Embedding Engagement In Higher Education: Preparing Global Citizens Through International Service-Learning


Embedding Engagement In Higher Education: Preparing Global Citizens Through International Service-Learning

Theme: Global Citizenship

Nevin Brown
International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership, NY
Constituent Group:

In their framing essay for this collection of articles celebrating the 20th anniversary of Campus Compact, Barbara Holland and Liz Hollander list three crucial challenges for the engaged university in the next twenty years; it is the third of these, educating students for global citizenship, which I will address briefly in this essay.

At the same time that U.S. colleges and universities are emphasizing their engagement with domestic communities and issues, more and more college and university presidents, boards of trustees and others are emphasizing the importance of “internationalizing” their campuses, and exposing as many students as possible to some sort of international experience during their undergraduate years. Realizing the goal of “internationalization” has not been an easy task, however. In particular, too little attention has been paid to identifying the kinds of skills and learning outcomes that are most likely to lead to college and university students who are well-prepared to live and act as “global citizens”.

Service-learning, the pedagogy that links academic study with the practical experience of community service, has been embraced by Campus Compact and many Compact member institutions in recent years. I believe service-learning as it has also been applied internationally offers much promise to campuses seeking to define skills and learning outcomes needed for effective global citizenship. Service-learning has become an international movement that offers new approaches to teaching and learning and to the civic engagement of institutions of higher education. It provides students with an education that meets the highest academic standards and delivers meaningful service that makes a difference to the well-being of society. It can promote not only a greater commitment to improving conditions locally but also an understanding of the inter-relatedness of communities and societies across the world.

In 2003, the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership (IPSL) issued a “Declaration of Principles” in which it outlined essential elements in structuring effective international service-learning programs as well as the learning outcomes that are likely to result. According to IPSL, the best-designed and executed international service-learning programs ensure that:

  • There is reciprocity between the community served and that of the university or college, and their relationship is built on mutual respect and esteem.
  • The learning is rigorous, sound, and appropriate to the academic level of the students.
  • The studies do not offer foregone conclusions but rather, in the spirit of academic inquiry, expose students to a wide range of points of view, theories and ideas, asking that they critically examine these ideas and their experience in service, reaching their own well-considered conclusions.
  • The service is truly useful to the community or agency. Experience has shown that the agency or community is best qualified to define what is useful. The time and quality of the service must be sufficient to offset the time spent in planning and evaluation; otherwise the institution and student are exploiting the very people they intend to assist.
  • There is a clear connection between the studies and the service. The studies may focus on the general culture of those served or be more specific in relating subject matter and the service experience. Either pattern is effective.
  • Students are allowed and indeed encouraged to develop and demonstrate leadership skills, using their own initiative when appropriate, bearing in mind that they should first listen to the community and be responsive to its values and needs.
  • Opportunity for personal reflection on the meaning of the experience in relation to the student’s values and life decisions is built into the program in a structured way. The keeping of a journal is a common means of providing this opportunity for the students to connect what they are learning and experiencing with their own lives.
  • Support services are provided. Students are prepared for their service and the community in which they will serve. Provision is made for their health care should it be needed, and students are advised on issues of safety. Ongoing advising services are available.

The IPSL Declaration then offers a set of learning outcomes that are most likely to result for students participating in international service-learning programs. These include:

  • Deeper student learning of academic subjects. Theory is field-tested in practice and is seen and measured within a cultural context. Because the learning is put to immediate use, it tends to be deeper and to last longer.
  • Development of leadership skills as students learn to work collaboratively with the community. They learn that the most effective leadership is that which encourages the participation?and indeed leadership?of others.
  • Promotion of intercultural and international understanding. Particularly in international settings, the service almost always occurs with people whose lives are very different from that of the student. By working with them, the student comes to understand and appreciate their different experiences, ideas and values, and to work cooperatively with them. Service-learning nurtures global awareness and socially responsible citizenship.
  • Fostering greater personal growth, maturity, the examination of values and beliefs, and civic responsibility, all within the context of a community and its needs. Students explore how they may use their education for the benefit of the community and the well-being of others, especially those in need.
  • Advancing an understanding both by students and their faculty members involved in such programs of societies, cultures, and world issues by testing scholarship against immediate practical experience and theory within a cultural context.

