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Student Volunteer Service

Serve and Learn

Combine Volunteer Community Service with Academic Study

As more students seek to supplement their traditional academic work with experiential opportunities abroad and institutions of higher education seek to internationalize their campuses, study abroad programs increasingly add include cultural immersion opportunities to the academic component. However, few programs include service-learning in the curriculum—thereby missing an opportunity to facilitate lasting and worthwhile connections on a global scale.

International service-learning differs from international volunteering in several key ways:

First, service-learning combines community service work with academic study, creating a richer experience for the students—who find that their volunteer experience is enhanced by the academic component and vice versa. This mutual exchange is one of the key aspects of service-learning that faculty love and that the community benefits from.

Second, the community can also benefit from the student’s academic work, or from the opportunity to help educate a foreign student. Often, the student adds real value to a community organization in the form of research that very tangibly pays off for the organization.

Finally, effective service-learning programs include intentional reflection on the nature of the service; the political, economic, and social conditions surrounding the community; and on the volunteer’s own experience.

There are several reasons, both logistical and cultural, why incorporating service-learning into traditional study abroad programs is challenging. Dedicating staff time to setting up service partnerships, conducting appropriate orientation and training, and leading reflection and evaluation activities is difficult. There may be a language barrier, or other cultural differences, that need to be addressed. Moreover, the idea of “service-learning” is not yet universally understood as something that benefits both the students and the communities in which they work.

Many colleges and universities, however, find that the benefits of incorporating a service-learning component into their regular international education programming outweigh the challenges. Additionally, several outstanding organizations are taking the lead on this type of work (see Additional Web Resources).

Tips for Incorporating Service-Learning into Your Academic Study Abroad Program

  • Forge partnerships between study abroad offices and community service or service-learning offices. International program staff should receive training on how to implement successful service-learning programs from experienced colleagues. Similarly, service-learning professionals should be introduced to some of the unique aspects of international experiential education. Cheri Doane, the Director of Community-Based Learning at Central College in Iowa, emphasizes the importance of having local program staff to coordinate and manage the program.
  • Build relationships with community agencies, hospitals, arts organizations, schools, and other institutions in the host communities that might be interested in hosting international student volunteers. All parties should recognize the reciprocal nature of service-learning. Doane says, “Program design will be most successful when community partners are involved in the planning process.”
  • Create strong, authentic links between academic work and service work. Conduct or sponsor trainings for faculty to inspire their commitment to and involvement in the program.
  • Recognize the cultural challenges unique to international service-learning. Doane says, “We can’t assume that the lessons we’ve learned about service-learning at home will transcend culture.” It’s important to be respectful of the ways organizations operate in other countries.

Building Relationships with Community Partners

  • Use local contacts and local program staff to identify potential community partners. Find out if they would be interested in hosting international students.
  • Meet over the phone, via email or, ideally, in person with a representative of the potential community partner. Ask what the needs are in the community and within the organization. Both the students and communities benefit when critical needs are being addressed.
  • Ask about the community and organizational assets. What skills or knowledge can students gain from working with this organization? Many students may assume that the community has many needs and few assets. It’s important for all involved to recognize that students are not there to “fix problems” but rather to contribute and to learn about both the needs and assets of the community in which they are living and working.
  • Be sure to explain the expectations of a service-learning project, as opposed to volunteering, to the community partner. Many community organizations may be unfamiliar with the concept of service-learning, so be clear that this is an academic experience for the students.
  • Ask for references from past or current volunteers and staff as well as from neighboring organizations that may be familiar with their work.
  • Once you have identified the community partners, agree on what kind of training or orientation the organization will provide students prior to departure (if any) as well as what kind of in-country support and supervision will be available. Also, clarify the role of the faculty and program staff in terms of training and support.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities of all parties in a written agreement. Be clear about what students will realistically be able to achieve in the given time frame.
  • Discuss evaluation methods and procedures. How will you continue to be in contact with the community partner during the service-learning project? How will conflicts be mediated? How will the organization provide feedback regarding the student’s service? Is there a way for the community partner to evaluate their experience in working with the student and the campus? Are there mechanisms in place to build on student work in subsequent placements?
  • Remember that all relationships need to be nurtured. Continually check in with community partners to ensure that needs are being met and questions or concerns addressed.

Bringing it Home

There are many ways that campus staff can assist and support students when they return from an international service-learning experience. Try to provide forums for students to share their experiences with their peers. Consider organizing a panel discussion or photo exhibit. Help students publish articles in the campus newspaper. Encourage students to serve as a reference and speak with other students who are interested in a similar experience. Students may have trouble making connections between their service-learning work and possible career options, so be prepared to advise students regarding their career plans (or refer them to the career services office). Assist students in their efforts to stay connected to their host country by encouraging them to stay in touch with their community partners, to be involved with your school’s international student programs, or to be in contact with locally-based international organizations that work in that country or region. Assist students in finding scholarships, fellowships, or other opportunities to travel, serve, and study again. Finally, inspire students to continue their service by volunteering in their home or campus community and advocating for long-term change.

Tools for Reflection

Reflection is an essential component of service-learning. It helps volunteers grapple with their work’s impact and consider sustainable solutions to ongoing problems beyond the quick-fix of temporary volunteerism. Reflection activities should be an ongoing part of the service performed. Examples include:

  • Reading and Writing: Use articles or books as a foundation for discussion, journaling, or academic writing.
  • Point/Counterpoint: Read articles with differing viewpoints related to service and discuss participant opinions, or organize structured debates between peers.
  • Letters and Journals: Students should consider how their experience relates to other parts of the world and how issues of conflict, communication, race, gender, power and privilege, economics, organizational behavior, and the role of the individual in society are relevant to their experience. Encourage students to write letters home or to community leaders (which they can actually send or merely use as a way to organize their thoughts) and to journal throughout their experience abroad.
  • Artistic Reflection: Art, music, and theater can provide excellent outlets for students to reflect on their experiences and to express their learning outcomes.
  • Advocate for Systemic Change: Students should consider how the policies of their home countries might affect their host country. They may be inspired to educate others or advocate for change at home and abroad.

Beyond these student-centered methods of reflection, consider additional ways that the community partners can be a part of the reflection process.


Additional Web Resources

Action Without Borders provides an online resource center with a database of over 86,000 organizations from over 190 countries and over 11,000 volunteer opportunities. www.idealist.org.

Amizade Global Service-Learning Consortium offers unique and exciting academic courses centered on cross-cultural service-learning experiences. www.globalservicelearning.org.

The Center for International Service-Learning brings academic learning and personal service into an intimate relationship, which will prepare graduates to function and contribute as responsible members of the world community. www.islonline.org.

International Partnership for Service-Learning programs unite academic study and volunteer service, giving students a fully integrated study abroad experience. www.ipsl.org.