International Education Program Design for the Common Good

April 25, 2013

What are our duties towards communities of strangers who, living across town or across the world, host our students’ living and learning? And how might the decisions we make in program design operationalize those duties? 

Dr. Richard Slimbach, Professor of Global Studies at Azusa Pacific University, addressed these questions in “Program Design for the Common Good,” which he originally shared as part of a session at the forum on Education Abroad. Dr. Slimbach has been kind enough to share the document on this website and in the blogpost below. It begins with a realistic scenario – and ends with a thoughtful planning rubric for considering dimensions of programs that affect students, communities, and the public good. Enjoy:


You represent a fairly typical international educator. Married or not, with or without children, you enjoy professional status and a middle-class income. You work upwards of 50 hours each week, not only because student development is your life mission, but also for the more subtle rewards. Travels abroad never fail to keep our minds mobile and our imaginations awake.

Your programs mostly run in European or Australian cities—London and Dublin, Paris and Prague, Seville and Sydney—places of high culture and high student demand. After completing a long-haul jet flight that carries them to their destination, our students typically adopt an on-the-ground lifestyle that is both segregated and sumptuous. They live with cultural similars in Wi-Fi enabled housing, sample culinary delights Anthony Bourdain-style, soak up the city’s elegant museums and art galleries, play the flirt at pubs, shop at upscale stores, and otherwise gaze into the “good face” of modern culture.

For purported health and safety reasons, you protect students from the “other” London (or Istanbul or Buenos Aires). That is, the city’s “back regions”—pockets of deprivation and struggle inhabited by the perpetual (and growing) underclass. Worldwide, this socio-economic underbelly is “home” to about two-thirds of humanity. They signify highly asymmetrical “contact zones” in which affluent foreigners and struggling natives rarely, if ever, make contact.*

All of this travel adventure comes at a fairly high cost—financially it’s about $14,000/semester to program providers; socially, the high life of students tends to reinforce the income and social divisions already in place; and environmentally, each American student traveling to Europe will add approximately two tons of CO2 to their already 20ton/person/year carbon footprint.** In short, ethical dilemmas surround each of these program-related costs. The $14,000+ could certainly be used to relieve great human suffering and promote greater social equity if it were taxed by some global authority and then channeled to distressed areas of the world. In the right hands, it could fund everything from mosquito bed nets and emergency obstetrical care to basic school services and landmine eradication—all without heating the planet and further depleting natural resources.

Considering these things, what do we owe to human and earth others? What ought we to do?*** (Choose one)

[   ] Nothing. “We should maintain a personal perspective—affirming the value and dignity of every person equally, including my own. Because everyone’s life matters in exactly the same way, all women and men have an equal right to live their lives in accordance with their own values. Resources have already been distributed unequally. Those of us with more should not be expected to surrender part of what we have to those with less. To the contrary, we should each pursue our own self-interest by maximizing the satisfaction of our own ambitions or desires. [Personal partiality]

[   ] Everything. “We should step back from our personal position in the world and assume an impersonal perspective—affirming the value and dignity of all humans, as well as sentient nonhumans, but without partiality. Because everyone matters (including me), and nobody matters more than anyone else, it follows that we should distribute resources sufficiently as to make for equal, or roughly equal, life chances.” [Impersonal impartiality]

[   ] Something. “We should attempt to achieve some form of reasonable integration between the moral claims for equality (neighbor-caring) and the equally moral rights of partiality (self-caring). Realistically, we cannot expect the US, or any other major western power, to cede their economic sovereignty to a central authority like the UN. But that does not absolve us from any moral responsibility. Our duty is to balance the equal importance of others with the special responsibility we have for our own.”

The choice of “something” entails an obligation, not just to do no harm, but also to do good. The question is, how? How do we best fulfill our “fair share” of responsibility to distant others? There are at least two ways: (1) make personal lifestyle choices to mitigate social and environmental damage caused by being a member of industrialized civilization, and (2) manage global learning programs that enrich disciplinary knowledge and skills in ways that are economically viable (affordable), socially just (reduce inequities, improve lives), and environmentally bearable (protect ecosystems).

Basic Dimensions of SustainabilityBasicDimensions

Source: Wikipedia – Sustainable Development

Specifically, what are our duties towards communities of strangers who, living across town or across the world, host our students’ living and learning? And how might the decisions we make in program design operationalize those duties?

