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Service Learning Study Abroad Trips in International Studieslocked

  • Jessica AuchterJessica AuchterDepartment of Political Science and Public Service, University of Tennessee Chattanooga


International service learning has become increasingly popular in higher education. Such trips focus on cultivating skills in students, including civic engagement and intercultural understanding, while also being key ways for students to achieve self-growth and learn to apply and contextualize the theories they learn in the classroom in the real world. The goals often outlined in the literature about international service learning tend to be student-centric. While pedagogical goals matter, faculty should also keep in mind the ethics of engaging community partners, especially given the often unequal power relationship at play in the practice of international service learning. Being more attentive to these ethical dilemmas may not eliminate them, but it will ensure that students are considering and learning from the gray areas involved in international service learning, including their own individual relationships to power and injustice. Additionally, faculty should consider how to avoid replicating neocolonial logics in their desire to expose students to the world beyond themselves. Specifically, faculty should be more mindful of the language they use to describe these trips and avoid reifying the notion that service learning is something to be done in the developing world while study trips tend to be conducted in the developed world. Engaging reciprocity with a community partner in both the design and practice of the trip, preparing for cultural complexity in advance by situating the students in larger sets of geopolitical and economic practices, being honest about the skill set students bring to the table, being aware of the cultural and gender dynamics at play, and building in time for reflection before, during, and after the trip are all ways to attend to the larger ethical considerations at play.

Student Trips Abroad: Dilemmas and Opportunities

In 2016, I was in a small community outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with a group of seven undergraduate students from my state university in the United States. We had been asked to work with youth in the community, one of the numerous communities that had been displaced from a site in Phnom Penh where wealthy developers had built a new mall. The community was quite poor, and not too far away was an area known for sex tourism catering to Westerners. This community was somewhat used to outside intervention, being the subject of Western development aid fairly regularly. Some of the youth we worked with told us they would have to come late on Sunday because they had to attend church—though they were Buddhist, they felt compelled to attend Christian church services because a Christian organization was providing development assistance to the community.

We were partnering with a local organization that did a variety of work and had been learning about the organization and the community. Finally, the day arrived that the students had been eagerly anticipating: we were to put on workshops for the youth on goal setting and emotional intelligence. We had done research and planning before we even left the United States, but the evening before the workshop, one of the students came to me panicked: “The more I learn about these communities, the more I feel uncertain about what we are doing. I don’t know enough to lead a workshop and I don’t even speak Khmer!”

We talked about her leadership roles on campus and her experience in organizations like Girl Scouts in the United States when she was growing up. Then we had a frank talk about the limits of her expertise and skill set. The next day, she realized that one of the benefits of her educational background was that she had a lot of experience in thinking about the process of developing confidence in oneself and that she was used to being pushed and encouraged to form her own thoughts in the classroom in a way many of the Cambodian students we worked with had not. After the workshop, we revisited the experience as a group: indeed, reflective elements are a key part of service learning. The same student felt that she had contributed something but still felt that she was not the one who was best positioned to lead the workshop. She noted that our translator, who worked for the organization we partnered with, knew more about these communities than we had been able to learn, and was better suited to support and encourage the agency of these youth. This led to a larger conversation about what it meant to be in a position where a young Western university student was considered automatically an expert because she was white, Western, and educated, coming to offer expertise and insight to a community in need, even when attempting to eschew this position of expertise and be clear about one’s own deficiencies and limited skill set.

