I am no stranger to voluntourism. Dictionary says this term means “a combination of both volunteering and tourism” but I would argue that it means “to volunteer to benefit oneself regardless of the consequences”.

As we all know, volunteer experience is crucial for a student to get into elite universities in the US. As an increasing number of Chinese students who want to study abroad, the need of volunteer opportunities in mainland China grew so tremendously that we breed a market of “voluntourism”. Anyone can pay an agency or start their own organization to go to some rural villages to teach or go to an underdeveloped country to build roads and houses for ONE WEEK and proudly put their experiences on their resumes or present themselves founders of NGOs yet ignoring the fact that there is no one helping out locally on a daily basis and there was no sustainability to those programs.

Soon “volunteering” became an open secret in the international student circle. Because if you write about your “life-changing” experience in you college essay, you might have a higher chance to gain the golden ticket to get in to your dream schools.

However, I was guilty of being part of that market too. 

I taught English at a rural village in Shanan’Xi province, China for 10 days (each) in the summer of 2013 and 2014, knowing that there is no sustainability to the program.

For a long time, I was debating whether I should continue volunteering in my college years after witnessing how commercialized volunteerism has become in both China and the US. I questioned “how much value is it really in these volunteer jobs?” “Are we the one benefit more from these experience or the people we helped?”

Fast forward to the beginning of my Freshmen year in college,  I encountered Movement Exchange: an non-profit organization that has staff members live in Panama, organizing all year round FREE dance education in local orphanages, and providing varies opportunities for children from underprivileged  communities. I wholeheartedly support their cause because dance has help me overcome some hardest times of my life and I want others, especially underprivileged children and teens, to have access to this important form of art.

After months of fundraising and working, I hopped on the plane to Panama City with four other passionate dancers from UCSD’s chapter of Movement Exchange.

During my 8-day exchange in Panama City under the supervision of our three ardent mentors(Kimberly, Adele, and Tina), I understood not only the importance of sustainability to a NGO but also the saw impact of it. I witness the connections and trust our mentors and the kids have built overtime, I was amazed by the dreams and ambitions our students carried even though most of them came from abusive, problematic families, and I was stunned by how dance evoked a person’s inner confidence and most importantly how it changed someone’s life. (A dancer in Colon, the poorest city in the entire Central America, shared the story of how break dancing saved him from street fights and drugs). Additionally, as dance diplomats me and my teammates had lessons on cross-cultural understanding, youth and community empowerment through dance, dance as a tool of violent prevention etc. everyday.

Rome wasn’t build in one day, neither were these miracles happened during one specific group’s 8-day exchange. The changes began in the beats of musics, the laughs and the tears, as well as the belief of sustainable, effective volunteering.

If you like to move your bodies to musics and you are passionate about changing people’s lives for the better, you should totally join Movement Exchange to Panama on our next trip! Just dance to the music and share what you love. You will be suprised how much you can teach the kids, how much you will learn from them, and how much you will learn about yourself as well!

To volunteer not because you NEED it, but because you LOVE it. 

*Picture taken at University of Panama after our president Duyen and lovely member Taeksu taught a hip hop class there*

- Emily Zhang, Move-Ex Dance Diplomat
UC San Diego