Central assumptions

1.  Student outcomes and community outcomes belong together. Privileged education abroad students carry a responsibility to not use the lives of others—and particularly those within low power contexts—as objects of their own knowledge production and skills development. There must be reciprocity, mutuality, “give back.”

2.   Student and community outcomes flow out of particular hopes for the world, types of participating students, program designs, and partner organizations. Outcomes are fairly predictable, as they are a product of various inputs—some in our control and others not. We are responsible for the decisions (“conditions”) we make in each of these areas.

  • Hopes for the world. Before we can answer the “what” question (What do we owe to host strangers?), we need to first settle the “why” question (Why are we running education abroad programs in the first place?). What purpose compels us? Is ours primarily an educational mission: to deepen academic learning, broaden student horizons (liberal learning), and foster some sense of global responsibility? If so, does the student learning goal attach to any community development mission that delivers social and economic benefits to host communities? How do these aims position themselves vis-à-vis prevailing market imperatives (e.g. enhance institutional reputation and student marketability)? Which purposes will drive the enterprise, and which will ‘ride shotgun’?ProgramDesign

 Figure 1. Global learning purposes: from private benefit to public good

  • Types of participating students. Global learning outcomes depend as much (or more) on factors internal to participants as on factors external to the program design. Students are not blank slates as they enroll in our programs; they bring their own motivations, expectations, and agendas that either enable or sabotage program potential. What we know intuitively is confirmed empirically: the time and effort students devote to intercultural learning activities link to desired outcomes (Kuh, 2009). Students are also at different levels of moral, psychosocial, and intercultural development. Consequently, they need programs that meet them where they are and take them to the next level of development. All to say we cannot expect a single program to enable students to achieve either a high level of “intercultural competence” or community contribution.
  • Program designs. There are fundamental differences in the academic, intercultural, and community development potential of programs (Engle & Engle, 2003). Considering these distinctions, component-by-component, we come to see that all design decisions carry a trajectory: they “intervene” in the lives of students and communities toward one set of outcomes, and away from others. For example, a full semester program that incorporates pre-field training, family stays, voluntary service placements, community-based language learning, and participatory research experiences will likely produce very different outcomes from a three-week program that isolates students from the daily life of the host community.
  • Partner organizations. Positive student and community outcomes depend on joining a certain kind of student to a certain kind of program in partnership with various grassroots organizations (GROs)—host families, service agencies, faith communities, etc.—that work directly within communities on issues specific to them. Ideally, all parties would negotiate their respective rights and obligations in ways that are respectful, equitable, and mutually beneficial. This usually entails a relational power shift in the favor of those (like southern NGOs) who are frequently least able to negotiate from a position of adequate capacity and relative strength.


Figure 2. Process model for re-balancing student and community benefits


The following 17 program features suggest a framework for global learning that serves the common good—that is, balances student and community outcomes. First, bring to mind a global learning program with which you are familiar. Then, as each component is discussed, rate how well that program satisfies the stated criteria: high, medium, low, or absent.

