Does the Cost Outweigh the Benefit? Serving Abroad Guest Post with Madeline Warrick

By Madeline Warrick

Before we start, a HUGE shoutout to Madeline for writing this guest piece for the blog! Thank you for engaging with our content and being willing to contribute to the conversation! Now on to Madeline’s thoughts about serving abroad.

Disclaimer: These opinions and beliefs are mine and do not reflect those of my program (which I have chosen to remain nameless) or the people associated with it. I would also like to thank Jake and Ria for giving me the opportunity to be a guest writer on their blog! -Madeline Warrick

I’m not sure I believe service abroad should be a thing.

How hypocritical of me, right? I’m literally doing the definition of service abroad, yet I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that I don’t think the cost outweighs the benefit. I’ve discussed this with friends back home, friends here, and heck, even my own supervisor, but I have yet to have someone give me a compelling argument for why service abroad should continue to prevail. But first, let me give you some background on my situation.

My senior year of college, I realized the degree I had been working toward for 4 years was suddenly something I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to do with my life, and if I did, I wasn’t ready to jump into my 40-year career until it was time to retire, type lifestyle. I had done some service trips throughout my time in college, and I had gone abroad several times, so I felt like choosing a service abroad program for my time after college would give me time to consider what I wanted to do with my life, while also still being able to learn, grow, and help a community, hopefully finding my passions along the way. I’d also thought I was super conscious of what it meant to “serve abroad the correct way”:

  1. Don’t just give them money.
  2. Don’t come in thinking you know more than the community does about their home.
  3. NEVER take photos with children, even if it is your main job to work with children.
  4. Come alongside the community, not at them, with your ideas. 
  5. Create systems that last so even after you leave, the community can continue to thrive.
  6. Make sure your service lasts longer than just a few months.

Simple, right? I thought I so. I had picked a program that aligned with my values of service, and one that would put me in another country for 2 years. Even during our 3 week training, they discussed how to serve “the correct way” with the community. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think those things above are still very important. I think those things are what it takes to “serve the correct way”, plus many more that aren’t listed. But as the anniversary of my one year of being in Uruguay comes up, with one year left to go, I’m not sure if what I’m doing is impactful, even following all of these rules.

I think one of the things that has influenced my decision on this the most is the disadvantage of language. I took 4 years of Spanish in high school and none in college, so when I arrived here, I had a very basic (and I mean BASIC) foundation while essentially starting over again. However, I’m not sure that if I had been fluent in Spanish before I came that it would have made any difference. 

After one year, I can understand what people are saying. I can have conversations. But something I’ve realized about language is that if you’re learning another one later in life, it’s not just going to take you one or even two years completely immersed in order to understand the nuances and social intricacies that goes with truly understanding another language. No matter how fluent you are it would take years of only speaking, reading their books, and watching their television in order to be genuinely fluent. 

When I first arrived, I felt like nothing but a barrier, even though the people around me were extremely patient. I was working in a school with the social education team, as well as in a community center, and a government funded school on the weekends in an impoverished area. But I’ve come to realize this was one of those times when my anxiety and tension I felt was acting up for a good reason. The people with whom I was working with had to spend more time explaining to me what was going on with their limited English abilities rather than focus on what needed to get done. And when we would do activities with students or children, it was difficult for me to be taken seriously as a leader because the kids knew more about what was going on than I did. 

Well, a year has gone by. I can now communicate. But has the situation changed? For me, I feel like the deficits have just changed location. It started when I was working on a Saturday in the impoverished neighborhood, playing games and teaching some small social behavior activities. 

(Side note: Uruguay has a small Black population, and from what I’ve seen, the Black families, just like in the United States, are disproportionately living in poverty, in the same underfunded areas of town, and experiencing the same racism that unfortunately I also see at home. My worksite was in this neighborhood.)

