Q: My daughter’s school has a mandatory volunteer program, and one of the activities she can participate in is a trip to Africa, where she would work among poor kids for 10 days. She is desperate to go, and I would like to send her, but it costs more than $2,500. I’m a single mom, and I don’t think this program actually benefits Africans. But will my daughter be hurt in the college-admissions process if she doesn’t go to Africa?
If your daughter had a cure for malaria, then her participation would benefit the children of Africa. Otherwise, what you’re describing sounds like a condescending exercise in ego-tourism. If I were the leader of a struggling African village, I would rather have your $2,500 in cash than 10 days of access to your daughter’s limited set of skills. Also, I asked college-admissions officers what they make of these programs. Their answer, uniformly, was: not much. Brief programs demanding thousands of dollars from the parents of “mandatory volunteers” who have not earned the right to instruct Africans on how they should live reveal little about prospective students.