The Changing Face of Study Abroad: Students’ Personal Beliefs And Motivations When Participating in Alternative Break Programs

December 5, 2014

Megan FrancisAssistant Dean of International Programs at Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, draws on her research to reveal some challenges in the contemporary discourse framing global service-learning practice. Specifically, structures of recruitment and university mission dialogue may encourage students’ embrace of personal rather than community benefit.  A provocative piece for what, for me, has become a pressing concern. Enjoy. – E.H.


By Megan Francis

The field of study abroad is as old as the United States. Originally seen as a means for the wealthy to gain a European education, today, study abroad ranges from the traditional semester and yearlong sojourns to short term, intensive programs (Hoffa, 2007). In particular, there is an increasing interest in programs that have a service component, which date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Hoffa, 2007). These international service-learning (ISL) programs are assumed to enhance the student learning experience through the opportunity to participate in the internationalization movement sweeping US universities while also giving back to the community at large. Bringle and Hatcher (2011) specifically note, “As a result, the international service experience provides opportunities for additional learning goals, activities and relationships that are not available in the same domestic service learning courses or in traditional study abroad” (p. 11). It is understood that participants are afforded the opportunity to increase civic understanding and skill acquisition through participating in these programs. However, with the increased interest in these study abroad opportunities, it is important to maintain ethical standards of practice in all applications of programs with a service component. In particular, this study focuses on how alternative break programs, or student led international volunteer programs, are perceived by universities and students and the subsequent implications for the field of international service learning.

This study differs from previous studies conducted because it seeks to understand the student understanding of ISL programs by getting a first hand account from students. It further examines how students have been inundated with the inclusion of both community service and the internationalization movement by the US education system starting as early as primary and secondary school.

I believe that the first hand account offered by students is indicative of how the US society has created a culture surrounding the inclusion of community service in education as a way to increase social capital rather than as a means to educate the student and better the community at large. This culture leads to an increase in outgoing programs with less input on quality control.

I will share a brief introduction to the literature prior to deconstructing the interviews, which will be followed by a brief conclusion.

Literature Review

As suggested in the introduction, the inclusion of service in the field of study abroad is not a new concept and can be traced back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Hoffa, 2007; Zimmerman, 2006). With this in mind, it is apparent that a narrative surrounding the subject of service, both domestic and international, has existed in the U.S. for over a century. This narrative, and the historical context of service in this country, has created a culture surrounding the U.S. system of education and the values taught to students starting from an early age.

The U.S. has had a unique experience in integrating service with the classroom, and doing so at an early age, with governmental encouragement. Starting as early as the 1960’s when President John F. Kennedy challenged thousands of graduating college seniors at the University of Michigan to go out and server the international community, leading to the creation of the Peace Corps, the government has played a large role in supporting educational growth of service opportunities (JFK Presidential Library and Museum, n.d.). This can further be illustrated by the many different governmental sponsored legislations supporting national, if not international, service such as the 1973 Domestic Volunteer Service Act, the 1990 National and Community Service Act, the 1993 Community Service Act, the 2003 President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation award, and, most recently, the 2009 signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which increased funding and support for the original 1973 legislation.

In addition to the integration of community service in the student learning experience, U.S. higher education has gradually reinforced the internationalization movement over the last few decades in different formats, one of which has been an increased interest in study abroad. Skelly (2009) specifically focuses on the question of how fostering engagement in the daily lives of students must also be situated in a global context. He stipulated, “It should be a requirement at higher education institutions that all students engage in a significant period of study abroad in order to help them see the globe as the context, and fundamental referent, for their lives” (p. 22). Skelly’s assertion in favor of international study pairs nicely with the overall theory surrounding community service learning—the idea that the experience offered through study abroad is just as integral to learning as the classroom experience. Specifically, the focus on students’ development outside the classroom aligns with Wessel’s (2007) definition of service learning: “As a general rule, service learning is intended to link theory with practice, provide opportunities for active learning, and supplement the classroom experience” (p. 76). By pairing these two theories, and taking into consideration the culture surrounding service in the U.S. Education system, it is easy to see the creation of International Service Learning programs.

