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Civic Engagement and International Service-Learning - Building a Successful International Service-Learning Program PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

After returning from our twelve-day international service-learning trip to Cuba, I had the opportunity to reflect on the fulfillment of the program’s objectives and learning outcomes. My principal objectives were to encourage critical thinking and civic engagement, inspired by the theoretical framework of Paulo Freire’s liberatory pedagogy of critical consciousness through dialogue with reality. As I reflected on the whole process of recruiting, orienting, and traveling with a group of students from rural North Carolina to Cuba, I first felt a feeling of accomplishment and then a feeling of exhaustion; I went home and slept for two days. It was not my first such international service trip by any means — one student had in fact been outside the United States on a trip with me to Nicaragua the year before — but each trip represents a significant personal investment.

When I reflect back on how little international travel experience these students typically have, I tend to think that I am crazy to assume such a huge responsibility — not to mention liability! So when we returned safely to the United States, I had a feeling of accomplishment, and even relief, because I was able to recruit and retain the students in the program against the inevitable concerns of parents for their children’s safety. Yet in retrospect, I also saw so much personal growth in the students. Wow! I felt this is the primary motivating factor that kept me going. I had seen these students grow from naïve eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds who didn’t know how to apply for a passport to world citizens writing to their senators and studying Spanish in order to e-mail their new friends in Cuba! I know they will never watch the news the same way, especially when they hear that we need a blockade against Cuba because it is a threat to our national security. At graduation the same year, I ran into a former student who had participated in a one-month service-learning program to Mexico a few years ago. When I asked her about her Spanish, she immediately switched over to Spanish and told me about her work as a bilingual school counselor. The transformation of such students into engaged citizens validates the course objectives of international service trips. 

Including this most recent program to Cuba, I have now led thirteen national and international service trips in seven years at my current institution. After each trip I say that I won’t do it again, yet here I am thinking about where to go next year. Before coming to Pfeiffer University, I worked for fifteen years in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico, so I guess you could say that I have it in my blood. 


Over the years I have learned three tips for those interested in leading an international service-learning program:

1. Cultivate support in your institution for your program. Find out who else is interested in what you are doing, who has done something similar, and create a support network. Then, if something goes wrong, you will have some supporters. Conversely, if you do something right, then you will have some cheerleaders and will create an institutional memory of successful programs.

2. Create incentives to recruit students. At Pfeiffer University, we have “cultural credits” that all students need to graduate. My international trips offer fifteen cultural credits, which students covet. In addition, for the last two trips I’ve led, I have recruited a student assistant. The students can use this as an internship for their major, and in the absence of other institutional support, can be a tremendous help in planning the trip. I’ve asked my assistant to handle airline and hotel reservations, to keep the books, and to send reminders for meetings to other students. They consider this a privilege that looks good on their resume. Also, remember that students are often the best recruiters of other students! So choose a popular, self-motivated student with whom you enjoy working.

3. Ask students to give presentations, to write to their senators, and/or to write letters to the editor when they return. You can make this a requirement in the syllabus to fulfill learning objectives directly related to civic engagement. Students who travel to “exotic” countries can be big news for many small-town newspapers. Even in larger cities, news outlets such as newspapers, radio, and television appreciate personal interest stories when a local resident participates in an international service trip. This assignment has the two-fold effect of breaking down stereotypes about the country visited, as well as being a healthy outlet for the student to overcome the effects of “reverse cultural shock,” which is the phenomenon of expecting that everything will be the same once one gets “home” from a service experience in another culture. Travelers often go through a mild depression upon returning because, while friends and family have basically remained the same, the traveler has been significantly affected by the experience. I encourage students to talk about their experiences through presentations in classes, clubs, and/or chapel. The increased visibility on campus multiplies the impact of the program and recruits students for the next year. Through such sharing, students will be creating greater international awareness, building institutional support for the program, and directly practicing civic engagement!


To learn more about Pfeiffer University's international service-learning programs, visit their website.


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