 Program design components and the common good

Components & Criteria









1. Primary purpose. The program instills an ethical vision of human flourishing that encompasses personal decisions about where to live, how to live and learn, whom to befriend, why to learn language, what to eat and buy, and where to volunteer and conduct research. 
2. Destination. The program inserts learners into community settings—domestic and international—that significantly contrast “home” in terms of language, cultural patterns, racial character, and economic conditions. 
3. Duration. Assuming a high degree of social and cultural immersion (see below), the program is long enough for learners to (a) acquire basic language and culture skills, (b) build sustaining relationships with local residents, (c) unsettle some core assumptions and values of their home culture, and (d) begin internalizing new perspectives. 
4. Size of group. The program guards against creating a separate and self-sustaining social structure (mobile ghetto) by distributing group members within the local community (e.g. limiting each host family and service placement to only one student). 
5. Diversity of group. The program attracts a diverse student population (gender, race, social class, and academic major) to enable contrasting interpretations of common field experience. 
6. Learner preparation: The program offers pre- or-in-field training that equips learners with the basis conceptual and experiential ‘tools’ to optimize field learning. The program expects students to acquire a working knowledge of global political economy, the host country’s political history, current events, group customs and household patterns, ethnographic skills, service ethics, and research methods. 
7. “Footprint” reduction. The program provides opportunities for participants to travel to and from their program site “carbon neutral” (e.g. by purchasing “passes” or “green tags”). 
8. Local sourcing. The program maximizes the economic benefits to local residents by having housing, food, transportation, and touring needs provided through indigenous sources (e.g. host families, local eateries and vendors, public forms of transportation, local guides and national staff). 
9. Housing. The program places learners in living situations (like local families) where they can cultivate empathetic bonds with host nationals of the majority ethno-class, and reduce water and power consumption toward the local standard. 
10. Language learning. The program equips learners to communicate in and outside the classroom in the local language with appropriate body language and etiquette. 
11. Community immersion. The program seeks breadth from depth by embedding learners in local social structures (e.g. host families, service organizations, universities) where they burst the foreigner “bubble” and create a basic social support structure with host nationals. 
12. Content, contexts & process. The program moves beyond the classroom in arranging relevant content, contexts, and pedagogical process for investigating significant local problems—ill health, failing schools, human rights abuses, etc.—related to students’ major fields.  
13. Instruction & mentoring. The program provides the necessary external facilitation and supervision to keep students focused, active, and reflective in their learning. The field support system includes “mentor-advisors” drawn from the host community (e.g. host family heads, service supervisors, language coaches, and research guides). 
14. Self-direction. The program encourages learners to experiment, improvise, and actively build up knowledge by adopting new social roles (e.g. guests of local families, volunteers in grassroots organizations), and sharing responsibility for deciding where they will learn and serve, with whom, and how (selection of academic materials and methods). 
15. Organization building. The program “gives back” to the community by involving students as service-learners, interns, and researchers in locally accountable organizations. Students learn from, contribute skills or knowledge to, and otherwise support “native capability” through community improvement actions over a continuous period of time. 
16. Sociocultural & disciplinary analysis. The program creates spaces for students to systematically process (make sense of) their primary experiences in two areas: (a) sociocultural differences (home culture-host culture contrasts in habits, values, institutions, and systems), and (b) discipline-specific issues (i.e. how and why various social, economic, political, and environmental problems manifest). 
17. Return & response. The program facilitates a return process whereby learners disengage from their former mental state and lifestyle in order to explore new possible selves as a basis for re-constructing alternative responses to the world beyond, both on campus and in the local community. 


*Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco (Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt) refer to these spaces throughout the US as the “sacrifice zones” of global capitalism. Mike Davis (Planet of Slums) focuses attention on the world’s one billion slum dwellers, characterizing them as a “surplus humanity” stuck in history and condemned to a life of dispossession and despair.

**According to UCLA geographer Jared Diamond, the average person living in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia (about 1 billion) out-consumes the 5.5 billion people in the developing world by a factor of 32 to 1. That means that we consume 32 times more resources and produce 32 times more waste (19.5 metric tons of CO2 per capita) than the average citizen of Kenya, for example, with a consumption factor of 1 (0.03 metric tons of CO2 per capita). Americans produce more than twice the European average of CO2 emissions and almost five times the global average. Experts tell us that the global per capita carbon emissions must stabilize at 1.5 tons per year or it is “game over.” (See Jared Diamond, “What’s Your Consumption Factor? The New York Times, Jan. 2, 2008; Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe; Lester Brown, Plan B 3.0; James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World; Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded; and the popular TED video by Bill Gates titled “Innovating to Zero”:

***These are the questions philosophers ask—ethical questions that get us to ponder “what truth is, life means, morality requires, and justice demands” (Dworkin). Doing so can’t help but make us better educators. For starters, see Peter Singer, The Life That You Can Save (2009); Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (2008); Peter Unger, Living High and Letting Die (1996); Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (2004); and Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs (2013).


Richard Slimbach previously contributed The Hole in Our Helping to this website. He  is Professor of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL at Azusa Pacific University. Since 1991, his professional energies have been dedicated to creating, teaching in, and managing academic programs aimed at preparing students to learn in socio-cultural settings radically different from their own. Slimbach supervises the Global Learning Term — a self-directed, full-immersion study and service abroad program that has enabled global studies students to conduct small-scale community research and academic service-learning projects in over 50 non-western countries. He recently completed Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning.

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