Methodology and Data Collection

With this research, I sought to deconstruct students’ motivations when choosing to participate in ISL opportunities. The research was achieved through the utilization of semi-structured, private interviews with open-ended questions, which allowed me to assess participant perspectives in what could not be demonstrated through simple observation. The interview format, as opposed to a survey or strict field study, further allowed me to observe student participants’ non-verbal communication as indicative of the full comprehension of his or her participation in the upcoming program of choice. Participants were chosen based on a criterion purposive sampling of students from a small, private liberal arts university in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. The student participants were recruited through e-mail in collaboration with the university’s office of community service and engagement (OCSE). Further, in order to create a welcoming and comfortable environment, all interviews were conducted onsite to encourage honesty in participant responses. Out of the students who responded to the original email invitation for interviews, six were chosen as ideal candidates for the purposes of this research. These students were chosen based on their upcoming participation in international community service as opposed to domestic community service. Further, programs were standard alternative break style programs, which took place over spring break and winter break, and were not credit bearing. However, each program required an academic component for the semester preceding student departure. The programs were student developed with leadership and facilitation provided by a faculty or staff co-partner, also required for each program.

Findings and Analysis

In conducting this research, it was assumed that international alternative break programs offer an opportunity for students to participate in civic engagement at an international level; however, it was further assumed that these programs faced ethical issues in construction when coupled with study abroad due to a lack of time for full immersion and a general lack of sustainability. Finally, it was assumed that student motivations were heavily influenced by the opportunity presented by the ethical concerns, specifically, that these programs were seen as a short-term vacation rather than a service-learning program and that participants did not consider the long term impact of the program.

My findings indicated that students choose to participate in an international service program with both primary and secondary goals. Primarily, students sought the personal benefits that would potentially be achieved thorough an international service program, such as increasing marketability when seeking jobs post-graduation, while secondarily focusing on the community impact of the service that was to take place. Previous research completed by Raman and Pashupati (2002) have found a similar dichotomy. Of specific interest, the researchers found that student participants have two types of motivations, altruistic and egotistic (or intrinsic and extrinsic), and that motivation type had an impact on participant development (p. 193). I found that participants did not solely illustrate one or the other type of motivation; however, they did rank motivation with a link to specific themes. For the purposes of this paper, the findings of my research have been categorized into the three most prevalent themes including: Primary Knowledge, External Influencers, and the Perceived Benefits.

Primary Knowledge

During interviews, it became increasingly clear that the students specifically sought alternative break programs rather than longer traditional programs due to the perception of gaining the international experience without risking the loss of everyday on campus activities. Further, different responses indicated that students sought internationalizing their education through these short-term programs as a way to increase their social capital and building their resume.

One participant—Andrea a freshman going to Israel to work at a refuge camp—defined the alternative break as, “Just any break that you spend going abroad for, I guess, a service project. I think, for me, [the international aspect] is important. I definitely have a more international focused perspective on things. I’m a global studies major” (Personal Communication, 2011). By so securely declaring her global studies major, Andrea defined the program’s international agenda was in line with her major, and subsequent focus, while her lackluster “I guess” indicated that the service component was secondary to the educational and travel component. This type of response was common among the different applicants.

External Influencers

Due to the large amount of external influences, it will not be possible to discuss them all within the confines of this blog post. Therefore, in this post, I have focused on the university’s goals/mission statements.

Students were asked a series of questions throughout the interview process to better understand the different influences that may have affected their decision-making procedure. In particular, participants were asked to describe why participating in community service was important to them. This series of questions often led back to educational goals set early in the participants’ college careers. For example, Avery, a sophomore studying the empowerment of indigenous women in Guatemala, focused on the university as a major influential component when addressing her motivations. In particular, she stated, “It is all a part of a well-rounded education…the goals of XX University are to give back to the community, learn about globalization, be involved with world issues… It’s a way for me to reinforce everything that I’m learning” (Personal Communication, 2011). As indicated in her response, Avery focused on the university mission, which ultimately lead to be a motivating factor when deciding on participating in these programs. If Avery assumes that the goal of the university is to be involved within the global community then it must be a part of her education. Without the global experience, her education is not as well-rounded as it would be otherwise, which acted as a primary motivation for her.

