Critical Service-Learning with International Students in the United States

January 26, 2015

Julie Miller, Northeastern University and Sunshine Oey, UC Berkeley 

Setting the Scene….

The United States is hosting a record number of international students who speak English as a non-native language. This means that facilitators of service-learning and community partners need to act collaboratively and creatively in order to sustain mutually-beneficial partnerships. This blog post introduces critical service-learning theory as a stepping stone for those implementing (or wanting to implement) mutually-beneficial community engagement practices with international students.

To begin, let’s start with some background about international students in The United States. Globalization continues to change the composition of college campuses worldwide. Universities and colleges in the Unites States are becoming increasingly active and concentrated in their international recruitment efforts, boast impressive reputations and brand recognition, and have the benefit of working with students with government-sponsored scholarships. (Institute of International Education, 2013). The ongoing growth of this population is illustrative of ongoing tectonic shifts in higher education student enrollment not only at UC Berkeley and Northeastern University, but nationally.

A Tale of Two Programs: The W.T. Chan Fellowship and Community Learning

Let us now provide context in which critical service-learning theory may be utilized. We will give two examples of settings and programs using this framework. The first program takes place through the W.T. Chan Fellowship Program at UC Berkeley, a five and a half month service-learning program generously funded by the Lingnan Foundation. Undergraduate and graduate students in the W.T. Chan Fellowship at UC Berkeley all hail from China. Fellows are completely immersed in U.S. society by way of local homestays and five and half months of civic engagement in a East Bay non-profit organization. Fellows also participate in a structured weekly reflection through a Leadership, Dialogue, and Actualization course within the Peace and Conflict Studies department.

Chan Fellows intern 32 hours each week at nonprofit organizations that advocate for disadvantaged communities in the East Bay on issues such as homelessness, environmental justice, HIV/AIDS, labor rights, economic justice, and arts education. Fellows lead half-day site visits at their organization, create a project proposal they can implement upon returning home, and give a final speech about what they have come to believe as a direct result of the program. Through these activities, Fellows gain first‐hand understanding of the challenges many people in the U.S. face in their daily lives.

The second program takes place in Northeastern University’s American Classroom program, a pathway program for international students in The College of Professional Studies into the undergraduate university. Students in the program find their way to Northeastern by way of China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Colombia, France, Turkey, and many other countries. Students live on or off campus, enroll in several courses with transferable credit, and engage in service-learning primarily as a vehicle for practicing their English skills, honing their cross-cultural communication and leadership capacities, and learning about American culture.

Students in the top two levels of The American Classroom program are automatically enrolled in a course called Community Learning and, therefore, service-learning. Students serve with one site for 2-5 hours per week in classrooms, afterschool enrichment programs, community centers, and subsidized housing facilities for older adults. Service-learners participate in class weekly, engage in ongoing online blogs, and complete an extensive research essay about a social issue for their writing course based on the semester-long service-learning experience.

Considering Critical Service-Learning with International Students

There are growing numbers of criticisms of traditional service-learning models, namely that the learner-centered approach “exploits poor communities as free sources of student education,” (Stoecker, Tryon, & Hilgendorf, 2009, p. 3), utilizes a “charity” model that reinforces hierarchy and privilege, reproduces an unequal distribution of power, is paternalistic, and can lead to greater feelings of difference, alienation, and intolerance among students engaged in service (Mitchell, 2008; Stoecker & Tryon, 2009; Clark & Nugent, 2011; Herrmann, 2011). Facilitators must ask ourselves, as Stoecker and Tryon (2009) encourage, “who is served by service-learning?” (p. 1). There is little doubt that service-learning can provide opportunities for transformative learning for students (Mezirow, 1978), but what do communities receive?

