International Experiential Learning Programs: Broadening Our Lens

Today, the evidence is mounting surrounding the ability of International and Local Service Learning programs to further the goal of fostering a more sophisticated understanding of globalization and a greater sense of civic responsibility among participating students.  While support for these programs as a vehicle for fostering student transformation is strong, new questions and criticisms concerning the impact of service programs have begun to emerge. These new questions focus not only on the impact of the student participants, but on the under-theorized relationship between service programs, the communities they serve, and the service projects in which they engage.

From our perspective at ALIVE, effective International Service Learning Programs (ISL) programs begin with choosing an international partner grounded in sustainability and a belief that the host community are the experts of their own field projects.

Second, to maximize learning, structured curriculum for students is necessary for all three stages of ISL programs (pre-departure, in-field, and re entry).  For example, curriculum focusing on the development of a critical consciousness, redefining the word ‘help’ and providing pathways forward for students who have recently returned from these powerful experiences.  Due to the short nature of the actual service project, it is our belief that the pre-departure and re-entry portion of the program are more important than the actual trip.

The most important piece of service-learning is making sure that students do not have a false impression of how much they have helped.  Having students come back from a program thinking they have changed the world and improved their resume only fuels an unbalanced power dynamic and false impression of true impact.

We recommend approaching service in a way where students are prepped to engage with projects with an attitude that learning is service.  This can come in many forms such as; having conversations with locals, observing how locals in the host community perceive them or making new friends with those in the host community. Our Bhutan trip is focused on this belief that exchanging learning is valuable service for all involved. In essence, learning about other cultures allows you to learn more about yourself and helps to breakdown preconceived notions and stereotypes for all involved – the first, and often time, missing step in development.  This strongly connects to a quote by Lila Watson in which we base our service philosophy – “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote frames service under the philosophy of interdependence (shared understanding, work to be done and collaboration) rather than reciprocity (a transactional nature that reinforces the “other,” which ultimately fuels an “I’m so lucky” attitude held with the visiting students).

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