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Service-learning incorporates community-building into learning objectives in order to serve two purposes: involve and empower the community to help address a community-defined need, and involve and empower students with richer avenues of learning. The triangle this makes (university, student, and community) is one that strives for equity and partnership, but certain challenges arise in attempting to blend community development with student development.

The pedagogical difficulties that inevitably arise when combining student development with community development require vigilant attention. Questions concerning the outcomes of service-learning for the student as compared to the community have the potential to create ethical tensions. Below are four key questions educators, students, and communities alike can consider when devising how to approach and engage in ethical service-learning.

      Further Reading: Service Learning: A Microcosm of International Development (Part I)

Question #1: Is it about the student or the community?

Development projects take a community’s interests and place it in the center of program design and implementation. Service-learning takes student development and does much the same, while also seeking to empower sustainable development projects. If we are adhering to the triangle image of students, university faculty, and community members all working together to achieve similar goals, then a question arises of who is being served, and to what end. Is the purpose of international service-learning student attainment of personal and professional skills, or rather for community-building and sustainable development? How can these two distinct, yet related purposes be combined in a just manner?

Students pay to attend university, and to receive professional and personal development to use for their futures. It is common for students to pay for international experiences for career enrichment (such as a service-learning program), but how does this factor into community development, especially given that community members are not equal partners, as they lack the same means as university staff and students. It is important to consider what the purpose of a service-learning project is, and whose needs are being met, and how (i.e. the student’s needs or the community’s). Service-learning facilitators particularly must find ways of helping to achieve this balance throughout an education abroad experience, and to address any tensions that may arise in the process.

      Further Reading: Service Learning: A Microcosm of International Development (Part II)

A photo by Wei Pan.

Question #2: Who’s in charge of student learning?

A related question is how the work is distributed as well. There are layers apparent here: project work, project development and implementation, student courses, teaching and reflection, and various points of emotional and psychological support for students who may struggle to integrate culturally (or for those who are going abroad for the first time). Are faculty and staff responsible for every angle of the student experience? Part of international development is empowering communities to become an active role in their own progress, and in many of the same ways this also applies to students.

Where faculty guidance and support becomes either lacking or overbearing is based on the context of the learning environment. This is one reason why having a qualified facilitator is so important throughout international service-learning experiences; i.e. someone who can leverage both the needs of the community as well as ideal methods of enhancing student development (which is no easy task!). This point also applies to where the responsibility lies for choosing and working on development projects that seek to incorporate international service-learning. Which brings us to the next question…

    Further Reading: The Challenges of Capacity Building in Service Learning  

Question #3: Do the community members benefit from student involvement in service-learning projects?

This question relates to the concept of appropriateness in community development. How involved should students really be in community development? Are they benefiting themselves as learners first and foremost, or are they there to supplement a sustainable development project? Are the community members happy with this arrangement, or would they prefer a different project, or different guidelines? One difficult line to tow in international development is how to balance donor resources and interests with community interests and needs. When students are added to this equation, it seemingly creates a division of resources and attention: one for students and one for community members. In order for such a process to be successful, support for each side must be prevalent throughout the experience. This makes the mentorship and guidance from a qualified facilitator, as well as critical reflection of the experience, all the more necessary.


Question #4: How do we handle student (and faculty) privilege?

This question again points to the importance of making time and space for critical reflection of issues related to poverty, economics, power structures, gender and race issues, and privilege. How can each member in service-learning be an equal partner when there is a university hierarchy (e.g. grades), and a diversity of backgrounds (e.g. students vs. community members’)? Privilege comes in all shapes and forms, and being able to travel and study abroad is one of them. How educators help students understand their privilege is part of the learning experience, especially in regards to better integrating and interacting with local community members. The partnership triangle previously mentioned can also never really exist on equal terms because there is an institutional hierarchy between student and faculty. Community members are also the target recipients of developmental support from service-learning programs that are in part provided by students and organizational staff. It will be a continuous challenge for practitioners to connect service-learning in theory to service-learning in practice.

      Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part II: Creating the Classroom Climate

There may be no immediate answer to this question (or any of the questions posed here), but the first step to solving a problem is properly identifying it. There are risks and ethical concerns associated with community development, but those can be minimized the more questions we ask and the more we identify areas of improvement in both international development and service-learning.  Universities and education abroad organizations understandably struggle to keep pace with the global market, yet a closer investigation of the ways in which this keeping pace relates to issues such as globalization and the often accompanying power hierarchies and unequal distribution of resources will be required in order to maintain a clearer course of global ethics.

Each field is imperfect, but it is an imperfect world we live in. In order to keep up with the many shifts and changes, having a flexible approach to our own perspectives of service-learning and international development will be necessary to ensure both quality and ethical engagement.

Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.


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