Personal Reflection, Purposefully Shared: Techniques for Processing International Experiences Along the Continuum

Meghan Ozaroski, Assistant Director of Northwestern University’s Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI), will be presenting with program alums Ariel and Danielle at The Forum on Education Abroad’s 13th Annual Conference to introduce this reflective practice curriculum.

Reflective practice: Introduction to Open Letters

International experiences necessarily force us to contend with identity, privilege, and ethical engagement at the individual and community level. Although widely embraced in the service-learning community of practice (Ash and Clayton, 2009; Correia and Bleicher, 2008), meaningfully structured and continuously shared reflection along these lines is still often missing in many international education programs.

The Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) is offered by Northwestern University in partnership with Amizade, the Foundation for Sustainable Development, and Social Entrepreneur Corps. GESI has long promoted the role of critical and personal reflection in global service learning. As a program, GESI is bookended by an intensive 8-day pre-departure seminar of academic coursework in the theory and practice of international development and community engagement, and a 3-day reintegration program, focused on critical reflection. Over 8-10 weeks abroad, GESI participants live in homestays and work in interdisciplinary groups of 3-5 students at NGOs committed to issues like women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, or micro-enterprise. As students return home, they participate in activities designed to help them communicate their story and turn their passions into sustained engagement with global issues. During this 3-day Final Reflection Summit, GESI aims to provide structured personal, professional and academic reflection.

In 2014, GESI introduced its Open Letters Curriculum at the suggestion of GESI India 2011 alums Danielle Littman and Ariel Maschke, as an exercise to deepen reflective practice, reinforce group formation, and provide opportunities for students to convey the impact of their experiences and engagement in new ways. Ariel and Danielle were exposed to Open Letters through Robert Gundlach’s Writing for Social Change course at Northwestern. In technical terms, an open letter is a one-page response to a communal prompt, addressed most often to your colleagues or peers. It is personal writing, purposefully shared.

In GESI, Open Letters provide an opportunity to shape creative space for reflection and expression. The Open Letters process also aims to build trust and foster accountability within GESI groups during their study abroad experiences. Starting in summer 2015, GESI began capturing recordings of students sharing their Open Letters at a Story Slam event during GESI’s Final Reflection Summit.

Goals of Open Letters Curriculum

Open Letters are designed to:

Bridge academic learning and personal development: By building reflective practice into our pedagogy, we have validated the personal development experienced while studying abroad as important learning and growth.

Create community among diverse students: Students write about issues of identity, diversity, power, and privilege. By reflecting on these issues in a collective space, students think about these things individually, while also hearing from others.

Break the local/global divide: We have seen Open Letters lead to great conversations about local engagement efforts, and the ways that students can invest in development and advocacy in their own country.

Foster a space of a continued reflection, growth, and development long after students have returned from their program sites: These activities have brought together students from the past ten years of our program in on-line and in-person spaces.

Open Letters have been used both in study abroad programming, and creative writing courses at Northwestern University, and—as students have described through program assessments and focus groups—have led to a great increase in the quality of discourse among applicants, students on the GESI program, and alums back on campus, and even after graduation.

Reflective practice techniques, such as Open Letters, can be easily implemented on any campus, and can enhance intercultural awareness and lead to critically reflective discussions among program participants about issues of social identity and social justice (Ash and Clayton, 2009; Hatcher, Bringle, and Muthiiah, 2004.)

To learn more and read the example reflective activities, click here to access the presentation slides, and we hope that you will be able to join us at the session in Seattle.

The interactive session will offer tools for cultivating reflective spaces that foster connections between students, across programs, and all along the continuum—from applicants to alums. We will also be actively seeking ideas for strategies to invite community partners into the reflective practice process.

The Forum on Education Abroad: Seattle, WA

Friday, March 31, 2017, at 2:15 p.m. in Pike


Meghan Ozaroski, Assistant Director, GESI, Northwestern University

Ariel Maschke, 2011 GESI India Alum, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago

Danielle Littman, 2011 GESI India Alum, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago

Works Cited

Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 25-48.

Correia, M. G. & Bleicher, R. E. (2008). Making connections to teach reflection. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 14(2), 41-49.

Hatcher, J. A., Bringle, R. G., & Muthiah, R. (2004). Designing effective reflection: What matters to service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 11(1), 38-46.

More Information

Exploring Writing for Social Change Course, Professor Robert Gundlach, Northwestern University:

GESI Website:

Open Letters Curriculum:

GESI Story Slam Recordings:

Resource Guide from Campus Compact and Global SL: Research Informing Reflective Practice

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