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3 Ways to Engage in Student Service Learning Abroad

Individual Initiative, Student Led Groups, and University-Sanctioned Programs

Student volunteer service learning abroad with two women carrying two children on their backs.

In June I visited a boy in an Internally Displaced Persons’ Camp whose education is being funded by a group of U.S. college students, and sat among a group of students as they talked with traditional healers about approaches to dealing with HIV in Northwestern Tanzania. Such experiences, and more, were made possible because I met with individuals or organizations involved with the three primary ways to participate in international service: through individual initiative, as part of a student-led group, and on a university-sanctioned service-learning course or volunteer program. Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses, but they all make it possible for you to see another part of the world, make a difference, and connect with people in distant communities.

Individually-initiated International Service Learning

Megan’s personality type fits well with individually-initiated international service. She is confident and driven, organized and outgoing. When she first saw the film Invisible Children, which focuses on child soldiers in Gulu, Megan knew she would do something. She immediately contacted the Ugandan immigrant who had introduced the film, Peter Okema. Through Okema, Megan connected with nonprofit organizations she would work with once she arrived in Gulu, a business owner who would give her a discount hotel rate, and a network of friendly people who promised to support her in raising awareness. She interviewed former child soldiers, learned about the nonprofit efforts on the ground, and, since she’s returned to the States, she’s helped organize fundraising dinners and awareness-raising events. The proceeds are going back to children’s educations in northern Uganda.

Megan employed a time-tested technique: network with the people you know; it helped her immerse herself in service halfway around the world. Not everyone is able to find that local connection, however, and young people regularly turn to the Internet for options. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I met Cathy Juha, a 20-year-old Canadian woman who had been in Addis a month volunteering with Mercy Ministry Happy Children’s Home. Cathy was not nearly as outwardly independent as Megan, but she was clearly resolute and resourceful. She had decided, several months before, that she wanted to volunteer in Ethiopia. After some Googling, she emailed people she found on the websites of nonprofit organizations there. Soon, she was on her way.

Cathy is glad to have had the experience but recognizes shortcomings: “I arrived knowing very little. This sort of added to the adventure element but when two guys you have never met pick you up from the airport at 2 a.m. you are double thinking your decision.” Volunteering alone, and particularly through Internet connections as the singular resource, carries more risk and responsibility. It is also usually cheaper, because volunteers often arrange situations where they are merely responsible for their own food and lodging, as if they were volunteering at home. With that savings, however, comes the reality: volunteers must take care of all of their own basic needs—in what is often a dramatically unfamiliar environment. Individual volunteers also have more independence, however, and greater opportunities to integrate with and learn from community members because they are simply acting and interacting as individuals, without the baggage of group needs or a group identity.

Back in Gulu, where Megan was working, an entire organization has formed around the Invisible Children film. It was initiated and is operated by a staff of young people. In Gulu they have an office with three full-time U.S. staff, a local director, and many local employees. With the growing popularity of the movie, young Americans are literally streaming toward Gulu, trying to get an opportunity to volunteer with the organization. When I spoke with Adam Finck, the Gulu Office Director, this summer, he said the Invisible Children office in San Diego had three full-time staff members dedicated to answering emails from people who wanted to do something, anything.

Volunteers were showing up in Gulu in droves. They were coming to work with the kids, to help distribute scholarships, to do whatever was necessary. As I sat talking with Adam one day in Bine, a restaurant that serves regional food in Gulu, a young woman from Texas walked in, clearly thrilled to meet someone from Invisible Children. She had, it turns out, volunteered through her church to be in northern Uganda after she saw the Invisible Children film. I met several others like her while I was there. That is a strength of student-driven movements: they respond to pressing issues quickly and often rally high levels of emotional commitment and energy as a result. There is energy, a movement, an opportunity to be part of something. All of that energy, combined with an entirely new organizational system, can sometimes have its downsides as well.

Student-initiated International Service Learning

Student-initiated efforts, particularly in their first few years, are often still learning what their organizational capacities are, how they respond to emergencies, or how to institutionalize their best practices. Cost of participation in student-initiated efforts varies, but tends to fall between the cost of individual experiences and university-sanctioned programming. Volunteers who are accepted to work with Invisible Children arrive to a house already full of young people where they all have beds and access to a kitchen; other student-driven efforts likewise offer a level of preparation that is clearly superior to that found in the individual experience.

University-sanctioned International Service Learning

University-sanctioned international service-learning and volunteer programs, finally, offer the most comprehensive support, are often costlier than other options, and are the most programmatic in terms of individual time and scheduling. But that programming is often deeply interesting. In northwest Tanzania I visited a class coordinated through a nonprofit organization I have worked with in the past, Amizade. The organization, which takes its name from the Portuguese word for friendship, offers global service-learning credits in a number of disciplines through an academic partnership with West Virginia University. The day I arrived the professor, a woman with a dual appointment in anthropology and biology, was leading a discussion among students and traditional healers about the challenge of slowing and stopping the spread of HIV in the region.

The students in that course knew from the course description that they would be treated to that kind of deliberate programming when they chose to enroll, they also knew that they’d participate in a service project dedicated to completing an orphanage, that they’d have required class time almost every day, and that they’d take part in a safari at the end of the in-country experience. Established programming can often clarify expectations better than new organizations or individuals going alone, but with that clarity comes less independence. Costs can be a concern too, but students often justify the added costs by comparing them with the costs of the experience and the course considered separately, and frequently find that the package is cheaper. Additionally, financial aid can apply to credit-bearing courses, while it will be of no help on other kinds of programs.

Individual efforts, student-initiated programs, and university-sanctioned experiences offer international service opportunities for everyone.

For More Info

1) For Individual Opportunities

► Check to learn of volunteer placements.

► Be certain to ask in advance about housing, food, safety, and expectations of you.

► Be clear about your own expectations and intentions.

2) Student-Initiated Service Opportunities

Invisible Children is doing a great deal to raise awareness, and provides information on how you can help. Coordinating service in Uganda, however, is currently on hold until more infrastructure is developed for volunteer coordination.

3) University-Sanctioned Service-Learning Opportunities

► Your own university probably has an office dedicated to international education and volunteer service or service learning.

► The International Partnership for Service-Learning offers credit-bearing study, research, and ethical volunteer service programs in many countries worldwide.

Related Topics
Volunteer Service Learning Resources
Service Learning Abroad Programs

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