The Ripple Effects of Global Service Learning: Creating Local and Global Waves of Impact

December 10, 2014

By Aileen Hale 

Lessons Learned through 25 Years of Global Service Learning 

Ripples are created when one force exerts energy toward another, spreading the impact, creating a wave.  Through a vision for inquiry-driven, sustainable and responsible global service learning (Wilhelm, J., Douglas, W., & Fry, S. , in press), this reflective essay shares the ripple effects of students and teachers engaged in global service-learning; the extension of the wave, and insights into the key factors contributing to these ripples. It is designed for service-learning practitioners seeking to develop sustainable international service-learning experiences, which enhance the development of global citizenship, while actualizing the balance of learning and service with our global partners.  Through 25 years of working through the challenges of balancing learning and service, it has become increasingly important to me to find a more equitable balance, such that those with whom we serve experience an equal level of service and learning.

In partnership with others, I have discovered some fundamental keys for building successful and sustainable global service learning programs, which include:

  • Identifying and maintaining close collaborations with in-country professionals to help with all logistical support of organizing, designing, and actualizing the service. The importance of these collaborations cannot be underestimated. We highly recommend partnering with local providers, at all levels of service (including lodging, transportation, guides, and service itself. The last of which is most critical to successful and sustainable service projects, which include local expertise, perspectives, and support.
    • Ensuring communication between all in-country providers is vital to maintaining the continuity of relationships and reflective dialogues.
    • An example is engaging a local principal and teacher as leads of our service project. This provides “ownership” of service for long-term sustainability.
  • Incorporating a methodology that builds on the strengths of the educational system. For example, Belize excels at weekly school assemblies where all students perform, sing, or chant. This is excellent oral language practice. Our service incorporates the writing, singing, and performance of song lyrics, building on existing strengths.
  • Clearly identifying service projects that locals (Belizeans) have requested and which genuinely serve their expressed needs. Too often outside service projects ‘impose’ their service, from a “charitable” mentality, without taking the time to discern authentic needs and how best to address needs, in solidarity of service (Fry, 2012).
  • Designing a hands-on project which “sets the stage” for relationship building—a key to the transformative effects of GSL. Our project actively ‘sets the stage’ for volunteers to engage in service through relationships.
  • Reflecting on service, pre/during/post experience; with input from local (Belizean) perspectives, to encourage critical discussions. This component offers the opportunity to adapt, strategically, as needed.
  • Determining if the goal is genuinely to serve and/or to learn and discussing the balance of mutuality with students, pre/during/post service.
    • For example, some feedback we received from Belize teachers in this process:

Having foreign students in the class really helps students to speak proper English.  The ABC books are very useful and the teachers are happy to have them as a resource in their class. The CD recordings allow for our students to listen to the books created, post-service. –Belizean Teacher

 Service becomes sustainable when it is developed in the context of authentic partnerships, based on spending time observing and listening to service “needs”; being open-minded to learning from what works and what may need to be changed within the service, to adequately address a need. One of the fundamental keys to designing and developing sustainable and mutually beneficial service, is being realistic about the time it takes to develop real depth of partnerships-often years of development.

Learning before Serving

A Fulbright Specialist Scholarship (2012-2013) provided an opportunity for me to work closely with the Dean of Education and lead education professors at the University of Belize, engaging faculty in methods of teaching English and teacher training.  This opportunity enabled me to spend significant time learning and gaining depth of understanding about linguistic issues in the country, prior to collaboratively designing a service project. Similar to Peace Corps volunteers, who spend at least 3 months learning the language and culture before engaging in volunteer activities, I have discovered the essentiality of learning as much as possible, prior to engaging in any service activities. Learning first offers the opportunity to move from “charity to solidarity”. (Fry, 2012).

 Through my Fulbright work, training teachers and assessing linguistic challenges, with the University of Belize, the Ministry of Education, Peace Corps Volunteers, the prior U.S. Ambassador’s wife (who spear-headed a nation-wide literacy project), principals, and teachers across the country, we collaboratively designed a service project to address English language literacy challenges. Although English is the National language of Belize, it is the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th language for nearly all Belizeans, including teachers.  Thus, it is rare for the children of Belize to be taught English from a native English speaker. Due to this reality, grammatical, syntactical, and phonetic challenges are clearly evidenced in student academic work and assessments for higher education.  As stated by one Principal: “Although Belize is an English-speaking country, outside of the classroom, we speak anything but English.” (Belize Principal, identifying and speaking to the need for English language support).  These insights from taking the time to learn prior to servicing has enabled us to engage in service partnerships at deeply meaningful and sustainable levels.

