International student projects need to add real value to local communities

Institutions should use the pause enforced by the pandemic to rethink their priorities in sending students abroad, says Caroline L. Payne

April 3, 2021
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Western students need to avoid a ‘white saviour’ complex when undertaking service projects in countries very unlike their own

International service learning often puts too much emphasis on student outcomes.

While colleges and universities scramble to keep up with the ever-changing challenges of the pandemic, global education offices have effectively been shut and left to wonder when study abroad will be possible again. Yet, rather than fixating on how to re-establish the programmes they had before, institutions should treat this as an opportunity to make necessary changes, particularly in the area of international service learning – where international community partners’ post-Covid needs will be even greater.

We must ask not only whether these programmes have accomplished our institutional goals but whether those goals were the right ones. As educators, our first priority is our students. However, as facilitators of international service learning, we also have a responsibility to our community partners. Such learning is supposed to enhance students’ knowledge and skills through engaging with real-world problems and helping generate the solutions needed by communities around the world. Prioritising student outcomes over community needs can harm both groups. How? Let’s consider some typical examples of international service learning work.

In small building projects, students construct houses, libraries or clinics. These projects can usually be completed in a short period of time and allow students to leave behind physical evidence of their work. The experience tells them they have identified an important problem and provided a solution by delivering resources the community lacked.

Unfortunately, a number of difficulties often arise. Communities may be offered just a single option: for students to come and tackle a specific project that the group is willing and able to complete. Students are rarely qualified to take on these building projects, so they may leave behind structures that cannot withstand the test of time, much less natural disasters. Meanwhile, local qualified builders remain un- or underemployed. And what happens to the libraries and clinics? Without librarians and books or doctors and medicines, they often remain empty or underused.

There are also giveaway projects in which student groups provide free goods such as water filters or used clothing. But not all communities have contaminated water – and giving away clothes means local vendors have fewer customers. Although building and giveaway projects can fail to address the most pressing problems, community leaders would rather have something than nothing – and there is always the hope that groups might come back with things that are needed. The host community lacks agency in this whole process and is simply the passive recipient of the group’s time and money.

These are just a few examples of international service learning projects that prioritise student over community outcomes and fail to respect partners in doing so. They are hardly a total indictment of this type of work; sometimes water filters are needed, and some buildings are constructed well and put to good use. However, we must be willing to critically examine our past projects and plan our future ones in ways that always balance the needs of our students and community partners if we are to fully leverage the power of international service learning.

Such learning should allow students to hone their problem-solving skills and become the citizens of the world we need them to be. But by allowing the abilities of the group and youthful enthusiasm for physical labour to drive our project decisions, we are neither engaging with the complexity of communities where needs are great and varied nor necessarily solving real problems. Students need to understand the full range of challenges communities face and that they may not regard as a problem something which volunteers have identified as such. This can only be accomplished by throwing out preconceived notions that all communities are the same, asking our partners to identify and prioritise their wants and needs, and listening to them.

In practical terms, this approach poses challenges. Communities must be willing to speak honestly, which requires long-term relationships where all stakeholders are empowered as equals. Because student groups will not always possess the knowledge and skills required for community-identified projects, we have to be honest about our limitations and be willing to say no to a project we are not suited for or, when possible, call on more qualified actors at our institutions to join the team.

Finally, the community itself has to be actively involved in the work. All too often volunteers assume locals lack the know-how, rather than simply the resources and power, needed for change. Leveraging community knowledge and skills makes up for the deficiencies of volunteers and balances out the power dynamics of service learning by positioning community members as equals.

This community-centred, needs-driven approach allows students to see that the world is a messy, complex place where a problem is in the eye of the beholder and solutions do not simply come from a plucky can-do attitude and the desire to do good in a community that is not your own. Partnering with communities combats the neo-colonial, white-saviour narrative, and rejects economic and social hierarchy, as service learning should.

We can and must do better. This unexpected and rare pause in global education affords us the opportunity to do just that.

Caroline L. Payne is an associate professor and chair of the political science department at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, where she directs the Interdisciplinary Dominican Republic Program and the Warrior Coffee Project.

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