Blending Local and Global Experiences in Service of Civic Engagement

March 9, 2009


Blending Local and Global Experiences in Service of Civic Engagement

Theme: Global Citizenship

Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran
Kalamazoo College, MI
Constituent Group:
Alison Geist
Director, Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service Learning
Kalamazoo College, MI
Constituent Group:

In Trustworthy Leadership: Can we be the leaders we need our students to become?, Diana Chapman Walsh, President of Wellesley College, argues that we need “our graduates to become active participants in the world, potent advocates for human rights, confident leaders willing to take risks in pursuit of intellectual honesty, of freedom to disagree, of justice and fairness, global citizenship and mutual responsibility.”

Kalamazoo College embraces this challenge in its mission statement, Kalamazoo College prepares its graduates to better understand, live successfully within, and provide enlightened leadership to a richly diverse and increasingly complex world. As we move from mission to action, we at “K” recognize that it is our responsibility to prepare students to exercise ethical leadership in a strife-torn world that is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent; a world in which the economic, political and military preeminence that has been a part of our most recent history can no longer be guaranteed; a world in which the sustainability of our planet is in question.

We believe that the ability of our graduates to meet the demands embedded in our mission is dependent on their capacity to be “at home in the world.” By this, we mean a sense that wherever they find themselves they can be at home and make a home because they respect difference, can view the world from multiple perspectives, can adapt to new situations, and have the ability to put themselves at the margins. Embedded in being at home in the world is the ability to cross boundaries: real boundaries of language, nationality, geographic region; and personal boundaries of faith tradition, sexual orientation, mental health, and physical ability. Moreover, at this moment in the history of our nation and the world, the capacity to cross boundaries of culture and inequity is of critical importance. Those who are at home in the world also make connections: between theory and practice, between the classroom and the real world, between policies and people’s lived experience; and they forge authentic personal relationships across difference. Thus, Kalamazoo College’s concept of being at home in the world embodies Campus Compact’s commitment to civic engagement and global citizenship.

At Kalamazoo College we attempt to enable the development of these dispositions and capacities through our unique curriculum known as the K-Plan, an education of rigorous liberal learning deepened and enriched by experiential, international, and multicultural dimensions. (See The combined experience of service-learning coupled with an extended period of study abroad that often includes a service component, we believe, provides a powerful tool for engendering a commitment to civic engagement and global citizenship.

With the adoption of the K-Plan in 1962, all students were required to complete a senior individualized project (SIP) and the overwhelming majority was expected to participate in both a study abroad and a career development experience. Currently, approximately 85% of our students study abroad, most (88%) on programs which last at least two academic quarters. While abroad, students explore new cultures, refine their language skills and hone their capacity for intercultural communication. In the 2005/06 academic year, 248 students studied abroad in 26 countries, 48% in non-European settings.

Recognizing the importance of assisting students to develop the knowledge, skills, sensitivity, and commitment necessary for a lifetime of meaningful and effective participation in their communities, the College, in the last decade, has embraced another component of experiential education: service-learning. Under the auspices of the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning, the College has developed and supported over 20 different service-learning courses and nine ongoing co-curricular programs, in which over 400 Kalamazoo College students work each year with thousands of community residents and over 30 different organizations. Each of these efforts is the outgrowth of a carefully crafted and sustainable college/community partnership that engages students, faculty, and community members in relationships that foster collaborative learning and civic participation among a diverse group of constituents. These partnerships build a more vibrant community while helping our students to develop a sense of respect and humility as they work collaboratively to solve public problems with individuals from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds. Sustained collaboration in such pluralistic settings is often a new experience for many of them. In 2005/06, students in these combined programs gave over 24,000 hours of “service” to the community — and were rewarded with the mastery of academic material and with the acquisition of profound new understandings of the community and contemporary social issues based on real world experience. Moreover, and of great importance to Kalamazoo College, these experiences provide for more sustained interracial and cross-social-class experiences than the current demographics of our student body could sustain.

The primary vehicles through which the College implements its civic engagement and global citizenship initiatives are the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning and the Center for International Programs. The Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning promotes civic engagement through academic service-learning and co-curricular service-learning initiatives that are built upon reciprocal community partnerships, and also fosters opportunities for student and faculty scholarship within the realms of citizenship, community engagement, and service-learning pedagogy. The Institute collaborates with the community and its representatives to assure that projects and programs meet the needs and recognize the assets of both campus and community constituencies through equalitarian and reciprocal planning, implementation and evaluation processes. In our most complex and longest continuous partnership (established in 1997), students work in five to seven different Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) as tutors, mentors, health educators and researchers, with a particular emphasis on bilingual education.

