Exploring Impacts of Voluntourism
MSW graduate Marissa Messinger is driven to find ethical ways to do international social work
Marissa Messinger, MSW 2020, came to the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) with a passion for advancing women’s rights globally — a perfect fit for the concentration in sustainable development and global practice. International travel is in the native Iowan’s blood.
“My dad was a coast-to-coast truck driver, and my mom had dreams of being an international flight attendant. Returning from my first international trip when I was 15, I remember saying, ‘I’m going to do this for the rest of my life,’” Messinger says.
As part of her undergraduate education, Messinger interned as a social worker in a Tanzanian children’s home. The experience cemented her love for Africa, but the vacationers who interacted with children and painted schools gave her pause. Were these “voluntourists” doing more harm than good?
It was a question she pursued at GSSW through an environmental and social impact assessment on the effects of short-term voluntourism to children’s homes in developing nations. She found that these seemingly humanitarian activities caused more issues than they solved.
Eager to return to the African continent, she signed up for the Social Work and Social Justice in South Africa course taught by Karen Bensen, associate professor of the practice of social work. Then, as Messinger’s research conclusions came into focus, her doubts about the trip began.
“I started to question my place as a white Western woman going to Africa. Karen invited me to that space to be uncomfortable. Once there, I experienced three weeks of absolute transformation in my mind, my body and my soul. I walked away determined to find an ethical approach to my international practice,” Messinger says.
GSSW taught her that people are self-determined and know what they need for themselves, Messinger notes. It’s a lesson she’ll carry with her to the University of Denver Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where starting this fall, she’ll pursue a Master of Arts in International Human Rights and a certificate in humanitarian assistance.
“Through Marissa’s work at GSSW, she has begun — painfully sometimes — to place new words and meaning on the racial underpinnings and impacts of the white/Western savior complex on vulnerable populations,” says Visiting Clinical Associate Professor Sarah Bexell.
Eventually, Messinger hopes to open a shelter service for Kenyan women who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault.