This paper contributes to the public and academic debate on the appropriateness of young Westerners’ participation in projects of volunteer tourism conducted in developing countries. Ethnographic research was carried out in the context of an Australian program that organizes short-term group placements for university students in countries like Vietnam, Mexico and Fiji. The results illustrate that such projects can produce similar benefits to other educational initiatives of international volunteering and service (IVS) in terms of global engagement, career development, intercultural competence and psychological support. However, for these projects to avoid public critiques and negative outcomes, they need to harmonize personal and institutional expectations with real volunteer capacities. Thus, until IVS programs in the university context distance themselves from a development aid discourse, they will potentially fall under the umbrella of “neo-colonialism”. The research provides a model of impact analysis and raises challenging questions for universities or similar organizations involved with short-term group placements of volunteer tourism.