International Service Learning

Back in November I wrote about the health camp we’re conducting this summer with our partner Share Nepal.  I got to trip planning right away, and in the months since a really interesting service learning trip has come into shape!  The service part is healthcare, and the learning part is participatory development and disaster recovery.  Our teachers will be mostly locals - leaders of our partner organization, practitioners of development and medicine, academics, and of course me and cofounders Nat and Kamal.  It’s gonna be awesome.  As the trip approaches and the details come into focus, I think it’s a good time to map out as best I can some of the fundamentals, risks and benefits of international service learning (ISL).   

Service learning is an (international) experience where participants work together to meet a community need, and integrate that experience with educational objectives.  Reflection and analysis are critical pieces, and reciprocity an underlying theme.  

 A simple representation of the ISL concept from West Chester University.

A simple representation of the ISL concept from West Chester University.

When designing a trip that reaches across borders, aims to make the world a better place, and is bold enough to teach humans how to help other humans, I think it’s prudent to frame it within the Sustainable Development Goals.  I’m on board with trying to get as much of the helping world as possible on the same page.  It's an ambitious goal, but I think it’s reasonable to point in that direction.  Most of ParticipAid’s work circles around these 4 SDGs, and this trip is not different. 

On the theme of reciprocity, I think this is often highlighted in the literature because power imbalances are so often at the heart of the risks and pitfalls of ISL trips.  I’m sure that most trip organizers do their best to avoid exploitation, ingratiation, and an unintentional emphasis on income disparity.  However, these are complex issues that are challenging to identify while in the midst of them.  I’m hoping for our trip that the bulk of this nasty problem can be dodged by building and maintaining genuine relationships with local people and institutions, and by communicating as clearly as possible with all parties about difficult truths and expectations.  There are rich and there are poor, the global north and south, the west and the rest.  These divisions exist, and a service learning trip won’t change that.  What an ISL trip can do is allow us to look each other in the eyes and confront how we are the same, how we are different, and what that means for how we can and should relate to each other.     

The benefits of an ISL trip are countless! 

Some benefits for the home organization: 

First of all, I should say that most ISL trips will need a permanent local partner on the ground for service provided to have a shot at maintaining its value.  That local partner stands to benefit in many ways.  The most direct benefit is seen in dollars.  Local teachers, organizers, and hosts can and should be compensated generously for the time and resources they invest in ISL trips, and local businesses might see a boost in revenue as well.  Regardless of profit, inviting a group of foreigners from a country with more resources can give the organization valuable exposure.  The relationships built with foreigners can advance their mission, vision, and agenda in a very real way.  More tangibly, a trip like ours this summer can help to meet a spoken need of the community by bringing financial support and skilled volunteers.  If well executed, this will increase their credibility and their constituency’s confidence in them.  Finally, ISL is an opportunity for the home organization to develop themselves as educators and experts, to sharpen their skills, and share their knowledge and culture.        

 Our partner organization, Share Nepal, facilitating a project planning meeting in the village. 

Our partner organization, Share Nepal, facilitating a project planning meeting in the village. 

Some benefits for the traveler:

Experiential education like that in ISL trips unites theory and practice in a truly unique and unforgettable way.  You can only be told about a subject so many times.  If you want to integrate that knowledge into your being, you have to get your hands dirty, make mistakes and learn some lessons.  Participants get to be helpers, genuinely useful helpers, to strangers that appreciate it.  This feels great (did you read about the helper’s high?) and there’s no debate that helping like this can improve your health and your life.  Some people are drawn to this sort of experience for the potential for personal growth and development.  Being out of your element can expose you to obstacles you didn’t know existed, and encourage out of the box thinking.  It’s an opportunity to redefine and push your boundaries in ways unimaginable in your daily life.  And of course, the excitement of travel!  The sights, smells, and sounds of a different culture can be transformative for a person from any walk of life.  Reading or watching programs about a foreign place can never compare to feeling it between your toes.  Immersion in another culture adds texture to a person’s character.  

 A day in the life of Karmidanda ...

A day in the life of Karmidanda ...

For all kinds of reasons, I’m really looking forward to our upcoming ISL trip.  Sign up for our monthly updates to get stories from the ground!