“Making a Difference” Abroad

By: Casey Doherty

April 23, 2019

When I arrived in Ghana, I had no idea what my semester would look like. What classes would I take? Who would I spend my time with? Perhaps the most important question for me, at least, was: What will I fill my time with? I quickly joined the University of Ghana’s swim team, which was a fun and new way to make local friends. I had a blast but wanted to fill my four months with something more.

I was not sure about volunteering. I have studied the effects of "voluntourism"—volunteering usually done by white Westerners, often in developing countries. The service period is short and largely meaningless—the example most often given is a group of white students who teach at a local school, play with children, and leave abruptly a week later. I thought deeply about my reasons for choosing to study in Ghana. More than anything else, I did not want to feel like or present myself as an American coming to Ghana to “fix” or “save” anything or anyone.

I was approached by the founder of an organization that seeks to provide safe spaces for local children to read, complete their homework, and play sports. I was wary; I didn't want to contribute to voluntourism and incorrectly feel as though I was “making a difference.” I considered the positions available and asked if I could help coach a local girls’ soccer team. Though unsure at first, I decided that four months was enough time to make a genuine connection with the children. I brought a tangible skill skill to the table and was the only female soccer coach, a fact that made the girls significantly more comfortable. I finally told myself that maybe I could make a small difference during my time in Ghana.

Since those first few weeks when I warily joined the nonprofit organization and began coaching, I have assumed the role of head coach for a team of 25 girls. This has been an incredibly fun, albeit stressful gig! Before practice, I ask each girl if she had a good day at school and to please tell me one thing she learned. The girls groan at the questions, but they always answer and remember something significant they learned.

I’ve lived in Ghana for three months now, and I have continued to consider my place as a temporary volunteer in my temporary home. Am I serving my community appropriately? I by no means am “fixing” or “saving” anything. I am providing a skill and having fun with 25 girls who bring joy to every practice. I hope I’m doing the right thing.

I’ll be honest—I have never considered my involvement in any service activities in the United States this deeply. Now I know I should. We should all strive to thoroughly consider our involvement in any community. Are we bringing a skill to the table? Are we understanding the very small role we play in making our communities, nations, and world a better place? I really like a simple line from an article about volunteerism: “Be aware of your presence and your impact, and be realistic about your work.” Finally, are we understanding that volunteering and traveling end up being more about ourselves than anyone or anything else? You may be making a real difference somewhere or were brave enough to travel to a part of the world you’d never thought you would go, but these choices are about ourselves. These are choices how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to perceive us.

I’ve learned a myriad of lessons during my time in Ghana. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that studying in a place where few Georgetown students study doesn’t make me special. Spending much of my time abroad volunteering doesn’t make me special. I’m trying my best, learning a lot, and considering my actions a little differently now. I’ll leave Ghana in a few weeks with wonderful memories of friends, small mishaps, crazy travel experiences, and more. Did I “make a difference?” Probably not, but I had fun and encouraged 25 young Ghanaian girls to get out there and play a sport—an opportunity typically only given to boys. When I leave, I think I will feel as though I did the right thing after deep reflection. I hope to employ this type of thinking upon returning to the United States.

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