This story highlights some of the dilemmas and opportunities that faculty encounter in leading international service learning trips. As universities and companies are increasingly engaged in developing opportunities for international service learning in the 21st-century climate of globalization, it is essential to elicit a greater understanding about the logistical and ethical dimensions of such trips in the context of international studies. This is particularly the case since such trips are inherently connected to many of the topics covered by the field, particularly questions of power. Problematizing international service learning depends significantly upon faculty being open to the pedagogical, ethical, and epistemological dilemmas posed by these kinds of courses. Faculty should remain ethically and academically conflicted about the role of global service learning, even as they carry out these trips, and there may be no such thing as a perfectly designed trip. Such trips are always imbued with particular ethical dilemmas, and one of the key things faculty can do is to render these transparent alongside the particular pedagogical outcomes of the trip: allowing students to encounter their discomfort in many ways. This contribution is designed to raise the debates and questions at play, air concerns and key considerations, situate these trips within wider pedagogical goals, and offer a set of best practices. It may be impossible to carry out these trips without some ethical dilemmas involved, perhaps in the same way that all tourism to the developing world raises the specter of neocolonialism and commodification (Lisle, 2016). Given this, how can students be made aware of these ethical dilemmas as they carry out their service learning projects in ways that do justice to their importance and their complexity? In this vein, this contribution fits within the wider calls to critical international pedagogies that have emerged in the discipline of international relations in the early 21st century (Odysseos & Pal, 2018).

What follows is a combination between a how-to-guide that examines best practices associated with international service learning and a theoretical reflection on the role of such trips in the field of international studies and for the concepts that faculty teach in these courses. As a result, it will not provide a systematic examination of service learning but rather will reference some notions of how service learning has been conceived in the pedagogical literature specifically for the purpose of helping readers reflect on its role and consider designing their own trips. I also briefly share some of my own ideas and reflections, alongside those by other scholars, about how to successfully engage international service learning for undergraduate students.

International service learning programs are expanding throughout universities in the United States and beyond (Annette, 2003). For example, in the United States, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing suggests that nursing programs should all include an international course or international content (Bentley & Ellison, 2007, p. 207). In Canada, estimates are that 11% of Canadian university students participate in international mobility programs of some sort (MacDonald & Tiessen, 2018, p. 2). This fits within the larger pedagogical turn to active learning (Fowler, 2005; Krain & Lantis, 2006; Morgan, 2003; Shaw, 2004; Shellman & Turan, 2003; Simpson & Kaussler, 2009), in which international relations can be seen to challenge hegemonic paradigms by shifting the way students see the world (Head, 2020; Krain, Kille, & Lantis, 2015; Lamy, 2007). International relations as a discipline is particularly well positioned to engage its topical material via international service learning, but the way we study questions of power, development, and global justice also position us to raise important questions about the way in which international service learning more broadly is engaged in higher education. Additionally, service learning is one tool in a broader toolkit and relevant to the recent emphasis on how international studies can prepare students for the demands of the current job market, including cultural adaptability (Paczynska & Hirsch, 2019, p. 4; Zartner, Carpenter, Gokcek, Melin, & Shaw, 2018).

Goals of Service Learning Trips

This section examines the larger goals of service learning trips, in light of the variety of ways such trips are defined in the literature. Understanding the goals is integral to considering best practices.

The Evolution of Service Learning: Some Initial Definitions

While the titular phrase can encompass a variety of things, international service learning trips are defined here as trips for undergraduate students that are faculty-led and include a community engagement component that makes them different from the traditional study abroad trip. As Crabtree (2008, p. 18) notes, “international service learning (ISL) combines academic instruction and community-based service in an international context.” They also differ from traditional international volunteering trips or tourism in that they have an academic component (Bringle & Hatcher, 2012). Such trips can span disciplines from engineering to business, natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts. While the focus here is on trips topically related to international studies and the cognate disciplines that make it up, the best practices highlighted and the wider discussion is certainly relevant for other disciplines engaged in international service learning trips as well. The hallmark of service learning is student engagement: the student is an active participant rather than simply an observer, which is what makes it different from study abroad programs or field study (Brown, 2012, p. 59).

I have led two such trips, both three and a half weeks in duration, both working with local community partners. The first, to Cambodia, involved site visits with various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and longer-term work with one specific organization which focused on youth empowerment in poor communities. The second, to Kenya, involved site visits to innovative entrepreneurs in Nairobi, and direct work with HIV-positive entrepreneurs to help them creatively think about solutions to develop their businesses. Both were summer trips and involved pretrip meetings but not a full course the semester prior. Before the Cambodia trip, students read one common piece of reading material and most of the meetings focused on logistical planning. Before the Kenya trip, we had more regular meetings, some led by myself, some by the other faculty member involved with the trip, and some with guests including an African historian who shared some background on Kenyan history.

