Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  1

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Service Learning Abroad and Global Citizenship


Kimberly Jones, Elon University, NC

Judith Esposito, Elon University, NC


Jones, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of anthropology, and Esposito, Ph.D., LPC, is an assistant professor of human services.



Service learning courses present unique challenges, including developing community partnerships, assessing and meeting community needs, and balancing academic learning requirements and personal growth experiences for students. These challenges become even more complicated when the course takes place in a foreign community. In the process of developing two new service learning study abroad courses, two Elon University faculty members set out together to determine the best, most effective method of accomplishing their course goals, while attending to the service needs of local communities.


Building on Institutional Strengths

For the past three years Elon University has ranked in the top twenty institutions for Service Learning according to US News and World Report. This process began in 1988 with the establishment of the Elon College Habitat for Humanity program. The Service Learning Community was formally established in 1995, and developed into the Kernodle Center for Service Learning in 1997. In 2002, the North Carolina Campus Compact was formed and housed at Elon. Service learning has become an essential component of the “Elon experience”, a catch phrase that emphasizes the importance of experiential pedagogies.


Elon University has a winter term in January, and the Experiential Learning Requirement (ELR) is often met during this period through a “Call to Service” winter term program (established in 1996), or through numerous short-term study abroad courses, that can also be used to meet this graduation requirement. To build upon this existing institutional structure by combining the benefits of study abroad and service learning, the co-authors are developing service-based study abroad programs. We aim to prepare students for the complex challenges of the 21st Century and develop their awareness of global citizenship.


The need to develop partnerships with communities beyond national borders has been recognized in the literature, but remains a relatively unexplored territory. In Fall of 2000, the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning in cooperation with Campus Compact produced a special issue on “strategic directions for service learning research”. In the introductory article, Howard, Gelmon and Giles (2000) discuss the need to further stimulate research in service learning. They assert, “Topics that merit future research attention include, amongst others, international education”. However, before we can begin to investigate the impact of international service learning, we need to make every effort to develop programs that reflect the best practices of domestic research in service learning.


Building Collaborative Community Partnerships

A common goal for service learning projects is that they are collaborative in nature. Doing a project with a community rather than for a community tends to help foster local ownership of the project. Maurrasse (2003) emphasizes the need to build partnerships between the university and the community in which residents play an important role in project development. By working alongside local community members, students avoid feeling removed from the people impacted by their service. This also provides more opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and cross-cultural challenges, both of which are areas rich in potential for individual processing. In addition, the face-to-face contact with local families and individuals provides richer and more meaningful growth opportunities for students, a fundamental goal of exemplary service-learning practice.


On the other hand, considering the short period of time students have in the field, working collaboratively on a new service project might be a demanding request for the host community. The local community might not be able to sustain a project after the students leave, and the instructor might be limited in his or her ability to sustain a long-term commitment with an agency so far away. A more plausible option may be to foster partnerships with local universities and non-governmental organizations. In this way, the short-term participation of study abroad students can be incorporated into broader programs, and the local university or NGO can foster an ongoing long-term relationship with the wider community. This fits in well with the advice of Maurrasse (2003), who advocates the development of programs “connected to a broader collaborative rather than an isolated effort”.


In the service learning abroad course being developed in Guam, one of the co-authors, Judy Esposito, found a university on the island that lacked a formal model for its own service learning initiatives. The university administrators were very interested in learning more about how to effectively manage service learning programs and were eager to hear about Elon’s practices. By sharing service learning experiences and recommendations from the home institution, this instructor was able to begin a partnership that emerged as one of multiple benefits, such as university space for instruction, affordable university housing for study abroad students, lectures from local university faculty, and library facilities, in exchange for a presentation, manual, or panel discussion about service learning practices at Elon.


In the case of developing a program in Brazil, co-author Kimberly Jones, has developed a collaborative relationship with a university with an established program in service learning. In this case, the host university seeks to enhance its current programs, increase its ties to the international community, and promote opportunities for service-based exchange programs. As in Guam, the host university is providing the local infrastructure and pairing students with local peers in community projects.