Critical service-learning utilizes a community-centered approach in which the issues, concerns, and voice of the community are as important as what students learn and how they grow as a result of what they learn (Brown, 2001; Mitchell, 2008). Critical service-learning ideology aims to promote participatory citizenship in which students engage in collective, community-based efforts with government and community-based organizations. This framework strives to promote justice-oriented citizenship in which students learn to analyze root causes of inequity and the role of social movements in working toward systemic change (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004).

The guideposts of the critical service-learning approach include having a social change orientation, developing critical consciousness, and increasing civic agency; working to redistribute power; and developing authentic relationships (Mitchell, 2008). How do these priorities interact with the complex dynamics associated with implementing service-learning for/with international students?

Social Change Orientation

A social change orientation challenges students to not only respond to human need but understand the underlying historical, social, political, and economic forces that that have resulted in the social problem being addressed as well as the impact of their action/inaction (Mitchell, 2008). Uncovering these layers can be challenging enough for domestic students who were born, raised, and educated in an American context. Most international students are considerably less-informed about the history and nuances of social issues and inequities in the United States and, to boot, may miss nuances of information and conversations because of a language gap. In order to unpack their understanding of social change, students may need to first learn about oppression in the U.S. context before they can relate that understanding to their lived experience.

A social change orientation emphasizes the importance of having our work be guided by community voice and interest. It also requires looking for long-term collaborative relationships with community partners that actively work to address root causes of inequity. International students who are used to serving in a more charitable/direct service capacity in their home country may be uncomfortable with the idea of shifting away from organizations that solely focus on providing direct material assistance. For example, one of the Chan Fellowship’s community partners combines neighborhood-based housing and assistance programs that actively work to change the root causes of homelessness. In a weekly reflection, the Fellow serving with that partner commented:

“I walked on Shattuck Avenue carrying the extra food from dinner. I saw a man sitting on the street, and I am sure he was experiencing homelessness. At that time, I did want to give him the food. But I don’t want to just give him as if he has no choice, which may make him feel another oppression power added on him, which I learn from [my host organization]. Then I remember someone has told me that, you can always ask, no matter what the answer would be. So I ask him, “Do you want some food? I have some extra food.” Then, he looked at me, with no answer, so I ask again, “Do you need some food?” He nodded. So I gave it to him.”

Redistributing Power

The notion of “redistributing power” is both aspirational and practical. For the facilitators and hosts of service-learning students, careful attention should be given to building and sustaining mutually-beneficial relationships with community partners. Throughout the planning and implementation process, the role and satisfaction of the host organization cannot be underscored enough. We as practitioners have found that having explicit conversations on solidarity vs. charity has not only helped students shift their focus from working “for” communities to working “with” communities, it has also helped them develop new insights they can use at home. As one Chan Fellow shares:

“In some rural village schools in Canton, there are volunteers bring books and stationery to the local students year by year, however, it does not change the condition. What the kids need is well-educated teachers and a mechanism that can provide them nine-year compulsory education.”

The quote above illustrates a shift in perception about root causes of social issues and about how social change happens. A related cornerstone to the concept of redistributing power consists of an explicit focus on exploring the role of power and privilege when serving the community. Mitchell (2008) shares: “it requires confronting assumptions and stereotypes, owning unearned privilege, and facing inequality and oppression as something real and omnipresent” (p. 56). International students come from a wide range of lived experiences in their home countries with regard to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and access to education; all of which influence their understanding of how those dynamics play out in the U.S. from their cultural context. Students’ evolving understandings of the sociocultural and historical context in which they are serving may be further complicated if they are having the experience of being marginalized as an “outsider” for the first time in their lives. Says Klein, Miller and Alexander (1981), “The young person [Chinese student] who leaves home to study in America is in an ironic position. Ordinarily a quite well-adapted person, with achievement great enough to be eligible for study abroad, he/she moves deliberately into a position of stress and personal vulnerability” (p. 30).

