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Test Driving Voluntourism

Posted by Randy LeGrant | Oct 24, 2010, 5:40:00 PM

The Bai Nian School in BeijingLast week in Beijing, visiting some of our projects in China, I took a day out of my busy schedule to volunteer at Beijing Century Experimental School (Bai Nian School).  This is the largest school for the children of migrant workers in Beijing, and the largest educational institution established by the community of Chaoyang District.

Schools of this kind lack the superior facilities and learning conditions common in ordinary schools in China. As such, the students typically have no opportunity to learn English from foreign teachers.  Even a day of practicing English with a native speaker is considered a huge benefit and extremely rare.

[Of course, before you try this on your own, be sure to remember that anytime you stray off the straight and narrow in China, you need permission from the authorities and school officials, and that can take time and a lot of probing!]

Recess at the Bai Nian School in BeijingI also thought a lot about the age-old argument of short-term volunteering vs. long-term volunteering.  And one day does indeed fall on the side of short-term volunteering, no doubt.  As a former high school English teacher, I recall the benefits of having someone from the "outside" come in for a day and jazz up the class and provide different stimulation for the students.  So I took the invitation to spend a day in the classroom teaching English, and I'm so glad I did.  After that experience, I've decided it's just fine to test drive a volunteer abroad project.  I had an incredible day, and so did my students.  And that's what's important.

I wasn't there to eradicate poverty...although as children of migrant workers...they certainly lack the finer things in life.  China is now experiencing the largest mass migration of people from the countryside to the city in history. An estimated 230 million Chinese (2010) —a number equivalent to 2/3 the population of the United States or 4X the number of people who emigrated to American from Europe over a century—have left the countryside and migrated to the cities in recent years.

Having fun in the classroomThere are about 20 million migrant children living in Chinese cities. Many of them attend migrant schools that have often been set up by the migrant workers themselves. These schools tend to be basic but are often manned by committed, decent-quality teachers. As of 2007 there were about 200 migrant schools in Beijing with 90,000 children.

 The first school for migrants to win government approval in Beijing was opened in 1993 by a teacher from a rural school who was shocked to find that many children of migrant workers were basically illiterate because their parents were too busy to help them and because they lacked residency status necessary to attend local schools. The Beijing Century Experimental School, where I volunteered for a day, was founded by a migrant worker in 1998 who luckily was able to pull himself up, and get this school opened.

At the end of class in BeijingKicking the tires on the Voluntourism bus is just fine.  I learned a lot about migrant workers, the children of migrant workers, and I learned that exposing them to a day of English, spoken and taught by a native English speaker, was better than me not going there at all.  These kids are in no position to come in contact with native English speakers by themselves.

In total, I was in China for six days.  Of those, two were free days.  I volunteered for one of those free days.  The rest of the time was spent in meetings.  So I ended up volunteering 50% of my free time.  I was able to learn a great deal from the experience and the children had a native English speaker to practice with for a day.

But the best result of the experience is that I was able to alert a friend who works at one of the premier language schools in Beijing, Live The Language.  He joined me at the school and by the end of the day committed several of his students each week to volunteer at the school to speak English with the children.  So my day of test driving volunteer abroad resulted in possibly 800 hours of native English speakers at this particular school.

What a difference a day makes!

We would love to hear about any test driving experiences you have had.  Take advantage of the comments section below.

Written by Randy LeGrant

Randy is the Executive Director of the GeoVisions Foundation. He has spent the last 44 years managing organizations that send people abroad on cultural and educational exchanges.

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