Within the literature on service learning, there is a focus on several key goals of programs such as this. One goal is related to civic engagement; as Brown (2012, p. 57) puts it, “service learning, particularly in its international form, is essential for the preparation of engaged citizens” (see also Crabtree, 2008, p. 18, and Zappile, Beers, & Raymond, 2017). Bringle and Hatcher (2012, p. 3) note that international service learning is the pedagogy best suited to prepare students to become global citizens, and that this outcome is distinctive, meaning it cannot be achieved with other pedagogical approaches.

Second, such programs focus on applying traditional classroom-type knowledge to experiences outside the classroom. This fits with the wider trend toward experiential learning in higher education. For this reason, it focuses on incorporating reflection and learning “to analyze theory in the light of lived experiences” (Brown, 2012, p. 57; see also Kachuyevski & Jones, 2011). One could also say the opposite: it gives life to our theories, allowing us to apply theory to understand and analyze lived experiences. As Grusky (2000, p. 859) notes, “service learning can transform classroom lessons from abstract discussions (about theories of economic and political development, concepts of citizenship, political participation and participatory democracy, obstacles to democratic transition, the structure and activities of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the multiple impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement and trade liberalization policies, sustainable development models, grassroots social movement organizations, and much more) into real live concepts and issues.”

Third, international service learning is said to develop “intercultural understanding and communication” (Crabtree, 2008, p. 18). As Crabtree notes, as traditional study abroad programs have changed with the advent of globalization and the commercialization of study abroad, they tend to provide a more insular and less authentic immersive experience. This has shifted more of a focus to the developing world, but there is some concern with the search for “an idealized or authentic other” and the inherent reliance on stereotypical understandings that involves (Crabtree, 2008, p. 20; see also Shome & Hegde, 2002).

Fourth, such programs often focus on advertising themselves based on the experience students can have that will be life-changing. In this sense, widening students’ worldview and self-growth is often a key goal of international service learning, particularly cultivating empathy. Zappile et al. (2017) focus on how active learning through simulation can enhance global empathy, and this can be extended to similar types of activity in the field. One potential issue with this is that it places the emotional development of the student front and center, focusing on how students can feel needed in their volunteer work at the expense of how they can actually make a difference. These need not be mutually exclusive, but at times they can be conflicting goals, particularly when the success of service learning programs is measured in terms of student self-growth (see Bentley & Ellison, 2007, for an example of this type of evaluation). This is also associated with the goal of service learning which is to allow students to have more agency in their learning process (Mikalayeva, 2016).

Defining Goals: Ethical Considerations

As Grusky (2000, p. 858) notes, “historically, study abroad programs on US campuses have been overwhelmingly directed toward European student exchanges. Most international service-learning programs focus instead on building reciprocal relations across the North-South divide.” This provides innumerable opportunities for experiential learning and the application of classroom material to real-world problems. However, it also generates potential pitfalls and ethical dilemmas, and some of these are related to divergent understandings of the goals of these types of programs. International service learning trips tend to take place in the developing world (Smaller & O’Sullivan, 2018; Tiessen & Huish, 2014). Contrast this with study abroad trips, where 40% of Americans study abroad in just five countries, all in Europe: the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain (NAFSA, 2020). Similarly, half of all British students study abroad in Europe, with nearly another 20% studying abroad in the United States (Universities UK International, 2019). In other words, study trips tend to have sites in the Global North as their locations, while service learning tends to occur in the Global South. The varying descriptions in program type can create a sense that while one studies the rich history and culture in Europe or other Western countries, the developing world is not a destination worthy of study. Rather, it is a place to offer service, and that they are such in need of help that even a group of unskilled college students can make a difference. This is reinforced by itineraries that involve events like “slum tours,” where visitors experience poverty and inequality firsthand, an increasingly common part of tourism in the developing world (Bednarz, 2018).