Benefits: Personal, Community, and Educational/University

Flannery and Pragman (2008) wrote, “We believe service learning can accomplish both goals of educating students for their professions and for preparing them to be engaged and ethical citizens” (p. 466). Students can and should utilize the experience from service as a professional development opportunity; however, ethical standards must also be taken into consideration to be fully impactful. Within this frame of mind, the analysis of personal, community, and university benefits is the most conflicted.

In conducting this study, the responses that were the most enlightening in connection to student understandings and motivations included questions surrounding personal, community, and university benefits. Each participant spoke at length in connection to personal and egoistical benefits for participating in an alternative break program such as future marketability, enhancing educational goals, and an opportunity to go abroad among others. However, when asked to discuss community benefits, students all stated something similar: awareness surrounding a social justice issue, suggesting primary motivation to be linked to personal growth rather than mutual growth of student and community. For example, looking at Kaylee, a first year graduate student participating in a program to promote democratic involvement with youth in Kenya showed a lack of comprehension when discussing community benefits stating, “I think just purely going raises awareness of issues that are in the area” (Personal Communication, 2011). When probed to expand on her understanding, Kaylee discussed the impact of Non-Governmental Organizations and Non-Profit businesses that run continued efforts in international locations, but was not able to truly discuss her personal impact or the impact of other non-specialized students. Conversely, when asked to discuss both her personal benefits and the benefits of the university, Kaylee, as well as the other participants, were capable of listing many different ways in which their social capital would be enhanced.


This study set out to examine participant motivations and understandings surrounding ISL and alternative break programs. It further sought to focus on the ethical standards faced when including non-specialized students in international service programming. The main focus of the study was to understand how student motivations were formulated and how this impacted participants’ decision-making process. It was assumed that student motivations were influenced by the culture currently surrounding service-learning within the U.S. and that the inclusion of the internationalization movement in the U.S. education system created complications when examining the ethical standards and cost benefit analysis. The purpose of this study was to understand how participant motivations are shaped by the conversation surrounding ISL programming and to change the direction of the conversation to focus on student development and community development as equal. The findings support the hypothesis that participants focus personal development as a primary motivation due to the understanding he or she has based on the information currently available within students’ lives.

For the purpose of reshaping the conversation surrounding community engagement, it is first necessary for administrators, educators, and legislators to focus on the way these programs are being advertised to potential participants and how students are being taught to include service in his or her life. The findings of this research indicate that students view participating in these programs as a means to increase social capital. While this does not need to be dismissed, it is imperative that a conversation takes place surrounding the community impact and that this conversation is brought to the forefront. Not only do students need to understand the benefit of his or her presence, a conversation on the negative impact must take place in order to create a well-informed and educated community engaging in ISL programming. With the inclusion of this conversation, the ethical standards can be reconciled for the benefit of both the student and the community.



Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (2011). International service learning. In R. G. Bringle, J. A. Hatcher, & S. G. Jones (Eds), International service learning: Conceptual frameworks and research. Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Flannery, B. L., & Pragman, C. H. (2008). Working towards empirically-based continuous improvements in service learning. Journal of Business Ethics, 80, 465-479. doi 10.1007/s10551-007-9431-3.

Hoffa, W. W. (2007). A History of US study abroad: Beginnings to 1965. Lancaster: Whitmore Printing.

John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. (n.d.) Peace Corps. Retrieved from

Raman, P., & Pahsupati, K. (2002): Turning good citizens into even better ones: The impact of program characteristics and motivations on service learning outcomes. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 10:2, 187-206.

Skelly, J. M. (2009). Fostering engagement: The role of international education in the development of global civil society. In R. Lewin (Ed.), The handbook of practice and research in study abroad (pp. 21-32). New York: Routledge.

Wessel, N. (2007). Integrating service learning into the study abroad program: U.S. sociology students in Mexico. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11, 73-89. doi 10.1177/1028315305283306.

Zimmerman, J. (2006). Innocents abroad: American teachers in the American century. London: Harvard University Press.


Megan Francis first became interested in international education as an undergraduate, at Pacific Lutheran University, when she noticed a large deficit in the number of opportunities for non-traditional students to study abroad. While in graduate school, at American University, Megan fostered this interest while also exploring how to sustainably and ethically incorporate more service oriented programs in the world of study abroad. Toady, Megan is the Assistant Dean for International Programs at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, which allows her to align her passions of incorporating more study abroad and service learning opportunities for non-traditional student populations.

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