Altruism & adventure: a recipe for student success

May 2014


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Secondary school teacher SARAH WAKEFORD recently completed her Master’s thesis on the motivations, experiences, and effects of student trips with a focus on volunteer tourism. Here, she discusses the findings of her research and how such trips can help engage with the ‘front end’ of The New Zealand Curriculum as well as offer ‘life changing’ experiences for those involved.

W hat school-based activity could inspire this kind of reflection? Try taking students out of the classroom and head to one of the world’s poorest countries, Cambodia. But make sure you experience more than just the sights. Volunteer tourism is a new term for the well-established practice of donating time and resources while travelling in the developing world. Increasingly, schools in New Zealand are offering this type of international experience, and a recent AUT study was carried out at one particular school to look at the impacts this altruistic-based travel had. 

The volunteer trip

Rangitoto College, a decile 10 school on Auckland’s North Shore, was the case study for this research. They offer an opportunity for 20 students and five teachers to travel to Cambodia each year. The aim is to make a difference for those living in poverty by raising $20,000 to build houses for rural families and support education programmes in two local orphanages. Prior to departure, students spend one year fundraising to volunteer with The Tabitha Foundation ( and for the New Future for Children and Children’s Centre for Happiness orphanages. Every cent raised is directly used for the volunteer activities and students and teachers are required to fund their own travel expenses independently. The college provides a mufti day for the trip and supports the students’ efforts.

In addition to the three days of volunteering, students experience a variety of other activities, including visiting the majestic temples of Angkor Wat, where students learn about the religion, history, and culture of the Khmer people. The students also visit The Killing Fields and S21 torture prison museum to gain a more in-depth understanding of the inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge and the tragedy of Pol Pot’s rule. These activities help students connect with the Khmer people and understand more about their culture and some of the contributing factors that have caused such widespread poverty. These experiences leave students even more motivated to carry out their volunteer work and make a difference in the lives of vulnerable Khmer people.

The entire process, from fundraising at home and trip preparations, leaving family behind and travelling to a completely different culture and building houses for eight poor rural families, provided an immense range of authentic, meaningful learning experiences for everyone involved.

The impacts of this trip

The findings of the study reveal some significant changes in attitudes, values, relationships, and future aspirations. The most widespread impact was the new sense of appreciation every student returned with and a deeper understanding of the catch phrase ‘first world problems’. Their ‘first hand’ experience (albeit short) in the developing world led to new understandings of deprivation and provided a more accurate benchmark in which to judge their own lives, which are often privileged.

Many students returned home feeling happier and more content, both in themselves and within their families. Katy commented, “I came back from America (earlier in the year) and thought ‘we don’t have that much compared to some people’, but when you come back from Cambodia, it’s like ‘we have everything compared to some people’. It’s opposite; it helps put things into perspective.” In addition, while most students were shocked at the extreme poverty they saw (especially during a visit to a Phnom Penh slum), they were also very surprised at the happy, warm, and friendly faces that greeted them wherever they went. Most students did not expect this and were often humbled by it. Jenna said, “everywhere we went, I found the people were really resourceful, always doing something and are definitely happy; we can learn so much from that.”

For many students, a stronger ‘can do’ attitude emerged, a direct result of the confidence they gained from doing something challenging and unconventional. This also influenced their beliefs around development aid and the impacts their own social actions can have. Fiona commented, “I used to think I didn’t have the skills and mental ability to do something like this, but I don’t think that anymore, now I know that I can. If I see something that I can get involved with in the future I will.”

In addition, their experience opened their eyes to the value Cambodians placed on education, as a way to improve their lives. Connecting with Khmer teenagers at the orphanage was particularly powerful, where Rangitoto students began to understand that education was such a privilege, not a right. Leith was particularly affected by it, saying, “I got more motivated to study. It made me realise how important education is, and so as soon as I got home, I hit my books.”

Making connections was a dominant theme in this study, with many students indicating the most enjoyable aspects of the trip were the interactions with local people, regardless of any ability to speak a common language. Street children were particularly important, with many students helping street children throughout their experience in Cambodia.

Finally, a stronger sense of social responsibility emerged from this experience. All students indicated that they would like to volunteer again in the future and most felt that travelling and volunteering was a great combination. Ms Parkinson, the trip leader, said, “I think for some of the kids they will not just be tourists in the future. They will not be content to just go to places and live the insular life of the tourist [the sun, the beach, the resort]. They will be the tourists who are interested in the people and the culture and help the places that they visit rather than being superficial travellers with it all being about them.”

The findings of the study suggest that for many, travelling as they had in the past would no longer be as satisfying.

One third of students in this study described the experience as “life-changing” and this impact can be attributed to the authentic, meaningful and challenging learning experiences these students were subjected to while traveling in Cambodia.

What now? Opportunities for the curriculum to thrive

The ‘front end’ of The New Zealand Curriculum outlines a vision for confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners. This study aligns the Rangitoto College Cambodia trip very closely to that vision. Many students gained a new ‘can do’ confidence, they connected with each other, their communities and the Khmer people, and gained a new sense of social responsibility that inspires action, rather than passive acceptance. Rangitoto students returned with new understandings of their world, the haves and have nots, they developed skills to interact and navigate such a place, and showed themselves to be critical and creative thinkers.

When we look at the key competencies, how many secondary school teachers foster the skills of participation and contribution in a truly real-world, authentic and meaningful way? In addition, delving into the future focus of this curriculum document we uncover key concepts of citizenship, enterprise and globalisation. This trip takes such ideas and brings them to an authentic, real world context in which students can base their values and understandings upon. Ms Parkinson argues “this trip helps students be more global citizens, making a difference in the lives of others beyond their immediate world, getting to know other ways of living and doing things that makes them think about and question their own lives.”

Does this mean every student deserves this kind of volunteer travel opportunity? Wouldn’t it seem prudent for organisations (e.g. government, youth, charity, business) to provide pathways to allow all students, regardless of their economic situation, to undertake this ‘life changing’ learning experience? This research suggests it would be. As more and more schools offer international volunteer trips (often through World Challenge), boards of trustees and senior management teams ought to reflect on the opportunities to engage with the ‘front end’ of The New Zealand Curriculum. In doing so, they may be more inspired to reduce the obstacles for students wanting to make a difference; both in their own lives and for those in the developing world.

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