I believe I was talking to a girl about my home. She wanted to know where Nebraska was, what I did there, what the people were like, etc. She was about 13-years-old and very curious. In order to show her where Nebraska was in relation to the rest of the United States, I got out google maps and showed her on my phone. Completely forgetting our conversation about Nebraska, she looks at me and says,

“Why does everyone from the U.S. have an iPhone? Are you all rich?”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard something like this come from her mouth or the mouth of another kid. I’d also heard,

“All people in the U.S. have blonde hair.”

“Wow, look at your blue eyes. I wish I had blue eyes.”

“Do you think your family or friends from back home could send us some money?”

For me, the shocking part wasn’t these questions. It was the realization that I was continuing the narrative of the white savior. Even though I wasn’t taking pictures of the children, even though I never gave them money, and even though I was planning on being here for 2 years. None of that mattered. I think one of obstacles of being from the United States, especially as a white, heterosexual, cisgender woman, is I am obligated to be hyperaware of how I’m perceived, even if it’s not the way I want to be perceived. I have to be hyperaware of the stereotypes and do my best not to let them continue. 

There were a lot of other factors that I will not take the time to discuss here (as it would take way too long), but within a couple weeks, I asked my supervisor to remove this site from my work duties. Was it the right decision? I came to Uruguay as a volunteer, literally to serve where the community needed me, but was it okay for me to request that I no longer work in this place? If I no longer feel comfortable working with impoverished communities in fear that I might be continuing the white savior narrative, where does that leave me? The high school I work at that has a tuition fee so high it makes even me shiver? The community center where most of what I do is accompany the community in their weekly workshops?

None of this is to say that those workshops aren’t helpful, that the relationships I have with the students at the school aren’t special, but there’s one more factor that I want to talk about, and that’s money. No, not the money people ask me for. The money that it costs for me to live and survive in Uruguay for two years. You want to do service “the correct way” and stay with the community for more than a few months, but do you also realize how expensive that is?

My program requires us to raise a certain amount of money over the course of our two-year service, but when I realized the actual cost it takes for us to be here, the part I’m supposed to raise on my own looks like child’s play. Without giving hard numbers, I can say with full confidence that if I had continued on as a teacher and not done this program, my yearly salary as an educator would never fully match the amount, no matter how many years I worked or what degree I had. So then I ask myself:

Does the cost outweigh the benefit? (Literally.)

I think some would argue yes. The relationships formed and the impact of connection between human beings can never have a price tag. 

But I guess that’s why I consider myself a cynical optimist. 

I would also love to say that the cost outweighs the benefit. And I know I’m making connections and lasting relationships that definitely don’t have a price tag. But the cynical (and I would like to say logical) side of my brain tells me to put the breaks on that. Am I saying that we should just give that money away? No, absolutely not. I’m wondering how those resources can be better allocated. Because that’s an awful lot of money to spend and hope that the person you’re giving it to can make a difference. And who knows, sometimes it might work! But in my opinion, experience, and from the experiences of my friends, that’s a large sum of money to gamble good wishes on. 

I realize everything I’ve written here might seem very negative. (I think part of that is just my sparkling personality, if we’re honest.) The reality is I’m very much enjoying my time here, but I can’t just enjoy the opportunity I’ve been given without asking the hard questions that a lot of people are too afraid to ask. I’m so grateful for the experience to live in another country. But is it ethical? I don’t know if I have an answer for you. If I were to go back a year ago, I think I would still have the inner desire to be with people and make connections abroad, but I might find a different way to go about it. At this point in my journey, I’m not sure that includes service. I think education or simply moving to another country just for the sake of it might be better options. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but I’m not sure that what I have to offer and the price it comes at is worth the belief that service abroad can still be done “the correct way”. 

2 thoughts on “Does the Cost Outweigh the Benefit? Serving Abroad Guest Post with Madeline Warrick

  1. I really appreciate your perspective on this subject. I’ve heard both sides of the narrative before, but I feel like the people who are critical of programs like this generally aren’t people who have participated in them. I think that your opinion is incredibly important.


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