Balancing Service and Learning

Further challenges are presented as we weigh the needs of communities against the needs of our students. Academic rigor requires that study abroad programs have clear academic goals and objectives. However, if students are actively providing service, this may limit the time they have to meet for classes, reflect upon their experiences, and complete assignments during their time in the field.  Clearly this has been a troubling issue in the past, as discussed by Thomas (2005) who describes an exemplary service-learning project as one that retains “…a balance between service and learning”. Interestingly, John Eby (1998) argues that a weakness in service learning programs may be the overemphasis on learning. According to Eby, “service should be defined by persons served and should be accountable to them in significant ways”. However, if students are not properly trained, oriented, and required to reflect on their experiences, the short-term service they supposedly supply can be ineffective or even burdensome to community organizations.


In order to facilitate academic growth it is necessary to keep in mind that providing service does limit the time for more traditional academic pursuits that are important to the study abroad experience.  Therefore, it is helpful to engage in academic pursuits during the semester (or months) prior to departing for the study abroad destination.  Students should be given assigned reading materials well in advance and should be brought into discussions about these materials before leaving for the trip.  Professors should make sure that the materials have been read, discussed, and understood beforehand in order to ensure that the students are prepared for the cultural and political climate of the country to which they are traveling. Otherwise, students will feel overwhelmed by the tasks of learning about the country while serving its people and trying to integrate their experiences with their personal lives.  Being prepared ahead of time academically allows the students to actively integrate what they have learned with what they are currently experiencing through cultural immersion.  To make sure that students are actively integrating their experiences, leaders of these service-learning programs should schedule time for daily reflection.  This reflection should include both group discussions as well as required personal time for journal writing. 


In the case of short-term abroad programs, required coursework in the semester preceding the abroad experience may be a valuable option. In the one existing service abroad course, historical and cultural readings were assigned during semester breaks prior to departing for the study abroad course. One student responded to this practice: “I was so busy with the holidays and family gatherings that I just didn’t have time to do the reading. I tried to read once we were [over there], but we were just too busy and too tired from all the service we were doing to get into the reading. So, I read it after I got back home from the trip. Once I started reading about the history and the culture I realized how much more I would have gotten out of the experience if I had known more about the country I was visiting. I really wish I had read it before I got there.” [1] Where possible, a preparatory course in the semester preceding the study abroad course might be more appropriate. This would provide the time needed to prime students for the course ahead of time, while encouraging students to become more invested in preparing for fieldwork.


Student Preparation and Reflection

The need for preparation is especially unwieldy when taking service learning abroad. The multitudes of questions students have prior to leaving for any study abroad course is just one indicator of just how much preparation is needed. Responding to simple, concrete questions like “How should I pack?”, “How much spending money will I need?”, and “What shots do I have to have?” will most likely dominate some of the first discussions about the course. Still, some of the deeper, more abstract issues like cultural sensitivity and cultural identity are especially important when students will be working in close contact with the host community. These issues must be explored ahead of time in order to help students begin to formulate the habits of mind necessary for responsible service abroad.


Research on the impact of quality differences in service learning suggests that programs with more opportunity for reflection, substantive links between coursework and service, and ethnic and cultural diversity have a stronger impact (Eyler, 2000, Eyler and Giles, 1999; Gray et al, 1999; Mabry, 1998; Thomas, 2005). Bringle and Hatcher (2003) also accentuate the need for reflection in service learning, emphasizing a few approaches that they consider particularly worthwhile. These include journals, experiential research papers, ethical case studies, directed readings, class presentations and electronic reflection. Cooper (2003) discusses the benefits of using a critical incident journal that encourages students to focus on particular incidents in order to monitor their personal growth. He believes that students benefit from critically reflecting on their own reactions to incidents by considering how to approach similar situations differently in the future.