The Center for International Programs implements the College’s study abroad initiatives, including the Integrative Cultural Research Project (ICRP) and the more recently developed Kalamazoo Project for Intercultural Communication (KPIC). In 1993 the ICRP was created to foster greater cultural integration of study abroad participants into the everyday life of the host culture. All ICRP students select an activity (often a service or volunteer project, a cultural internship or the collecting of life histories) that will require them to interact closely with local people. Through a structured process of observation, interaction, research and reflection, students, ideally, undergo a change in perspective from “they do things this way/we do things that way” to “it makes sense to do things this way.” The Kalamazoo Project for Intercultural Communication (KPIC) builds on the ICRP model and provides for a selected group of students the opportunity to place their study abroad experience within a larger framework that allows them to connect lived experience with theoretical understanding, the host culture with the home culture, and personal experience with the articulation of that experience to others. The project incorporates a pre-departure course that exposes students to basic principles of intercultural communication and encourages them to begin thinking about the nature of the Integrative Cultural Research Project they will execute; a series of writing assignments completed while the student is abroad that helps her/him become aware of the evolution of the study abroad experience; and a course for returning students that encourages reflection on the study abroad experience and provides venues in which students may share their experiences with others through a series of speaking engagements. The ICRP and the KPIC are vehicles through which the study abroad experience aims to create new generations of leaders endowed with the type of transnational competence that will be necessary to function effectively in an increasingly interconnected world.

In full recognition of the developmental nature of the undergraduate learning experience, the College structures service opportunities in a sequence that offers students progressively more responsible service-learning and leadership experiences in culturally diverse settings over the full four years of the academic program. For example, many students are introduced to academic service-learning during their first quarter at the College through a first-year seminar that has a service-learning component. In most years approximately 25% of these seminars are service-learning courses. Other first year students may participate in co-curricular programs as volunteers at one of KPS sites where they serve as tutors, mentors or cafeteria buddies. This experience often motivates them to enroll in an academic service-learning course during the winter or spring quarter of their first year. For many, it is during the academic service-learning course that they begin to develop new perspectives as they link the immediate experiences of the students with whom they are working to the larger socio-economic and political context that circumscribes the lives of these children and their families. The Underwood Stryker Institute participates in two Americorps Service Scholarship programs, one specifically for first-generation students, which builds mentoring, leadership and community service-learning into the first-year experience for eight to ten students selected for the program each year.

During the sophomore year, students have an opportunity to assume greater responsibility in terms of the nature of the programs in which they participate as well as the level of leadership they may assume. Students may participate in community-based learning as volunteers or may earn their work-study award in our co-curricular partnership programs. These include programs with the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home, KPS, Family Health Center, the Spanish Medical Interpreter program, and others. With many other agencies, they conduct community-based research, gather oral histories, raise funds to fight hunger and raise awareness of its causes, develop public art with juvenile offenders, strengthen city neighborhoods, promote local farms and community gardens, design lead remediation strategies, or develop city plans. Through a series of endowed scholarships and fellowships that support work in social justice and community action, students whose commitment and capabilities have been previously demonstrated, receive support to design, implement, and sustain innovative community projects by collaborating with their peers and a community partner. One such cohort of students, the LaPlante Scholars, shoulders primary responsibility for coordinating Institute co-curricular programs and developing peer mentor networks. They also design and lead workshops to promote reflection and action on the pressing social issues with which students are engaged.

Service opportunities in the sophomore year also anticipate study abroad. Students have opportunities to immerse themselves in local immigrant communities as bilingual tutors and as Spanish medical interpreters at the Family Health Clinic. After identifying their study abroad sites in the winter quarter, sophomores have an opportunity to participate in KPIC or to begin to craft the Integrative Cultural Research Project that will comprise a significant part of their study abroad experience.
Through other important components of the K-Plan, namely career development and the senior individualized project (SIP), students are afforded additional opportunities to extend the depth and breadth of their understandings and their capacity to engage in the work of social justice and community transformation. For example, this summer a K student is completing an externship at an international health organization that develops global and local partnerships to enhance the quality of health care services for women and families in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Another student completed an internship at the World Bank in Washington, DC, where she worked on projects related to the economics of supporting an initiative to eradicate three infectious diseases in central Africa. She then designed her senior individualized research project to allow for more in-depth examination of this issue at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Kalamazoo College alumni, many of whom have benefited from our experiential education programs, play a central role in facilitating these internship and SIP research opportunities.

When service opportunities are structured in developmental sequences, students can engage in progressively responsible, aware, and challenging actions that address structural injustices in our society. We have learned that in-depth experiences in other countries often provide a context for students to better understand privilege and injustice in this country. Thus, students who return to the campus from study abroad bring with them a greater understanding of the immigrant experience and an increased commitment to galvanize other members of the Kalamazoo College campus to work with local immigrant and low-income communities. Just as importantly, we have also learned that civic engagement in Kalamazoo before the international experience helps prepare students for those life-changing experiences — providing a lens from which to view the events that unfold abroad. Students who have worked with local farmers on a “Farm 2 K” program bring a critical lens to their examination of sustainability while on study abroad in Thailand and then return to the campus with an enhanced perspective of issues of hunger and sustainability and the intersection between the two as both a local and a global phenomenon.

Service-learning can create defining moments in students’ lives. Through Kalamazoo College’s sequence of interconnected, if not always fully coherent, developmental experiences, ideally, our students complete the progression that includes failure to connect, questioning, discomfort and sometimes guilt, recognition of privilege, and feelings of powerlessness to emerge with a sense of efficacy that enables them to become those confident agents who will take risks in an effort to promote a world that is both just and sustainable. Hopefully, they have become at home in the world.

It is imperative that leaders in higher education take seriously the responsibility to assist our students to become effective agents of change in a world that is deeply troubled. On each of our campuses we must provide vision and support to the efforts of faculty and staff who design, implement and examine pedagogies that promote students’ informed and ethical engagement to build a more just, equitable and sustainable world.

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