Young people seeking an opportunity to contribute and learn in a culture other than their own can do so in a number of unique ways. Two of the more traditional ways include volunteering and studying abroad. However, a third option – international service-learning – also exists that combines the best of these two worlds. So what is international service-learning and why should your students consider it?
The Three-Legged Stool
One common visual way to describe service-learning is as a three-legged stool.
- The first leg of the stool is service or volunteering, where the individual participates in voluntary action with the intention of contributing skills, time, and perspective to help address local or global issues.
- The second leg of the stool is learning; this typically takes the form of classes or other formal education through a school, university, online entity, or host organization.
- The third leg is reflection, where the individual considers what they have experienced through their service and learned through their classes and then explores their individual roles and impact therein.
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The overall effect is that students learn from both their personal experiences serving with and alongside locals in the community as well as, simultaneously, from readings, discussions, and activities with their instructors.
The educational components provide broader historical, social, and cultural context for their service and their service offers an opportunity to challenge, explore, and practice what they’ve learned in their classes. Then, through reflection, they consider more deeply their individual roles as a global citizen, volunteer, student, and future professional in the world.
So does it work? What benefits might be accrued through international service-learning?
According to scholar Richard Kiely, existing studies have thus far found that international service-learning participation can potentially result in increased “intercultural competence, language skills, appreciation of cultural difference, tolerance for ambiguity, and experiential understanding of complex global problems related to their academic program of study.”
Additional potential benefits might include a personally transformational experience, a greater commitment to social justice, and individuals becoming “more informed, caring, and affirmed students.”
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In short, international service-learning offers young people who are seeking global experiences three unique ways in which to learn, grow, and contribute:
- Learning through classroom activities, readings, and discussions
- Experience through in-country service alongside local citizens and practitioners
- Reflection and connection to explore how their learning and service intersect, challenge, and complement one another.
The end result is a rich, unique, international experience that encourages young people to learn as much as they contribute, challenge themselves in new ways, and consider their future roles in the world.
 Kiely, R. (2004). A Chameleon with a Complex: Searching for Transformation in International Service-Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 10(2): p5-20.
GVI is a multi-award winning Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international service learning programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.