There are also important benefits for academic institutions as a result of engagement through international service-learning. In particular, international service-learning sets U.S. academic institutions and their students in a more balanced relationship with international and/or intercultural communities. In today’s world, with pressing needs in every community and nation, academic institutions are called to apply their knowledge and resources to problems and needs that no longer respect local, much less international, boundaries. Moreover, institutional engagement in international service-learning provides help to service agencies and to communities, addressing needs that would otherwise remain unmet.

At the same time, there are a number of practical steps (and barriers to overcome) for U.S. colleges and universities to engage fully in an international service-learning initiative. I will focus on just a few in the hope this incomplete listing will stimulate further discussion during the Campus Compact 20th anniversary gathering:

  • A lack of administrative integration at the campus level. Offices that support study-abroad and community or volunteer service too often live in separate “silos”; staff members rarely if ever meet to learn about each other’s initiatives, even though many of the students they serve are now seeking more opportunities to combine international and volunteer service experiences. Likewise, other campus offices that have essential knowledge and/or skills?ranging from financial aid to legal affairs, from alumni relations to development?often are not engaged in discussions about how best their efforts might support an international service-learning initiative. The unfortunate result: many students never learn about opportunities for learning and serving internationally or interculturally; or they find insurmountable barriers to using their financial aid for such programs; or they can’t transfer the academic credits in ways that will help them fulfill major requirements or even graduate.
  • A mismatch between academic calendars and the service needs in international contexts: Although traditionally “study-abroad” was done in a student’s junior year, the new trend is the development of short-term experiences in another nation or culture; many institutions now offer alternative spring breaks, for example, or overseas trips during winter breaks or “J-terms”. The potential upside of this trend? More students may be able to participate in such an experience. A significant downside, however, is that many of the service needs in communities do not lend themselves to short-term student visits; indeed, service agencies in many developing nations (and elsewhere) may end up spending more time and resources trying to organize themselves for short-term volunteers than they receive in return. If international service-learning is to be based on the principle of reciprocity between the institution or person providing the service and the institution or person being served, the challenge before the engaged university is whether or not such reciprocity can be achieved in short-term projects and trips.
  • A mismatch between broadly stated institutional goals and academic constraints at the campus level. Most institutions (and particularly those active in the “engaged university” movement) include in their mission statements a strong commitment to international engagement, community service, and the creation of graduates who are “global citizens.” Nonetheless, in addition to the administrative and time barriers mentioned above, there are often departmental and disciplinary requirements and expectations that restrict or make impossible student participation in international service-learning initiatives and thus limit the institution’s ability to fulfill its stated mission. These range from faculty misconceptions about the academic quality of study-abroad and/or service-learning, to narrowly-defined requirements for majors (particularly in the sciences and engineering) that may not match offerings available in a course of international study, to an understandable but sometimes misguided belief that only programs led by a local faculty member are worthy of academic credit.
  • The narrow demographic range of undergraduate students engaged in international service-learning programs. For example, the “typical” U.S. student in many international service-learning programs (and in study-abroad programs as a whole) is a white, upper-middle-class female in her very early twenties from a small independent liberal-arts college or university. When one surveys the typical undergraduate across all institutional types in the U.S., however, the student is likely to be older, working, with family responsibilities, and (particularly in urban institutions) a student from a minority group. For minority students and those who are the first in their families to participate in postsecondary education, there may also be family or cultural barriers that make it difficult for students to consider an experience overseas even when economic resources may not be a problem. As the United States becomes increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural in its own demographic makeup, it becomes increasingly essential that all students in the “engaged university” have access to and support for participation in international service-learning programs.

There are no easy answers to overcoming institutional barriers and developing practical strategies for engaging more students in international service-learning. Nonetheless, international service-learning remains a very promising tool available to U.S. colleges and universities in their quest both to “internationalize” their campuses and to instill in their students [the knowledge and skills needed to function as “global citizens” in a new century. I have attempted here to offer a very brief overview from the perspective of one organization (IPSL) of some of the structural approaches needed and some of the likely outcomes both for students and for institutions as a whole. It is my belief that Campus Compact’s member institutions are particularly well-positioned to take the lead in expanding our vision of the engaged university in a world in which boundaries of all types are becoming less and less relevant.


“Declaration of Principles”. (2003) New York: International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership.

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