Such examples highlight the dilemma at play in trips to the developing world: how can students be made aware of the realities of poverty and inequality without becoming gawkers or consumers of the lived reality of the global poor in ways that commodifies them or renders them nonagents? For each event in the itinerary, trip organizers should ask: what purpose does this serve? Does it instrumentalize local populations and their living conditions solely for the self-growth of our students? Is there a way to engage and support local populations while also exposing students to those who live in poverty without exploiting them? What preparation do students need in order to be able to properly understand and contextualize the things they will encounter? This is particularly important because service learning trips often straddle the line between tourism, study, and local immersion and operate in a complex gray area.

Scholars of international relations have pointed to potential ethical issues associated with tourism that come into play with international trips of this nature. For example, Debbie Lisle notes that war and tourism intersect, as both “produce foreignness within a global order,” the key difference being that while war seeks to vanquish the Other, tourism seeks to commodify the Other (Lisle, 2016, p. 4). Similarly, Vrasti (2012), based on her research in Ghana and Guatemala, has noted specifically that volunteering abroad reifies neoliberal understandings and can be conceived of as a neocolonial or imperial project (see also Mathers, 2010).

Paying attention to ideas of foreignness and Otherness not only helps students engage with local populations in ways that are more conscious of relations of power, but it also helps trip organizers attend to questions of subjectivity and perspective in structuring trips themselves. For example, Hartman et al. (2020) have noted that “students of color bring specific assets and cultural wealth to education abroad programming, and that individuals with marginalized identities frequently interact with host community justice networks in both exciting and profoundly complicated ways” (p. 33). Yet this requires being aware of the race, class, gender, and colonial dynamics at play in North–South trips of this sort.

In this vein, international service learning trips have the potential to engage what has been referred to as a “pedagogy of discomfort” (Boler, 1999). As Naomi Head details, this can challenge dominant social beliefs as a means to engage personal and political transformation, and also importantly recognizes the embodied and affective dimensions of teaching and learning, in addition to the intellectual focus (Head, 2020, p. 80). However, they can also work to reinforce neocolonial economic and cultural relationships (Smaller & O’Sullivan, 2018, p. 2).

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

This set of best practices should be seen as ways to reckon with the ethical dilemmas that arise with regards to service learning trips and with the intersection of epistemology, ethics, and emotions (Head, 2020) to design a trip that critically engages with a pedagogy of discomfort by encouraging students to reflect on how their actions may reinforce or resist neocolonial relations.

The Ethics of Working with Community Partners

Most service learning trips run by faculty have a pedagogical focus. While student learning is significant, there is an ethical dilemma to instrumentalizing the lives of others for student learning. Much of the literature on service learning focuses on what students get out of such as cultivating leadership skills. Crabtree (2008, p. 23) notes that in the literature on international service learning, “the discussion focuses overwhelmingly on maximizing student learning; attention to community-level concerns is underwhelming at best.” Grusky (2000, p. 861) similarly draws attention to the way these programs are often designed with the student as consumer, and the community partner “offering the student a service.”

But it is equally important to consider what community partners can get out of working with students who may in fact not have a very useful particular skill set. How can student agency be promoted without promoting a white savior complex or the idea that students are automatically leaders when they visit the developing world, often partnering with individuals who are older, more educated, more experienced engaging in this specific type of work, and more knowledgeable of the local context? Indeed, Crabtree (2008, p. 23) also notes that much more attention is paid to the community partner’s needs in the literature about domestic service learning in the United States than in the literature about international service learning, which focuses on the developing world. This is a worrying trend, and one which gestures to the importance of being attentive to the larger geopolitical and development considerations that underpin international service learning work, as well as the background and work of the specific community partner. Indeed, service learning programs should take up the challenge of building sustainable relationships with community partners, which means taking into account the needs of the community, acknowledging the play of power relations between Western universities and community partners in the developing world, and working to build reciprocity directly into the relationship (Grusky, 2000, p. 861). “Northern universities and their partners must therefore find ways to mitigate the most significant barrier between North-South student mobility participation (the learners and the community partners): the one-sided power and privilege experienced by Global North participants” (Tiessen, Roy, Karim-Haji, & Gough, 2018, p. 5).