 Co-Designing, Co-Creating, and Capacity Building for Literacy

We designed our service project of co-creating Alphabet/Vowel/Story books to address specific expressed needs of oral and written English language proficiency.  Based on input from Belize Principals, teachers, and faculty of education from the University of Belize, we collaboratively designed the ABC books (which are created in service projects with elementary school children) to:

  • Empower Belize students to envision and engage themselves as authors, co-creating books which include their voices, writing, and pictures in publications;
  • Enhance language proficiency (oral & written) as students collaborate in writing grammatically correct song lyrics, focused on vowel and consonant sounds
  • Incorporate music as a proven methodology for language acquisition and phonetic awareness;
  • Build relationships between Belize students and volunteers.
    • Testimonies from high school student reflections affirm the importance of this component:
      • These kids will forever be in my heart. I am still truly shocked how much of an impact they made on me in only four days.
      • I created strong bonds with three intelligent second grade girls in Belize, who I will never forget. Joine, Thelma, and Hilda will always be my life long “Belize Girls.”

Building on a base of knowledge gained from the Fulbright work, our vision for this service initiated by partnering with a Belizean educator and service provider, who facilitated SL projects and was associated with universities and schools.  She set the stage for our journey of partnerships, as she introduced us to school principals and schools.  As a Belizean, she had solid knowledge of educational challenges, as well as strong connections with school leaders.

Continuous Commitment

An on-going component which plays a very high value to meaningful and sustainable service is: the depth of relationships/partnerships built and maintained, before/during/after service.  The service should never “end” after a service trip.

After each of our service trips, we continually ask the teachers and principals, with whom we work, to provide feedback for ways to improve the service, so as to be as beneficial as possible, to teachers and students alike.  Taking the time to seek their input is key to facilitating joint-ownership of the partnership and service project, as well as adjusting service, accordingly, to ‘felt’ and expressed needs. The importance of taking time for listening to feedback, in the spirit of solidarity, cannot be underestimated. How often do “we” (those who serve) go and “do service” without taking the post-service time to reflect with those whom we intend to serve, in determination of our real value with them. The importance of this continual, on-going dialogue is essential to achieve an authentic balance of learning and service. (Fry, S. W., Griffin, S., & Kirshner, J. (2012).

Testimonies from our Belizean partners provide affirmation of the value of our partnerships and the balance of service and learning (Uribe, M., Mejia-Nathenson, S. 2008). One of our lead Belizean literacy teachers speaks to the depth of our partnership, the reciprocity of the experience, and the mutuality of learning.  For example, she emphatically stated:

 The partnership has been unique and one of a kind, unlike so many partnerships that have been forged between Belize and other countries.  This program, working with children on-on-one, having literacy as the focal point, and making learning fun, will be the change that will transform the education system.

 The difference in this program is that children are actively involved in vocabulary building and self-expression. Additionally, the production of a book is one of the most rewarding experiences for me, watching them do that “hands on” …putting the content of the book together, assembling…the book becomes relevant to them. They don’t’ see books on shelves; they connect to it as they see how books are produced and think, “I can make a book or I can be in a book”.  In most cases in Belize we don’t like to read a lot.  The more you bring a book closer to them and help them see that ordinary people write books, they can see and be a part of it and be inspired to read and write more.

 For me the service work (and its sustainability) is, first and foremost, having Belizean ideas and Belizeans working along with the project for the sustainability of the project. Many projects have come to Belize and after all the work their project falls to the ground. What is special about our program is that there will be a resource center where we can continue the program; then when the volunteers are not in Belize, the program continues working; its being sustained. That’s what I like about this program and how it can have lasting effects, long after the volunteers leave.

