors operating without official supervision from local health professionals.
So How Do You Make the Right Decision?
As an individual looking for a pre-med study abroad or volunteer abroad program, you risk getting thrust into stories like the above. So how do you, the discerning traveler, avoid harm? How can you tell whether or not your sending organization is the "right one"?
There are great resources available to discern whether or not your volunteer experience will adhere to a high level of ethics. For example, you can read generally about volunteer programs on The Forum on Education Abroad Standards or this list of red flags when considering a volunteer program by Eric Hartman. Go Overseas has tips for choosing a legitimate organization as well. But first, let's focus on some of the key guidelines.
1. Are there connections to local organizations / professionals?
A sustainable and ethical sending organization will have close relationships with local organizations or professionals. These connections promote the local culture, context, and people in interactions between the volunteer site and the sending organization.
As a result, fewer miscommunications occur, and these partnerships also allow for the practice of assets-based community development, where the voices of the local people shape the project's direction.
Within this same category, pay attention to the financial partnerships between the sending organization and local organizations. Are the finances separate? Is there a considerable amount of money being infused within the local environment? If so, is that money controlled by the ending organization or the local experts? Answering these questions will tell you a lot about the program you are considering.
2. How transparent is the sending organization?
Any organization you are looking into should give a description of the program you are signing up for. Are there clear outcomes listed? How specific or vague are the descriptions of the activities? In your interactions with the organization, are they clear with the details?
Furthermore, does the program depict the local culture and context in a fair and uplifting manner? You'll want to pay close attention to the photos that the organization has posted and consider what story that they tell you.
In particular, you should pay close attention to how the photos depict the volunteers and the local people together. Does it tell a story of equity and partnership, or does it reinforce the white savior complex?
3. Does the organization ask you to do something you aren't qualified to do?
This final category may be the most straightforward and important. I will bring you back to my own story above. What good did I do praying for a person that couldn't understand my language? Also, what message did my efforts as a foreign, white college student send to the local people?
The concern is even greater when speaking about medical volunteering. If no sane person would have you stitch their wounds in your home country, then by order of logic, you shouldn't be doing that in a foreign country. This issue is spoken of directly in a recent episode of Al Jazeera's: The Stream.
There is a fundamental removal of dignity that occurs when viewing local people in foreign contexts as "practice" for your medical skills. Sending organizations that seek a high level of ethics will put students in a position to learn and observe, rather than have them participate directly in medical procedures.
It's an even better sign when an organization takes the time to assess your skills, giving you access to procedures you are competent in, while only allowing the observational role for procedures you aren't qualified for.
The Bottom Line
With countless organizations vying for your money and your time, you owe it to yourself to understand the ethical context of going overseas and the power and responsibility we all have as volunteers. When going overseas, you are entering into a location with a history full of stories of joy and triumph, as well struggle and pain.
Consider the stories I have told, the advice that I have laid out, and go and do the most good. I'll leave you with the simple challenge of my organization CFHI, "Let the world change you."