In this sense, one key in designing a trip is ensuring that students actually have something to offer to the purported community partner. Students should not be doing something they are not trained to do, or something they would not be qualified to do in the developed world. For the field of international studies, this means students should not be engaged in medical practice. Students who have no experience in accounting should not be developing business budgets, and students without training in engineering should not be building wells or water purification systems. Designing a trip properly, then, involves asking ourselves what skills the specific student group has, and how they can use those skills in partnership with the community actor. Students are not paid or unpaid consultants on these trips. Beyond this, they are not menial labor. Building or painting schools can be suitable volunteer work while on a trip, but in many instances this can fill a gap that instead takes jobs away from local skilled workers. Pippa Biddle details an international service trip she took to Tanzania:

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue. Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.

(Biddle, 2014, n.p.).

Brown (2012, p. 59) emphasizes the hallmark of service learning that it is a partnership between students and a community partner. While this tends to be the way such programs are designed, cultivating a partnership is more than simply working with a partner. In service learning trips in the developing world, it is necessary to understand and practice the idea of partnership continually to avoid the pitfalls of neocolonialism. That is, partnership is more than just a function of design; it is also a function of practice. Making an intentional effort to respect the time of the community partners and to value them as experts, even when the students are presented as better positioned to offer solutions, is key to success in an international service learning program. Studies have shown that cross-cultural relations are the most successful when “each group shares relatively equal status, when there are shared tasks requiring interdependence and cooperation in a supportive climate, and when there are opportunities for interpersonal interaction” (Crabtree, 2008, p. 22; see also Cook, 1985). Specifically, service learning in the context of international studies should focus on community organizations having a “clear role, relationship, and voice in designing the learning and—if applicable—development or service initiatives participants undertake” (Hartman, Kiely, Boettcher, & Friedrichs, 2018, p. 4). This means that faculty must be particularly attuned to the power inequities that inherently exist in a relationship with a community partner, particularly given the economic model of service learning trips.

Relatedly, a key element of any program should be the continual practice of sustainable service: service that keeps in mind what the communities’ needs will be after the students leave. Biddle (2014) draws attention to the need for role models from the community itself. She suggests youth in particular should be looking up to people who are part of their own culture, who look like them, as a means to cultivate sustainability. Similarly, she draws attention to the problem of outside actors being viewed as agents of a person’s medical care or education. In other words, international service learning trips should focus on building agency in local communities. This involves designing and carrying out a trip that has a dual focus: both students and communities. Crabtree (2008) sees this as a key hallmark of service learning and how it is different than study abroad:

the direct beneficiaries of study-abroad experiences are the students, and these benefits are conceptualized largely as pragmatic such as improved language skills and enhanced job preparation, despite earlier claims about international education and world peace. SL experiences, on the other hand, are intended to reciprocally benefit communities and their members in addition to students; SL benefits to students are articulated in more civic, rather than individualistic terms, such as enhanced civic participation, social responsibility, and commitment to community service. (p. 20)

While Crabtree’s focus is on the dual benefit of international service learning, the reality is that these programs often emerge in an institutional context that justifies the often-high cost of these programs by focusing on what students will get out of them. Even Crabtree recognizes that there is an ongoing complex debate within institutions about the often-competing impetuses at play with regard to international service learning.

The main reason this discussion matters is that community partners are not simply a tool for student learning. While student learning is naturally the focus of any course, there is an added element when working with a community partner that entails respect for the processes and time of that partner. In other words, if the only focus is on student learning, a worrying trend some have pointed to as the number and type of these trips expand, we should refer to trips as study trips rather than using the language of service learning.

This idea of partnership is directly related to how one understands the goals of service learning trips. Faculty should ask themselves some key questions about project design related to the ethics of working with a community partner: What is the program hoping to achieve by engaging in a particular kind of work? How do we know that work will achieve that set of goals? Asking these questions will ensure that the service learning project is oriented toward something and that both the faculty on the trip and the community partners have considered the usefulness of the students’ work toward a particular end that is achievable. Hartman (2017) notes that while the research on engaged learning shows that good intentions do not necessarily result in meaningful outcomes, thoughtful design and reflection that focuses on community outcomes as well as student outcomes can result in “diffusion of rights norms, development of civil society networks, and the opportunity to co-educate the next generation of individuals committed to more just, inclusive, and sustainable communities” (Hartman, 2017, n.p.). This only works, however, if justice, inclusivity, and sustainability are part of trip design as much as the student-centered or pedagogical goals.

