Mutual Benefit

Heather Tyler explains how the service learning model works for all participants

My curiosity and desire for independence have led me around the world in search of new experiences that I could turn into good stories. I’ve experimented with all facets of travel, from studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to backpacking through Europe, from building a hut out of driftwood and coconuts on the once-isolated coast of Playa Venao, Panama, to road tripping through Baja, Mexico. Were they good experiences? Most of them, yes. Do they make good stories? Absolutely. But after repeating the same stories over and over again to friends used to a more sedentary lifestyle, I realized my experiences were void of something — purpose.

Purpose first took me to the small coastal fishing village of Salango, Ecuador, and that is when my story changed. The son of the local family I lived with had built my bamboo hut by hand with his father, who sadly died just two weeks before my arrival due to a massive heart attack and no access to immediate medical help. Being that the man of the house was the sole breadwinner in most of these villages, my daily contributions for room and board couldn’t have come at a more necessary time. I constantly asked how I could help around the house and yard, and found that it made my host mother a tad uncomfortable. So I stopped asking and just starting helping. I washed clothes in the backyard; I trimmed plants and made Christmas stockings and decorations. These were the things I knew how to do, and I could tell every morning when my host mother walked outside to do a chore that I’d already completed, she was happy to sit down for a moment. That became my purpose at home.

I commuted every day to surrounding villages to lead English classes for kids of all ages in schools that were actually just walls of corrugated tin. Once word spread around the village that an American English teacher was offering free lessons, my days filled up from dawn until dusk with store owners, relatives of students, and even a nomadic artisan lady named Patricia, who lived with her husband underneath her craft table. And although my lessons were offered at no cost, my students would insist on giving me something, anything — from a bag of mangos to illustrated lessons on the Bible in Spanish. I didn’t accept these things because I was owed; I accepted them because doing so brought joy to these people, and that was my purpose away from home. The experience of serving these villagers became reciprocal — not because I was receiving things, but because I was learning about the power of purpose and about the good in people. When purpose directed my movement, my life and the lives of all whom I encountered became more visible, and therefore more meaningful.

In 2003, when I graduated from college, I had never heard of service learning, much less service learning for academic credit. There were community service opportunities for elective credits, but most people chose that route to avoid having to go to classes or sit through early-morning lectures. In order to get credit for community service, whether it was for picking up trash off the side of the road or manning a tent at a local event, a simple signature was all that was needed to prove completion of “service.”

After my time in Ecuador, I remember thinking how useful my immersion into that small, self-sufficient community would have been to my life decisions earlier on. I also thought about how beneficial these kinds of experiences would be to future generations if service to a community in need was required, or at least offered, within educational curricula. Fortunately, someone already had the ball rolling.

Now, several years later, I’ve landed myself a job supporting exactly what I hoped would become a global offering — service learning: Travel with a purpose. It’s a brilliant notion and it gives me hope. But it is young and still taking shape.

Service Learning vs. Community Service
Community service and service learning aren’t really that different. They both provide opportunities to donate services to a community in need, and they both align with current legislation to promote civic engagement in higher education. But the model for service learning places more responsibility on the participant to observe and reflect on the experience of serving and to document those observations as part of a broadly formulated curriculum. As Carroll College of Helena, Montana, defines it, “service learning is a pedagogy that employs community service to improve students’ understanding of course content and to meet important needs in local communities.”

Service Learning through Universities and the Role of the Provider
A well-oiled service learning program provides students with a chance to be useful in career fields which they are preparing to enter; it allows them to satisfy academic credit requirements with experience; and it also teaches them the value of service.

Service learning is beginning to gain momentum in mainstream education. Several U.S. universities have not only begun initiating service learning course options, they’ve also opened up service learning departments to help manage the high level of interest. But the coordination of service learning opportunities can be somewhat complicated, especially when working with international host organizations. Study abroad offices are generally operated by a handful of qualified individuals working to manage the demands and course loads of hundreds of students simultaneously. Establishing a relationship with a nonprofit organization in the U.S. or abroad often requires legal agreements, liability waivers, trust — which can take some time to build — and most of all, time. Therefore, many universities choose to offer service learning opportunities via providers like International Studies Abroad (ISA), my current employer. For at least a decade, ISA has been establishing relationships with communities throughout Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and providing well-supported opportunities for students and participants to grow professionally and as responsible global citizens. Working with a provider like ISA ensures that the program runs smoothly from beginning to end and learning outcomes are at maximum.

The most important challenge of sustaining a successful service learning experience is making sure the burden on the host organization is minimized. Often, a company that has requested or agreed to receive assistance from a service learning provider lacks the administrative structure to train or supervise their volunteers. In such cases, volunteer participants end up walking in on the first day asking, “What do you have for me to do?” and “Are you sure I will have enough hours to get my academic credit?” which places the responsibility on the people seeking relief.
The role of the provider is to vet each placement organization to determine their needs and establish a clear understanding of what skills and tasks are lacking. The provider also vets potential participants to gauge intentions, interests, energy levels, and language proficiency in some cases to make meaningful and productive placement opportunities. If a timid participant with a beginning level of Spanish proficiency is placed in a youth rehabilitation center, the experience may not only be unproductive, it could be a disaster for both parties. Good providers advise potential participants so that they can walk into their first day of service saying, “I’ve come to help and here’s how I intend to do so.”

