Students in debt, volunteering abroad


Fresh out of graduation, high school graduates dread the increasing price of tuition. Reality strikes and students currently in post-secondary live off of cheap microwaveable meals in order to balance spending costs – including pricy volunteer trips abroad.

At Wilfrid Laurier Brantford, there are many opportunities for students to volunteer their time and money. Some students travel abroad to help families in need with shelter, education and even health awareness.

“We are definitely seeing more students in financial crisis,” explains Brantford Dean of Students, Adam Lawrence. With tuition prices constantly increasing in Ontario, the question remains: why travel?

Dr. Robert Feagan, a professor at Laurier Brantford, took matters into his own hands and conducted a study aboard a trip to El Salvador with Habitat for Humanity last year. Feagan checked in with the participating students three times throughout the process: before the trip, during the trip and six weeks after everyone returned home.

“I like to build… on finding out what students gain from these experiences, I went to see, as volunteers what we take from this. Interesting shift, new place, new culture. Many found really, what I gained is I learned about the people there and myself,” Feagan explained to a group of students at an information session explaining Habitat for Humanity’s trip this upcoming spring reading week.

“You left everyday thinking you made a difference – even in the smallest possible way,” Marshal Rodrigues, a student that attended the trip, mentioned as she went through the slides explaining what her experience was like last year.

When talking with Sarah Cifani, President of OCOA at Laurier Brantford, she also takes on an emotional route when explaining how she started the club last year in January. Attending a volunteering trip in her senior year of high school, Cifani started her chance at making more of a difference, “I was able to go on a similar trip in grade 12 with an organization called DREAMS. While there I met a man by the name of Michael Sunderani who used to go to McMaster University and had decided to move to the Dominican to help families. We kept in touch and he told me he started his own organization that would be non-profit.” Knowing there was already a club at Laurier Waterloo, Cifani joined the team and brought back leadership qualities to start her own club in Brantford.

Cifani agreed that volunteer trips abroad do cost a lot, she continued saying “but the joy you see on those faces of the people you help is priceless to me. It is so enriching to be able to go to a city where the families have barely any material possessions, have barely any clothes, yet they have the brightest smiles and warmest hearts I have ever seen.”

Both Alex Carson and Mansi Parasher from Laurier Brantford have been to Peru more than once with Solidarity in Action (SIA). The girls explain during an info-session about the basics when it comes to volunteering abroad, further expressing why SIA is different from other clubs offered at Laurier Brantford.

“(SIA is a) new smaller organization, it gives to needs of each participant,” Explains Parasher, expressing how SIA has more work choices other than infrastructural development. When asked about paying the $2,900 for two weeks, the girls spoke their minds. “If you’re motivated enough you can do it!” said one, and “Money doesn’t compare to the experience,” agreed the other.

Group and individual fundraising is exercised to help cover the cost; last year the group fundraised at the Burlington Rib-fest for the community in Peru.

A trip to Ocoa costs roughly anywhere from $800-$1,100, depending on how much the club raises from donations.

Cifani explains, “My personal opinion is you’re always going to be in debt. As a student, I also know where a lot of our money usually goes besides tuition and books. By simply creating a strict budget for myself, by not eating out, and shopping regularly you can actually save a lot of money.”

Rodrigues cannot contain her excitement to travel back to El Salvador for the second time this year. “It’s a must!” she advises towards experiencing the trip. The $2000 one week trip is mostly covered by fundraising and saving up as much as you possibly can. “It changes your perspective, outlook – you get hooked onto it!” Rodrigues continues expressing her excitement, “it’s almost like an addiction.”

Feagan, who has worked on various projects other than El Salvador, including the Elizabeth Métis Settlement in Alberta, the Yukon and Peru concludes that, “work to make changes in the physical world has a sub-cultural positive shift.” He further explains how physically engaged activity, as apposed to reading a book, really grounds your experience. “No you’re not going to change the world, but there is something you gain in a short stance of time. You leave ripple effects in the real world and a physical impression in reality. You also provide a family with a sense of home.”

“Given what the experience provides, an experience like this goes way beyond the dollar value, and it’ll live on with you for the rest of your life,” said Feagan.

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