This ensures that the defined goals and methods of achieving them are evidence based and consider not only the outcomes for the students but for the community partner as well. Being transparent with the community partner and ensuring that expectations are on the same page in advance will help. This is more difficult the more you work through third parties, such as the increasing number of companies engaged in service learning trip planning, as Caton and Santos (2009) describe in their analysis of an education abroad provider which “continues to (re)produce hegemonic depictions of non-Westerners, asserting a Western superiority ideology by polarizing the West and the Rest into binaries of modern-traditional, technologically advanced-backward, and master-servant” (p. 191). In other words, if the Other is commodified in tourism (Lisle, 2016), paying attention to the dynamics of commodification surrounding service learning trips is even more essential, and ethical engagement with community partners can still be done when using a vendor, with adequate pretrip planning and with the right organization. In Kenya, we worked with a third-party educational provider that prioritized the values of partnership and community agency, and thus we were able to have continued conversation about the ethical dilemmas at play both during the design phase and throughout the trip. This is invaluable and starts at the stage of selecting a vendor, if the faculty member or university chooses to work with a third-party company.

Additionally, designing trips with the community partners as full collaborators is essential. This also means paying attention to the growing body of research coming from scholars in the developing world, where most of these trips take place. Most empirical studies on service learning have focused on the experiences of students, but attending to scholarship that focuses on community partners will help ensure that benefits go both ways. For example, Ortiz Loaiza (2018, p. 26) has focused on how international service learning in Guatemala helped challenge stereotypes about Western superiority in local communities. Thuo (2018, p. 77) has shown that international service learning trips can bring an increased online presence to local partner organizations, which can help them generate exposure and new sources of funding. Knowing what benefits community partners can help shape the design of service learning trips toward those goals and outcomes.

New Cultures and Cultural Immersion

One of the biggest obstacles discussed in the literature is culture shock. Crabtree (2008, p. 22) notes that both students and faculty can experience this, and emphasizes the way culture shock can be more extreme because service learning projects force students to encounter the realities of global injustice in ways travel to the developing world as a tourist may not. He suggests preparing students in advance for the poverty, inequality, and injustice that they will encounter, and focusing on guiding them through their self-discovery and their changing attitudes toward themselves as individuals and their situatedness in the developed world during the trip itself. The difficulty is in striking the right balance for both pretrip preparation and in-trip reflection. For example, preparing students too much for what they will encounter can deprive them of the moments of disjuncture that can motivate growth. As Paczynska and Hirsch (2019, p. 17) note, “expect that you and your students will be taken out of your comfort zones, and treat it as an avenue toward constructive change.”

In advance of the trip to Kenya, a colleague at my university wanted the students to work through the entire Peace Corps preparation workbook to prepare them for culture shock. He ran a simulation that involved encountering a tribe with unknown customs and food practices with whom the students could not communicate. While this may have been helpful if the students were planning to spend a year or two in rural Kenya with the Peace Corps, the trip itself was going to be in a suburb of Nairobi, the students would have translators, and many of the people we worked with spoke English, which we knew in advance. The cultural preparation, in this case, prepared students to be placed in the middle of nowhere with people who were much less technologically advanced than they were. As a result, when they finally did arrive in Nairobi and saw that it was a thriving city with skyscrapers, coffee shops, numerous English speakers, and in many cases more advanced and innovative business technology than anything the students had encountered at home, it paradoxically created even more of a disjuncture where they thought everyone they met was just like them, and it made it more difficult to understand difference and extreme poverty where it was found. It also made them feel as though U.S. solutions to problems were the correct ones, and made them less likely to seek out the complexity of the circumstances they encountered (Grusky, 2000, p. 865).