The sustainability is the collaboration and the production of the book– that the children are a part of the whole process, where you take them from pre-writing to drafting; and then, at the end, they own the book; so books are not foreign to them; they are able to see that anyone can learn how to start to write a book and they see anyone can write their own history and be able to write and interact with books much more, based on the experience that they had.  They have a sense of writing their own book, which is a fabulous idea. Additionally, the books are being used and copied for activities; circulated throughout the school and modeled for other teachers. Additionally, the DVDs make the books interactive and develop their vocabulary skills, building their fluency and spelling, so they can read from their book as they watch the DVD.

 This outcome, in and of itself, should be the ultimate aspiration in all service trips.

Education should serve a deep, humanitarian purpose and service should be undertaken with a mindset of solidarity and sustainability. When we achieve these goals, the impact on students and service partners, is inevitably long-term and self-sustaining.

 Mutual Exchange and Learning

Over a year ago, in a post-reflection meeting, Belizean teachers shared a reflection of a desire to: “Empower the teachers on an exchange program for the teachers to visit schools in the US that they work with here in Belize”.

The recognition and ability to actualize this genuine reflection has taken our existing partnerships to an even deeper level as we were able to bring a close partner and Belizean literacy teacher to Boise, Idaho. Her engagement in our schools infused our program with a whole new level of partnerships, as she experienced our commitment to her and the broader global educational challenges.  Students and teachers alike in Idaho gained entirely new perspectives of the value of international service projects. This picture provides a motivating and compelling reminder of the importance of serving in solidarity with our international service partners, such that we take action together (Fry, S. W., Griffin, S., & Kirshner, J., 2012).

Documenting this ripple effects of “Bridging Boise to Belize” has given depth of meaning to the ways we can collaborate to be mutually beneficial, gaining the ultimate balance of learning and service with and to one another.

In one of our Belizean partner-teacher’s words,

I’d like to say that my experience here in Idaho has been one of a kind; interacting with the students, the fabulous teachers that I have met…it has really moved and changed my perspective of life. I really appreciate what the collaboration and the ripple effect has done for me. Hopefully, more of this will continue happening to foster our relationship with Global Service Partnerships.  We can learn from each other; that’s the kind of ripple relationship that we’re developing…one that is never-ending.

 Our ongoing commitment to develop global citizens, while deepening all of our understanding of what it means to do so in socially responsible and sustainable ways, shape the on-going partnerships we develop in Belize.  (Wilhelm, J.D., & Novak, B. , 2011).  Our goal is to continue building the ripple and its positive impacts, for an ultimate balance of mutually beneficial learning and service.  Additionally we aim to share our insights, locally and globally, as we continually educate ourselves about the true meaning and value of global service learning.


Fry, S. W. (2012). From charity to solidarity. Kappan, 93(8), 76-77.

Fry, S. W., Griffin, S., & Kirshner, J. (2012). Global citizenship: Teachers   and students in Belize and the U.S. take action together. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 25(2), 23-27.

Wilhelm, J., Douglas, W., & Fry, S. (in press). The activ(ist) learner: Inquiry, literacy, and service to make learning matter. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wilhelm, J.D., & Novak, B. (2011). Teaching literacy for love and wisdom: Being the BOOK and being the CHANGE. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Uribe, M., Mejia-Nathenson, S. 2008. Literacy Essentials for English Language Learners.  Teachers College Press. NY, New York.


With a Fulbright Specialist Scholarship in Belize, Dr. Aileen Hale worked closely with the Dean and faculty of Education at the University of Belize. She trained education faculty with methods of teaching English as a Second Language. This experience provided in-depth knowledge of linguistically-based educational needs in the country. As Aileen co-founded Global Service Partnerships with Kelli Soll, they designed a sustainable service project to address educational challenges of English language learners in Belize. Her Doctorate in International Education and Service-Learning from the University of San Francisco (CA) and years of experience teaching at Boise State University as a faculty member in the Department of Bilingual Education and in the International Education Program gave her the background knowledge and experience for her current work with Global Service Partnerships. Dr. Hale has has prepared students and faculty with methods of teaching language and service-learning (SL) at universities in Central and South America, Europe, and Indonesia. She lives her passion for making a difference in the world through empowering others; learning languages and cultures; and enabling others to become global citizens.

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