Aid delivery has been critiqued for its failure to be locality-specific and culturally relevant for recipients. Humanitarian responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami involved volunteers, professionals, and social work and other students. In this article, we consider students' endeavours in two responses to this tsunami in Sri Lanka. These initiatives involving professionals, academics and students from financially wealthy Western countries working in a less wealthy and powerful country sought to empower victim survivors receiving aid in rebuilding their lives after the tsunami. We draw on a large scale three-year qualitative study of two models which began shortly after this disaster—one institutional, the other professional. The research covered many dimensions of humanitarian aid in Sri Lanka. In this paper, we focus on: students' perceptions of their preparation before going overseas; the support they received while abroad; their debriefing upon return; and implications of their experiences for empowering approaches to humanitarian aid. The research revealed many positives in students' experiences. However, structural inequalities perpetuated inegalitarian relationships, despite individual attempts to the contrary. This paper offers lessons to improve the quality of students' experiences and their contributions to local people's well-being.