In other words, while it may be important to prepare students for culture shock, doing so in a way that emphasizes the primitive nature of the developing world is not only inaccurate and may reify colonial understandings of superiority, but it may also harden their stereotypes and make it more difficult for them to break out of preconceived notions about the people they will encounter. I have found that students actually had the most difficult time adjusting to the more banal elements of cultural difference, not the overt ones. They were fine using squat toilets, but the fact that things never seemed to run “on time” was more difficult. Additionally, while they had prepared for the cultural difference, many of my students did not have much experience navigating large cities, even in the United States. In terms of pretrip preparation, studies have shown that the most effective forms involve “a serious exploration of the historical realities of North–South relations and their contemporary effects on life in the South, particularly for rural villagers, and the ways in which these relations of dependency and power imbalance are maintained through contemporary political, economic and cultural regimes in the North,” as demonstrated by Smaller and O’Sullivan’s study of international service learning in Nicaragua (Smaller & O’Sullivan, 2018, p. 18).

There is also increasingly a generational component. While most faculty leading these courses were already adults when smartphones became de rigueur, the same is not true of students. Setting aside the issue that so much of their lives are lived on their smartphones and being away from well-functioning Wi-Fi can be difficult for them, it is also the case that for them, imagining a world without high-speed data is difficult. In Kenya, all the entrepreneurs we partnered with had cell phones. This led the students to assume that the entrepreneurs could do the same thing with their cell phones that the students did. One of our student groups suggested that the seamstress they were working with watch YouTube videos to learn how to sew new products. This was laughed off by the translator, who informed them that high-speed data needed to stream videos on YouTube was very expensive in Kenya. For the students, this didn’t fit their preconceived notions about technology and its accessibility worldwide, or with the modern city that they had encountered when they arrived in Nairobi. Surely if people paid for food at a bar with their phones via the technology of M-Pesa, they could also watch YouTube videos to learn new sewing techniques, they thought. While some of these gaps in understanding are cultural, increasingly they are generational as well.

Grusky (2000) offers a thoughtful discussion of how to engage in difficult conversations surrounding economic inequality and poverty on international service learning trips as a means to engage in critical analysis. She suggests having direct conversations about the roots of the poverty that students may encounter, particularly in the form of street children or beggars. Additionally, she addresses the stereotype held by many in the developing world that Westerners are wealthy. This can lead to uncomfortable interpersonal situations where students are sought after as objects of relationships, or asked directly to give money to community partners or their families. Anticipating in advance how to handle these situations will make students feel more comfortable with how to respond when they do occur. Often local NGOs will offer training in country for tourists or study groups on how to appropriately interact with vulnerable populations, including street children, such as Friends International in Cambodia. Faculty can also ask that local partners provide this training or context to student groups, particularly when working with a third-party vendor.

Another issue we encountered related to culture was expectations governing dress and behavior. In Kenya, most of the communities we worked with were quite religious and viewed alcohol consumption as sinful. The place we stayed was dry. Students found this exceedingly difficult to understand; indeed, they wanted to experience the Nairobi party scene, excessive alcohol and all. Additionally, in many parts of the developing world, interpersonal dynamics tend to be much closer, as in the tradition of kissing as a greeting, the way two male platonic friends in the Middle East may hold hands with one another in public, the way strangers may greet you on the street in Rwanda and want to shake or hold your hand, and the differences in circles of personal space. Americans in particular tend to be suspicious of foreigners (Grusky, 2000, p. 866), and on a trip of this nature may be particular cautious of the dangers involved, so they may feel threatened by a stranger greeting them or someone standing too close. Discussing this balance in advance and throughout the trip can help.

In Cambodia, dress tends to be fairly conservative, with very few Cambodians wearing shorts or tanktops. While we had mentioned this to the students before we left, many students still wore short shorts or tanktops with visible bralettes. For them, dress was an expression of bodily autonomy: it was difficult for them to understand that in Cambodia it was about respect for cultural norms of the communities we were working with. For the faculty member on the trip, it can be very uncomfortable to police the dress of the students on the trip, because this is not a typical part of our jobs. After this experience, I developed a practice during pretrip preparation of distributing a suggested packing list and doing a “what’s in my bag” demonstration, to help ease their anxiety about packing and to try to alleviate potential issues with dress on the trip. This also allows for an opportunity to raise issues of wealth disparity in clothing and accessories.

