Global Scholarship: From Service Learning to Community Engagement

February 9, 2015

Daniel J. Paracka, Amy M. Buddie, and Dawyn S. Dumas, Kennesaw State University

This article traces Kennesaw State University’s (KSU) intentional growth and transformation of traditional service learning abroad activities into meaningful community engagement both locally and abroad through the incentive of the global learning scholarship. It discusses how our thinking related to service learning has changed over time and uses specific examples to illustrate this change. It examines best practices in the field and shares lessons learned.

Over the past 10 years, KSU has experienced rapid growth in education abroad. In 1998, KSU had 103 students study abroad, whereas last year over 800 students participated. In the past five years, since the implementation of the global learning scholarships program, the percentage of KSU education abroad programs offering service learning opportunities has increased from 4% to 76%.

In 2008 as part of a strategic effort to increase participation in education abroad programs, KSU instituted a student-approved $14 Global Learning Fee that provides scholarships ranging from $500 to $1,500 to all education abroad students. Recognizing the value of service learning, the Global Learning Fee Committee offered a financial increase to students’ scholarships if faculty program directors built in a service learning component to their education abroad program. This increase amounted to an additional $250 to $500 to a student’s Global Learning Scholarship. As more faculty have sought out extra scholarship funds for their programs, the number of education abroad programs with service learning components has risen significantly. Moreover, due to this increased interest, the Education Abroad Office has put greater emphasis on examining the types and effectiveness of service learning experiences abroad.

To qualify for scholarships students must dedicate between 8 and 24 hours of service learning while abroad depending upon the length of the program. Examples range from building projects in Belize, planting an herb garden in Italy, organizing a songwriting workshop for a foundation in London, planning and implementing a children’s festival in Russia, raising funds to benefit an orphanage in India, identifying and designing projects that address health issues in Swaziland, volunteering at schools, serving as English tutors, providing IT assistance in India, and working at a senior citizens home in Peru, to name a few. The quality and depth of intercultural experience varies widely and so the Education Abroad Office began to implement training and guidance for faculty developing service learning experiences abroad. As part of this process, a philosophical transformation emerged that emphasized the importance of community engagement within service learning.

One of the programs that has embraced this philosophy is “The President’s Emerging Global Scholars” (PEGS) program, which recruits academically talented first-year students to be part of a three-year intensive experience involving intercultural training, service learning, and international community engagement. In their first semester, PEGS students enroll in a seminar themed around Seven Global Challenges (e.g., population, governance, technology; see for more details). They look to Atlanta’s diverse local community for help in understanding global forces and engage with these communities to identify issues of importance. They then build on this experience to identify and develop partnerships abroad. For the past two years, as part of this seminar, PEGS has developed an undergraduate research partnership with UNIFACS, a university in Salvador, Brazil. Teams of students in the PEGS program work virtually with teams of students at UNIFACS to create cross-cultural research projects on each of the Seven Global Challenges. The experience culminates with a trip to Salvador at the end of the spring semester, where the PEGS and UNIFACS students meet face-to-face to analyze data and discuss the experience. In this model, emphasis is placed on the joint development of the projects and the shared analysis of the results, thereby strengthening the level of intercultural engagement and global learning that occurs.

The student projects have been very unique and creative. For example, one team examined the crisis of worldwide aging. Another group was interested in foreign investments and cross-cultural attitudes toward the economy. Another group examined water and food waste in both Brazil and the U.S. Overall, these research projects have been very successful so far. The students learn a great deal about the research process very early in their college careers, which helps with future undergraduate research in their majors. The students develop scientific literacy, writing, and oral presentation skills through this project, and they emerge with a tangible product (a poster presented at the university’s undergraduate research conference) that can go on their resumes/vitas. In addition, they interact frequently with their Brazilian partners; they learn how to navigate language barriers, work in global teams, and meaningfully engage with individuals who are culturally different from themselves.