What It Really Means to Serve and Learn
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Service comes in many forms, and there is no shortage of need in this world where populations are growing faster than economic or environmental infrastructures. But sometimes the idea of serving others can be so appealing and encouraging that we get ahead of ourselves with expectations of saving the world. It’s important to consider the amount of time available and to determine tangible goals within that time frame.

Whether for academic pursuit or a true desire to provide assistance where it’s needed, no participant is going to build a new world in four to twelve weeks, or however long his or her service learning program lasts. To get the most out of service learning, it is necessary to shed glorified expectations and spark innovation and imagination to fill the tiny cracks. It may only take a week, maybe a year, or perhaps much longer, but inspired service learning participants can influence the paths of their own lives as well as the lives of the people they serve for the next day, year, or lifetime after service.

Kiera Murphy, a senior at California Lutheran University, chose to go to Amman, Jordan, to work in an urban refugee community in the summer of 2014. “I have seen the human spirit in the raw, and with each and every story shared, I learned more about pride, resilience, wisdom, trust, hope, and the value of life,” Murphy said. “For my particular service learning experience, I was able to be amongst individuals as they came face to face with the war and the violence that lasts long after the bombs have been dropped.”

When I asked her if and how she has been able to apply her service learning experience from Jordan, she boldly replied, “Through a research-advocacy blog and my thesis for my master’s degree, I’m grateful that I can take my knowledge and share the positive peace-building initiatives throughout the region.”

And while Murphy recognizes that her day-to-day immersion was as much if not more of a learning experience for her than for the people toward whom she directed her efforts, she says her efforts here on home soil are “a light in a dark media storm, and I’m happy to share my truth with anyone that I can.”

Service Learning Placements
Service learning placements, at home or abroad, vary and can target any range of academic fields or interests including medicine, environmental sustainability, business and marketing, social work, education, and vet sciences. The wide range of service fields provides an inroad for anyone to participate. However, the terms of any service are always relative to the needs of a community organization — and needs change, and sometimes those needs are not what participants expect.
Service learning experience in a medical clinic or hospital in Latin America has proven to be a popular undertaking. Serving in a clinic often inspires visions of mending bones and saving lives, but often, these underserved clinics need help behind the scenes with folding gauze for surgery preparation, sanitizing medical utensils, or just being on hand to perform duties when their underfunded staff is preoccupied. While some placement organizations may allow qualified participants to shadow doctors and take patient vitals, providing help with the necessities that fall through the cracks of an overworked organization should always be the number-one purpose for service learning participants.

Initially, Kiera Murphy said she was expecting to be placed within a UNHCR refugee camp outside of the city. When asked about her initial expectations of what a service learning program would look like, she replied, “As a graduate in pursuit of field visits for a thesis and a ground perspective of the lives of Syrian refugees, I was anxious to see if ISA service learning (formerly ELAP) would be a conduit for access [to the UNHCR].”

As a member of the United Nations and receiver of two Nobel Peace Prizes, the UNHCR is well supported and likely has qualified staff on hand specifically to train incoming volunteers. Murphy was not placed with the UNHCR but was introduced to an urban refugee camp run by locals.

“I was surprised and will always be thankful for the fact that I was placed at a local nonprofit within an urban refugee community instead,” said Murphy. “Learning from these women who are leaders within their own community on a grassroots level is exactly the kind of change I want to prove is happening through my research.”

A participant seeking work in the area of informational technology might be placed with an organization whose staff needs help acclimating to a technology upgrade by tutoring in software or teaching information-management strategies. Or perhaps maintaining the facility so that passersby are more inclined to enter for business is a more weighted demand.
For someone more inclined toward marketing, there is high demand for helpful hands to create educational, environmental, or public-policy campaigns where digital media is still being developed. But the need for data entry and editing may be even stronger.

Within the field of education, teachers in low-income schools need assistants, caretakers, lesson designers, and even classroom cleaners. Sometimes just being present to support the energy of a classroom can make the day feel like an accomplishment for someone who regularly walks away feeling defeated or hopeless.

There are certainly magnificently unique service learning opportunities to build a home for an abandoned family, rescue an adorable sea otter for rehabilitation, and teach a child to speak another language for a better future — but there are even more opportunities to visit shelters and contribute time to a conversation with an abandoned family, or to help keep animal-rescue facilities operational and organized for emergencies, and the universal language is not only English, it’s spoken in the shake of a hand, an unprovoked giggle, or a friendly smile.

As Murphy so eloquently states, “Sometimes we reach out not only to help another, but because we need a hand to hold in return. When that act of kindness is returned and appreciated, we stand stronger together. That’s when we shake the world.”

As Charles Dickens said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”

Heather Tyler has returned to her hometown of Austin, Texas, and loves her job managing service learning programs in Peru and India at International Studies Abroad (ISA).