There is also an important gendered dimension to immersion in the developing world. Grusky (2000) notes that catcalling may be particularly common in Latin America due to notions of masculinity there, but it also draws attention to the fact that in many countries, there is a stereotypical understanding of the American woman as loose or liberated, which can cause issues for female students. It is important for both male and female faculty members to be attentive to this (Grusky, 2000, p. 862). Additionally, students’ experience with community partners may differ according to gender. In Kenya, one group of students partnered with a male carpenter, and he naturally looked to the only male student in the group to act as the spokesperson for the group. The female students at times felt slighted, and we had to discuss with the male student how to manage those situations and ensure that he was creating spaces for the female students to express their perspectives since he was being placed in that position by the community partner. The same is true for faculty members, who may be received by the community partner as inherently an expert due to their educational status and potentially their age or gender. Even as a young-looking female faculty member who is often perceived initially as one of the students, once the community partners learn I am the faculty member, they often excessively defer to me as an expert, and there is a labor associated with cultivating both student agency and community partner agency in this situation which is more difficult when the faculty member is living and working alongside students and community partners.

Student Behavior and Trip Logistics

This section examines lessons learned related to trip logistics that could be helpful to faculty who want to consider developing or adapting their own service learning trip. First, for faculty who have not led a service learning trip before, the experience of such a trip is very different than teaching a regular class or even leading a study abroad trip. Particularly for student populations like my American state university, students have rarely been out of their home country, and this is likely to be their first time traveling to the developing world. They will have fears and anxieties, and they will struggle with homesickness, culture shock, and the work they do. If they are working with vulnerable populations they may struggle with their encounters with the stories of those individuals or with poverty more generally. Due to the perception of safety issues in the developing world, students’ families may rely on the faculty leading the trip as a proxy caregiver for their students.

Second of all, it is essential to build time in for reflection, a hallmark of service learning trips (Hartman et al., 2018, p. 61), but also to allow students to have free time for individual reflection or to reconnect with family and friends back home. This prevents burnout. There is the tendency to fill the time with events and opportunities and fun activities in addition to the service itself, since it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. However, this can cause some potential issues for student mental health and is particularly difficult for introverts who may need their own space but also feel obligated to attend events if the service learning trip is associated with a course grade. Attending to student personality type, some form of reflection, whether individual or group, should be guided by trip leaders. Existing research shows that without “structured experiences and guided reflection, they [students] generally do not return with measurable gains in social responsibility or global civic engagement” (Ogden & Hartman, 2019, p. 234). Regular journaling with guided questions while on the trip is a good way to engage this, as are large group discussions that curate a space for students to share their thoughts with one another to advance more productive development.

Additionally, it is worthwhile having a posttrip reflection session as a group, somewhere between one and three months later. Students often have life-changing experiences on these trips. Yet, when they return to their home country, in addition to experiencing reverse culture shock, they also realize that it can be difficult to share their experiences with those around them without essentializing them, and that friends and family may not want to hear about the complexity of the trip or its ethical dilemmas. Coming back together as a group to discuss those experiences can help students process the experience and realize that it is shared with others who were on the trip. Additionally, students can at times leave a trip of this sort feeling privileged to live in their home country: the problems of the country they visited were amplified and highlighted, and it can make them feel as though those problems do not exist in their home country (Grusky, 2000, p. 865). Having a posttrip reflection session can encourage students to think about how to see their home country in a new light, including accounting for what poverty or injustice may look like in their own backyard.


International service learning trips present myriad complex practical and philosophical questions. I have framed this article in terms of the opportunities service learning can provide, as well as some of the cautionary notes about developing and leading such a trip. While it may be impossible to eliminate all these obstacles, having conversations about the ethics of service learning in the developing world is necessary, and that transparency with students about these dilemmas is a key part of the learning process. This fits with the wider call to engaged pedagogy, and also allows faculty to engage with some of the concerns that come along with the neoliberalization of the university (Odysseos & Pal, 2018). In other words, as service learning becomes more corporatized and student experiential learning becomes monetized, this raises additional concerns about how faculty who believe in the value of global experiences and active learning can structure these trips in ways that do justice to the wider considerations at play.


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