The PEGS research model is itself unique in several ways (see Hu et al., 2008). First, in contrast to many other undergraduate research experiences, students are involved in all aspects of the research process (designing the study, collecting data, analyzing data, writing a paper, presenting the research, etc.). Second, PEGS students engage in the undergraduate research project in their first year, which is rare nationally and internationally. Third, the PEGS research model incorporates several high-impact educational practices simultaneously, including undergraduate research, a first-year seminar, collaborative projects, and diversity/global learning. Although research exists on the benefits of each individual high-impact practice (Brownell & Swaner, 2010), there is currently no published research on this type of integration of high-impact educational practices.

Students have reported that the experience has helped them tremendously in terms of understanding cultural differences and similarities. Here is a sampling of quotes from a debriefing that we held with the first cohort of students after they met with their Brazilian counterparts, which illustrate how the students at first thought the research project was a bit overwhelming but how they came to appreciate what they learned after the joint meeting in Brazil:

  • “I was kind of like everyone else at first. I didn’t really want to do it [the cross-cultural research project] and I was like, “Oh, great. Another assignment I have to do on top of everything else. Wonderful.” But I think when we came here … today is when it all made sense. I’ve learned so much today that I don’t think the rest of the trip is going to compare to today. It was really about the people and about the culture and we were relating to others. I think that next year, like working with the Brazilian students from the beginning, as well as making this our central project is for the year, knowing that this is going to be the end result from the get-go will make it so much easier and will make you actually want to do it and be interested in it and hopefully find results.”
  • “I thought it was really interesting as we thought of it [the research project] as a chore, and they [the Brazilian students] did it [even though] they didn’t have to. They chose to … their answers were so good and they got us talking about that and they really got the conversation going. For me, it made me think of [x’s] comment during his presentation on obligations of a leader. You have these obligations as a leader and I think for next year, if we are able to make that a part of the leadership for the next team, like say, “This is not just a research project where you are doing research and if you don’t like research then tough; you’re going to have to do it anyway.” This is a part where you get to like learn about another culture and it’s part of the experience and it’s part of what you as a leader need to learn how to do, learn about other cultures and study and do hard things that you don’t necessarily like starting off but you end up loving it. I think we enjoyed that conversation today … some parts, even if you didn’t like the whole thing. Some parts were really interesting so if we can look at it from a leadership perspective, like, “This is what leaders do,” I think that will help with the mindset – get you in the right mindset starting off.”
  • “…not only were we able to see the data all at once from the Brazilian students, but they could explain it to us in context. They could sit there and tell us, “OK, this is probably why I chose this.” Instead of us completely guessing at the beginning and getting it completely wrong like we probably would have if we looked and said, “Oh, we’re the same. They are probably going through the same stuff we are.” It’s not always like that and I just found it interesting.”

In sum, PEGS offers a model regarding how to meaningfully engage students in work that increases their intercultural competence and global learning. Through the use of undergraduate research projects, students work cooperatively with partners in another country and emerge with tangible products (a poster and a research paper) that increase their understanding of global issues, their understanding of the research process, and their appreciation of cultural similarities and differences.


Brownell, J. E., & Swaner, L. E. (2010). Five high-impact practices: Research on learning outcomes, completion, and quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hu, S., Scheuch, K., Schwartz, R., Gayles, J. G., & Li, S. (2008). Reinventing undergraduate education: Engaging college students in research and creative activities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Daniel J. Paracka, Ph.D., Director, Academic Initiatives, Institute for Global Initiatives
Professor of Education, Interdisciplinary Studies Department, Kennesaw State University
Phone: +1.770.423.6732; Fax: +1.678.797.2573; email: dparacka(at)kennesaw(dot)edu

Amy M. Buddie, PhD, Associate Director for Graduate Student Support and Undergraduate Research/Creative Activity, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Kennesaw State University
Phone: 770-423-6255; Fax: 770-302-4869; email: abuddie(at)kennesaw(dot)edu

Dawyn S. Dumas, Director, Global Engagement Programs, Kennesaw State University
Phone 678-797-2423; Fax 770-499-3236; email: ddumas(at)kennesaw(dot)edu

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