To begin the reflective process and to set the tone for the rest of the course, instructors may want to require students to develop learning goals prior to their departure. These goals could address three different areas of learning: 1) Goals related to academic knowledge, 2) Goals related to skill development, and 3) Goals related to personal and cultural awareness. Academic goals could include becoming more proficient in a new language, learning about the host nation’s history, or researching local cultural beliefs, values, and practices. Skill development goals could also include language proficiency, in addition to the skills required for the type of service in which the students are to be engaged. (i.e. laying bricks, planting herbs, or effective teaching practices). Personal and cultural awareness goals could include moving away from ethnocentric and egocentric thinking, pushing oneself to participate in cultural events, interacting with hosts in roles beyond that of a typical tourist, and challenging oneself to overcome the biases and stereotypes of his or her existent cultural knowledge.  By working as a team to help their global neighbors, students should develop an awareness that the needs of the global community are complex.  A service-learning study abroad program should aim to bring students to the realization that to develop as informed and active global citizens, they must have a personal philosophy of service and understand that individual action is an essential component of progressive change. However, we also need to provide students with a holistic perspective that takes into account both structuralism and human agency. Volunteerism alone cannot resolve the deep roots of social issues within political and economic systems (Eby, 1998).


It is helpful to facilitate a discussion with students during which they can brainstorm prospective goals and receive feedback on those ideas, such as whether or not those goals are reasonable, attainable, and measurable. Students will often need a few examples to get them started, but they soon get the hang of goal-setting and often hold each other accountable for the goals they have shared. Students should also be given permission to amend their learning goals after arriving in their destination country. Once they begin their service and cultural exploration, it is very likely that they will gain insight into other areas they would like to explore and improve.


Cross-cultural Competencies

It is essential that service abroad programs carefully address the need to ensure that students, who are working in vastly different cultures, are prepared for the significant cross-cultural differences they will encounter. Eby (1998) explains that students’ lack of cross-cultural sensitivity poses a potential detriment to quality service learning. He states that “many students have little experience working with people different from themselves or little exposure to the issues involved in their service community… Students may reflect ethnocentrism and racism in ways that are harmful.”


In order to ensure that personal contact between the students and the community remains positive, it is essential to note the importance of prior cultural awareness and appreciation for the culture’s standards of behavior and norms.  Students should be fully aware of behaviors that may be seen as offensive (such as taking photographs in certain situations, dressing inappropriately, and engaging in loud conversation) before they ever arrive in the country.  When students are sensitive to the norms of the culture, the host community is much more likely to accommodate the students and to make efforts at reciprocating cultural interest and sensitivity.


Conclusion: Redefining Good Citizenship

Madsen and Turnball (2005) challenge educators to address the “competency development (including citizenship)” needs of students. To meet this challenge, we aim to broaden the student perspective from a narrow, ethnocentric one to one that is more globally aware and globally sensitive. Goodman (2005) captured the limited worldview of today’s college students in a recent speech at the Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award Presentation:

Those of us in the field tend to forget how unconnected most Americans still are to the world. [Eighty]-seven percent of college-educated adults cannot find Iraq on a map. Eighty-three percent of our citizens do not have a passport; and half of those who do are either over 60 or under 5 years of age… Sixty percent believe we have a fully-functioning anti-missile shield that is protecting us as we speak from terrorists and [rogue] states. And at the school - sometimes known as the Fletcher on the Potomac -- where I served as a dean before coming to the Institute, usually only 3 out of 300 of the world's smartest freshmen can pass a world geography placement test. And those three tend not to be U.S. citizens.


Kahne et al (2000) call for a definition of good citizenship in order to effectively discuss the impact of service learning on the promotion of good citizenship. We believe that in defining good citizenship we need to recognize that the current world system calls for a definition that is not limited to citizenship in any one nation. Dunn (2002) describes the use of the term global citizenship as referring to “…a citizenry that knows and cares about contemporary affairs in the whole world, not just in its own nation.” If we expand the parameters of good citizenship to include global citizenship, expanding the geographic parameters of service learning beyond national borders is also warranted. Ideally, the careful application of best domestic service-learning practices abroad will both heighten students’ awareness of the complexities of global development and serve the needs of populations abroad. We aim to inspire students’ lifelong commitments to engaged global citizenship.



[1] The co-authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Elon student, Jessie Elizabeth McCullough, for her insightful comments on the student experience of service-learning abroad.



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