Problem: My Daughter's High School Wants Me to Send Her to Africa

Our advice columnist to the rescue

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?

Los Angeles

Dear S.A.,

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.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.