Are International Service-Learning Projects Sustainable? Where is the focus on the community?

September 12, 2012

By Nora Reynolds

I come to this work as a practitioner- as a founding member and vice president of an international non-profit organization (

In 2002, as a 21 year old recent college graduate, I traveled to rural Nicaragua with a group of ten friends and ended up starting an organization that has now raised over $400,000, built 13 community water systems, and employs two full time staff members as well as several contractors in Nicaragua.

I come to this work both as a vice president of this non-profit and as a former university administrator who helps to facilitate international service-learning experiences for university engineering students.

Through this partnership, over 150 engineering faculty members and students have traveled to rural Nicaragua to work on various types of engineering projects (water supply system design, microhydro electrification, telehealth, and household filtration). 

I come to this work, now, as a doctoral student (and aspiring researcher) who when faced with that daunting question of a dissertation topic finally settled on the topic that “really keeps me up at night”.

After working in this rural municipality of Nicaragua for the past ten years, have we “helped”? What are the outcomes of all of this work? Are the projects sustainable? What does the “community” think about the projects and the partnership with the university? How much do we even focus on these questions in our collective work? What is the community’s perspective of the projects and partnership?

Why these questions matter: Is it win-win?

Service-learning (SL) and international service-learning (ISL) are increasing in institutions of higher education (Butin, 2006; Campus Compact 2011). ISL, especially with engineering, often engages students in development interventions (Crabtree, 2008)- such as building a water system. International development work, which boasts its own complicated and problematic history, documents numerous failed and unsustainable projects. It is easy to find communities littered with broken water systems that have small trees growing out of broken pipes. Pipes burst, which happens all the time, but maintenance work was never part of the project plan. [Check out this TED talk by the former president of Engineers Without Borders-Canada about embracing and learning from failure in international development projects].

The participation, contributions, and ownership of the community in which service takes place in development projects is crucial since “the failure of many community development programmes can be traced back to neglecting the use of local skills, experience, and expertise of the local communities” (Ansari, Phillips, & Zwi, 2002, p. 156). [See blog post I wrote for Water for Waslala with several examples of failed projects resulting from a lack of communication with the community].

Understanding the tormented history of development projects around the globe and understanding that ISL engages students in development interventions, it is critically important to explore the impact of ISL projects not only on student learning which has received ample attention, but also on the communities to which good is “being done”. Others have noted the degree to which the service part of service-learning has received short shrift; Butin (2006) argues that “for all human, fiscal, and institutional resources devoted to SL across higher education, there are, in fact, very minimal on-the-ground changes in the academy, in local communities, and in society more generally” (p. 491).

What do we “know”?

Over the past two decades, the research on SL has grown substantially. There is now extensive literature that documents positive student outcomes related to participation in SL & ISL (Plater, 2011; Celio, Durlak, & Dymnicki, 2011; Camacho, 2004; Hartman, 2008; Kiely, 2004). Despite mounting evidence of student outcomes from participation in SL and ISL experiences, service-learning research focused on the community remains sparse (Cruz & Giles, 2000; Crabtree, 2008).

The limited SL research that does focus on the community explores topics such as:

  • The community’s views of the students or the university (Vernon & Ward, 1999; Miron & Moley, 2006; d’Arlach, Sanchez, & Feuer, 2009).
  • Community organization motivations for involvement in SL (Basinger & Bartholomew, Bell & Carlson, 2009; Worrall, 2007; Sandy & Holland, 2006)
  • Satisfaction with student volunteers, the project or the partnership (Basinger & Bartholomew, 2006; Ferrari & Worrall, 2000; Gray, Ondaajte, Fricker, & Geschwind, 2000; Edwards, Mooney, & Heald, 2001; Schmidt & Robby, 2002; Miron & Moley, 2006; Irie, Daniel, Cheplick, & Phillips, 2010).
  • Positive outcomes from the community organization’s perspective (Schmidt & Robby, 2002; Edwards, Mooney, & Heald, 2001; Blouin & Perry, 2009; Vernon & Ward, 1999; Irie, Daniel, Cheplick, & Phillips, 2010)
  • Challenges and costs for the community organization (Blouin & Perry, 2009; Vernon & Ward, 1999; Stoecker & Tyron, 2009; Irie, Daniel, Cheplick, & Phillips, 2010)

Although the research is making progress in understanding the perspective of the community on SL, nearly all of the studies focus on domestic SL and most incorporate only the perspective of the community organization or partner and omit the voices and perspectives of the community members (see d’Arlach, Sanchez, & Feuer, 2009 for exception). Research focused on the impact on communities should include the wide range of perspectives that compose the community- participants, organization leaders, residents, and others (Cuban & Anderson, 2007). Particularly with ISL that engages engineering students, topics related to the community’s perspective connect to the sustainability of projects that are implemented through the ISL partnership.

Bringing the community to the center of the conversation: Let’s hear many voices

The gap in the existing literature described above points to the need for work that incorporates many voices from the community (in addition to the representative of the community organization) in international SL partnerships. For my dissertation I am embarking on an exploratory study that focuses on the community perspective in the engineering ISL partnership that I have worked with for the past ten years.

Hesitant at first about my existing role in partnership and relationships with both university and community partners, I concluded that my involvement over the past ten years allows me to adopt a participatory orientation where my colleagues of many years are now my research collaborators. During the formulation of my research proposal, continued communication with university faculty/ administrators and non-profit leaders in Nicaragua has continued to shape and re-shape the research questions, research plan, and goals and objectives of this project. Additionally, my ten years working in this partnership and this region of Nicaragua (along with the language skills and trust developed along the way) will serve as a foundation to include the voices not just of community organization leaders, but also village leaders and residents.

We (my research collaborators in the university and the community) hope that this study can inform ways to improve the planning, design, and implementation of the projects and this partnership.  We also hope that it serves to bring attention to the importance of the community perspective in the planning of ISL partnerships more generally and serves as an example of how to use a participatory orientation to explore these research topics. Long-term, we hope to use this exploratory study to inform the development of surveys and measurement tools for future studies related to ISL project and partnership planning and implementation.


Nora Pillard Reynolds is the Vice President of Water for Waslala and a PhD Candidate in Urban Education at Temple University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled “Is International Service-Learning Win-Win?: A Case Study of an Engineering Service-Learning Partnership.”


Ansari, W., Phillips, C.J., & Zwi, A.B. (2002). Narrowing the gap between academic professional wisdom and community lay knowledge: perceptions from partnerships. Public Health, 116, 151-159.

Basinger, N. & Bartholomew, K. (2006). Service-learning in nonprofit organizations: Motivations, expectations, and outcomes. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring, pp. 15-26.

Bell, S., & Carlson, R. (2009). Motivations of community organizations for service learning. In R. Stoecker & E. Tryon (Eds.), The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning (pp.19-37). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

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