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In My Words: Advice for new college graduates out to save the world

Professor Tom Arcaro writes for regional newspapers about the keys to success for fresh college graduates joining international aid and development organizations like the Peace Corps and OxFam International

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Roanoke (Va.) Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.


Professor Tom Arcaro

Advice for new college graduates out to save the world
By Tom Arcaro - arcaro@elon.edu

Have you been accepted by the Peace Corps or hired by a similar humanitarian aid organization to help others after college graduation?

Good for you.  

You are joining the thousands of new college graduates who are devoting the next few years of their life to noble causes represented by groups like World Vision, Oxfam International or the Red Cross/Red Crescent. Their volunteers do the most important kind of work in some of the most difficult places on the planet.

Our world needs people who are privileged to have a university degree and are committed to something larger than themselves. It needs people with a sense of social responsibility, an embrace of their obligations as global citizens, and a will to learn more about their connections to others around the world. A positive trend in American higher education is that there are more and more like you who choose service over career, if only for a time.

Good for all of you. Or at least some of you.

As a silverback having researched, taught about and worked on global development efforts for some years now, I remain amazed at the misconceptions some volunteers every year possess about the nature of their future work.

So, before you begin to pack your bags and say your goodbyes, let me offer words of advice.

First, be sober and clear about your motivations. Why did you apply?  If it was to ‘save some poor people’ in, say, Africa, stay home and start your career. With this motivation your experience is more so about you than about others. You want to make yourself feel good about “helping.”  Stay home and Google “toxic charity.”

But if you desire to work with people in the so-called developing world because you deeply understand that your liberation is bound up in their liberation and, ultimately, there it is not an “us” and a “them” but rather just an “us,” then go forward. You already realize that you should never do “for” others but rather do “with” and, ultimately, “be with” those people. Partner, don’t patronize.

Second, be clear about your expectations. You will not, I am quite certain, save the world, or even one small village. Development work is complicated and devilishly difficult to assess over time. You can touch some lives, but without considerable research, especially into the local culture and people, the touching you do may do more harm than good.

You will likely run into corruption, pettiness and human frailty. You will definitely run into organizational and bureaucratic challenges that may undermine your efforts. Set as your goal to have at least a net positive impact on the lives with which you intersect. That’s called a “win” in the development world.

Third, be prepared for the impact that this experience will have on you. If you avoid living in an American or expat bubble while you are working abroad and truly merge your world with the locals with which you work, you will come back changed.  Not just “older and wiser” changed but altered in terms of your fundamental identity.

Your reentry shock coming back to mainstream American life will be dramatic, and for a time you will feel that you no longer belong. You will be a misfit, now living between two worlds, neither of which is completely your own. Needless to say, the longer you remain in the field, the more acute this phenomena. You will eventually recalibrate, and that will strain past relationships and determine which new ones you forge.

Fourth, be responsible. I know this sounds obvious, but if you commit to development work, do it to the best your ability. Anything less than your best shows disrespect to your hosts, to your organization and, perhaps most importantly, to yourself.  Work for dignity in your life and in the lives of others.

Finally, I can’t resist as a last piece of advice this. Remember to use sunscreen.

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
6/2/2014 10:55 AM