Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The global service learning conundrum

A few days ago, I wrote about my first experience as a faculty advisor to a service learning project in Guatemala. Interestingly, since then, I have attended two, very thought-provoking presentations on international service learning.

I'll reflect here on the second presentation, a webinar by Eric Hartman, from Kansas State University, and Anthony Ogden, from University of Kentucky. Hartman and Ogden opened the conversation by reflecting on an example of what might be a typical -but not ideal- global "service learning" experience for many university students from the U.S.: a brief (1-2 weeks) visit to a developing country during which students take part in some, often externally-developed, project intended to "help" the local community, which students carry out with limited or nonexistent knowledge of the local language and/or culture, yet perceive as a life-changing experience.

Another aspect of this example was the typical outcome for participating students: developing an overwhelming sense of gratitude for their own life circumstances, and feeling rewarded for having helped people in what are perceived to be less fortunate situations.

Of course, gratitude is not a horrible outcome (gratitude is good!), and it can be argued that even a brief exposure to life in another country can increase students' intercultural competence. However, for the experience to be truly effective and equitable for everyone involved, we must push beyond these initial responses and achieve a deeper understanding of the host culture. Most importantly, for Hartman and Ogden, global service learning must be reciprocal in nature: from the start, everything about the exchange should be collaborative, equally economically advantageous, and with equal opportunities for learning and social change. Hartman and colleagues call this "fair trade learning".  

Guatemala: Do these girls want books? In one week, what could we do to learn from and with them? 
In a way, these principles seem obvious, as they lie at the heart of the very definition of "service learning". It seems, however, that in the current zest for programs that offer a quick and convenient global experience for students, many well-intending programs have left them by the wayside.

Certainly, I have been having conversations about this, global service learning conundrum since last fall, when I learned I would be going to Guatemala with students for a week-long experience. As it would be my department's first experience there, it was difficult to do anything but trust that the already-established community partnerships were of the fair trade sort. The goal became to build connections in areas related to literacy (e.g., schools) while in Guatemala and, after returning, continue to communicate with these connections to collaboratively develop future projects.

In practice, this is challenging, but we are making progress, keeping reciprocity and sustainability in mind. We have been in touch with the schools, planning our next visit. In October, a few of the students who went in January will return, offering some degree of continuity. I have to admit, my Spanish language skills are a huge resource in this process. Being bilingual, it's difficult for me to see how service learning can take place at all without a working knowledge of the the local language (but I'll address this challenge in another post).

Speaking of the Spanish language... This journey makes me think of one of my favorite quotes, by Antonio Machado: "Caminante no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar".

Guatemala: What is the path to a reciprocal partnership with this community?

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