Authentic Relationships

The third and final principle in Mitchell’s theory underscores the role of authentic relationships in the service-learning partnership. Critical service-learning aims to develop authentic relationships that encourage mutuality, reciprocity, interdependence, and vulnerability and reduce the tendency to generate binaries between self and others. International students are navigating the sometimes-choppy waters of relationship- building on their new college campus and city and are potentially facing social, cultural, and linguistic divides. At the same time, the service-learning experience may be the first  time they have interacted with a diverse group of people living outside of their home country, many of whom may be living in underserved and/or marginalized communities. While engaged in service, international students learn how to respond to miscommunications, adapt to meet expectations, and glean life lessons, some of which  may stem from linguistic and/or cultural divides); all of which are related to the development of intercultural competency. Writes a Community Learning student,

“My main work is to chat with the elderly living in here and help them deal with some trivial problems such as some issues about computer or Internet. Through chatting with them, I learned so many interesting things about their young times and also learned much valuable experience. Most importantly, I think I am a useful person in here. Every time I got to the Morville House, I feel like I am in home. And when I see the big smiles in their faces I know I am doing the right and meaningful things.”

Turning Priorities into Practical Tips

Now that we have introduced the concept of critical service-learning with international students, you may be asking, “That all sounds great… now what?” Here is what we can offer:

  • Bear in mind the three C’s of service-learning that serve the community: Commitment, Communication, and Compatibility (Stoecker & Tryon, 2009). Assess the level of commitment from and for both academic and community partners. Prioritize mutually-beneficial partnerships. Do not hesitate to leverage multilingual and multicultural student backgrounds for the benefit of the community. Bolster chances of compatibility by creating “teachable moments” out of cultural gaps and communication mishaps.
  • Teach quality communication and professional skills by modeling quality communication and professional skills. Community partner organizations and international service-learning students work hard and constantly shift in order to find a happy marriage and we as practitioners have to assume good intentions despite the miscommunications, misunderstandings, and mishaps.
  • Be explicit and thorough in explanation or introductions, expectations, norms/behaviors, while balancing this with building foundations for participatory learning. Participatory learning may at first feel counterintuitive for students from countries/cultures where the instructor/facilitator is expected to have the knowledge and the students are expected to learn. This collaboration builds opportunities for improving student learning outcomes and meeting community needs.


Brown, D. M. (2001). Pulling it together: A method for developing service-learning and community partnerships based in critical pedagogy. National Service Fellow Research.

Clark, A., & Nugent, M. (2011). Power and service-learning: Salience, place and practice. In B.J. Porfilio & H. Hickman (Eds.), Critical-Service Learning as a Revolutionary Pedagogy: An International Project of Student Agency in Action. (3-28). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Herrmann, S. L. (2011). Holding on to transformation. In B.J. Porfilio & H. Hickman (Eds.), Critical-Service Learning as a Revolutionary Pedagogy: An International Project of Student Agency in Action. (273-296). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Institute of International Education. (2013) Open Doors 2013: Report on International Educational Exchange.

Klein, M. H., Miller, M. H., & Alexander, A. A. (1981). The American experience of the Chinese student: On being normal in an abnormal world. In Normal and abnormal behavior in Chinese culture (pp. 311-330). Springer.

Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective transformation. Adult Education Quarterly,28(2), 100-110.

Mitchell, T. D. (2008). Traditional vs. critical service-learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2).

Stoecker, R., Tryon, E. A., & Hilgendorf, A. (Eds.). (2009). The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American educational research journal, 41(2), 237-269.

Julie Miller, MSW, is the founding Service-Learning Coordinator for Boston-Based Pathway Programs at Northeastern University. She is a Part-Time Instructor at Northeastern University in The College of Professional Studies and The School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. She also serves as a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab.

Sunshine Oey, M.Ed, is The Immersion Experiences Program Manager in the UC Berkeley Public Service Center where she manages the WT Chan Fellowship, The Shinnyo-en Peacebuilding Leadership Program, and Alternative Breaks.


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