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Admissions officers not impressed by pricey service trips

Jenna Johnson

Today's guest blogger is Emily Stephen, a high school senior in D.C. who participated in a Medill School of Journalism summer program at Northwestern University.

"The place where I stayed was very nice," said Gibson Johns, 18, a senior at St. Albans School in D.C. "There was an infinity pool and a really great view of the ocean."

No, he is not referring to a recent luxury family vacation. He is talking about his recent 10-day, $3,295 service trip to the island of Fiji.

Increasingly, high school students are combining community service with exotic international trips. In the past, teenagers frequently traveled overseas, but only recently has a push for volunteer work abroad emerged among students -- especially those with wealthy parents.

Former admissions officer Robbie Jefferiss, now coordinator of international programs and assistant director of college guidance at National Cathedral School, has watched it all happen.

"I know a top admissions officer who said, 'Costa Rica must have some of the nicest houses in the world because half of America's children are down there building,' " Jefferiss said.

These days, it is increasingly common for high school students to travel thousands of miles to lend a helping hand.

"Things have changed, because initially when students were going overseas, it was a new thing, and admissions reps were thinking, 'Wow, this kid went to Guatemala to build a house.' Now, it's a little more transparent," he said. "There are so many people doing it, so I think admissions officers can see through the fact that maybe this kid was just kind of ticking the box."

As more high schools introduce community service requirements, more students want to highlight what they hope will be seen as unique accomplishments in their college applications.

At National Cathedral School, which requires 60 hours of service to graduate, students often lend their services abroad -- but they are also volunteering in the District.

Johns, the student who went to Fiji, has also volunteered locally. He and other students worked at an inner-city community center, playing with children and taking them to museums.

Jeff Shumlin is co-director of Putney Student Travel, which leads community service trips overseas, and has seen a pattern of "dual volunteerism" develop.

"I find that many students who do community service abroad with us are also doing it at home," Shumlin said.

But does community service in an exotic country look better on a college application? Hardly.

In fact, some admissions officers say it has become a cliché.

Dedication instead of destination
"What colleges are looking for is continued interest and effort," said Jefferiss, who previously worked as an admissions officer at Richmond, the American International University in London. "There are students who make things seem more authentic. For example students may be involved with supporting a community through fundraising ... over a period of several years and going there and having an experience and continuing with their support of that community."

For example, before Margot Harris, a National Cathedral School senior, went to Zambia with the Washington-based community service organization, LearnServe International, she raised nearly $7,000 for the groups she would be working with.

Several current admissions officers agree: Davidson College officials look for "depth within the activities" students pursue as co-curriculars, said Kortni R. Campbell, the college's admissions and financial aid officer. At Yale University, there is an emphasis on "the commitment and passion for that activity, rather than the activity or location itself," said Ayasaka Fernando, the assistant director of undergraduate admissions, in an e-mail.

"As long as students give their best in terms of service to the community and show a commitment to the cause, it doesn't matter if it takes place locally or abroad," Fernando said.

Former Georgetown University admissions officer Erin Johnson, now director of college guidance at National Cathedral School, said both local and foreign service can appeal to colleges -- as long as the student shows passion.

"Both can seem compelling to admissions committees depending on how the student talks about her experience and how she shares with the admissions committee what she got out of the opportunity," Johnston said.

Service or vacation?
The more widespread the trend becomes, the less impact it could have on college applications, experts say. While some programs provide the opportunity for meaningful and significant service work, they say, others merely use the phrase "community service" for marketing, and the trips verge on "vacation volunteerism."

At organizations that use the term "community service" but don't actually provide full service opportunities, some "students find themselves doing what I would describe as 'community service-lite,' something that really won't be of tremendous significance in the world in the long run," said Shulimn, the Putney co-director.

So are high school students who trek halfway around the world to complete community service hours wasting their time -- and their parents' money?

And why do so many high school students travel so far to do their hours, anyway? Reasons vary.

First off, with a trip, students can easily condense their community service time, Jefferiss said.

"If you're doing a project here in D.C., you might do one hour a day for 10 weeks, whereas instead, abroad, you could do 10 hours a day for two or three weeks," Jefferiss said. "So it gives students the opportunity to knock out a lot of those community service hours through being able to get them all done at once."

Students also crave adventure.

"They are motivated by wanting to learn about foreign cultures," Shumlin said. "They are greatly aware of the need for inter-cultural immersion and international understanding."

Adrienne Larson, 17, went to Senegal to volunteer because, "I like traveling and I like adventure, so this seemed perfect to me."

Paying for college essay fodder?
Other students -- whether they admit it or not -- might be going because they think the experience will look good on an application. National Cathedral School parent Marsh Marshall thinks so.

"They are funding a rip-off industry in order to manufacture a college essay, and they are thereby illegitimately making a contribution" to the world, Marshall said in an e-mail.

Harris, the student who went to Zambia, said college hardly entered her mind during the trip. But now that she's back, she plans to mention what she learned in her college applications.

"When I was there, I kind of got ideas for things I might tell colleges or put into a college essay," Harris said.

These programs often do not run cheap. Jefferiss says programs cost $2,000 to $5,000 -- and up. Some programs offer financial aid and outreach programs.

"With the economics of a tuition-based program, there's an obvious challenge in that students have to be able to afford it," Shumlin said. "We at Putney and many other organizations offer financial aid programs to sponsor students for whom it would be out of reach financially to go on one of these trips."

Depending on fundraising, Putney offers between 14 and 20 full scholarships each year. LearnServe International, which led Harris's trip to Zambia, reaches out to different types of students in D.C.

"They aim to take kids from charter schools, public schools and private schools, all together in one group. It allows kids who don't get out of the country to get the cultural experience," Harris said.

What admissions officers value most in the application process is "passion and consistency," according to a 2008 survey. And 100 percent of admissions officers said they would value four years volunteering at a local community center more than one month spent "helping orphans in Somalia." But what matters most, the survey found, is how you tell your story.

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  | October 8, 2010; 5:23 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions  | Tags:  Admissions, Georgetown, Yale  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Evolving dorm sleepover rules
Next: Hey, college dropouts, stop costing taxpayers millions!


personally, I would be much more impressed with an applicant that spent their free time working to save money to help pay their tuition than a student who spent their free time 'volunteering' on a parent-bankrolled adventure overseas.

Posted by: jjtwo | October 8, 2010 10:05 PM | Report abuse

As always, students need to do these things for themselves, not for some future recognition.

Posted by: RedBird27 | October 9, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

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