As someone currently in the throes of the medical school application process, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the sorts of things that pre-medical students do in order to present themselves as ideal candidates for medical school. Schools are looking for someone that is not only intelligent, able to perform well academically, and experienced in research that hones their problem-solving skills, but also someone who has demonstrated generosity for their fellow humans in some tangible way. Simply put, if you want to have a shot at medical school, you had better start volunteering. It’s an unspoken requirement. The fact of the matter is that in order to get into medical school, compassion becomes credentialized. Empathy becomes a commoditized asset. Cultural competency becomes quantified on your resume. And as soon as something becomes part of a resume, that is where the problems begin.
One day I was sitting in the Retreat and I overheard someone (who shall remain unnamed) boasting to their friend about how they were going to lie in their medical school application about what volunteering they had done. Now, I do not think that most people that apply to medical school just completely fabricate volunteer experiences out of thin air like this particular individual, but I imagine that many people exaggerate their hours or the meaningfulness of their experiences. Many pre-medical students engage in short term or superficial volunteering, and this is not necessarily their fault. When your busy schedule changes every semester, when you are in different places during the school year than during the summers, and when becoming a volunteer often requires you to send applications and fill out extensive paperwork and jump through hoops upon hoops, it can be a challenge to find a long-term community service position that actually benefits those it seeks to serve more than the volunteers’ resumes.
For many pre-medical students, the solution to this problem is to pay (or have their parents pay) for a volunteer trip abroad. Medical schools love for their applicants to show commitment and enthusiasm to medicine and engage in community service, and organizations with programs that shuttle pre-meds overseas know this. These voluntourist trips allow you to help to set up health education workshops, shadow and observe physicians, or even perform basic medical tasks, but mostly they are a chance for privileged Westerners to learn about the “developing world” and to exercise their great responsibility to fix the lives of those that are less fortunate. For the low, low price of a few thousand dollars (which may or may not include the cost of airfare), you can spend one, two, or three weeks in a country of which you have little cultural understanding or communication ability, with no applicable medical skills, and occasionally perform unlicensed and unqualified work. Of course, you’ll end up with a powerful personal and emotional epiphany about yourself and the world at large to make this exotic investment worth it. Voluntourism knows that poor women and children of color have global economic value, and as such they have been commoditized as a source of personal gain or fulfillment for white tourists. “Calling the experience ‘completely transformative,’ local 22-year-old Angela Fisher told reporters Tuesday that her six-day visit to the rural Malawian village of Neno has completely changed her profile picture on Facebook,” reads an article in The Onion. The photograph of the young white voluntourist smiling and surrounded by a group of children of color—a foolproof method of illustrating the white savior complex and framing oneself as a hero—is perhaps the most iconic image of voluntourism. Exploiting these children on social media triggers a barrage of comments that validate the conceptualization of the voluntourist as kind, moral, and noble, and exploiting them on an application as a “life changing experience” that you “learned so much from” ensuring that these trips are qualify you as A Good Person.
This might all sound cynical of me, but let’s face the facts: we are largely unskilled students. Maybe we can collect food or clothing for the poor, serve meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless, or raise money to donate to a charity organization, but our labor is not needed abroad, and often our labor is not needed at all. While I do not think that medical schools should stop looking for altruistic physicians-to-be, and I am not advocating the end of participation in local community service, I do urge people (especially pre-medical students) to think critically about what they are doing and confront the ways in which they have been trained to partake in these experiences as a part of a national and global market of consumer humanitarianism. Is your volunteering really working to address the local community’s actual long-term needs, or is imposing its own agenda and beliefs? Is your presence in the space actually beneficial and necessary, or would a local community member be more suited to your role? Is the presence of the organization and yourself enforcing power dynamics of race or class onto local community members? Would you still be doing this if you knew that community service was not something that “looks good,” or is this superficial volunteering for the sake of your application? Are you simply using other people’s poverty as a convenient outlet for you to “learn something” and “grow and transform” yourself and your perspective?