Add local community service to study abroad programs
Study abroad experiences can shape one’s academic and personal life, and some schools are beginning to add value to that time by creating opportunities to serve in the local communities where students study. Learn more about how to bring this kind of program to your college or university.
Central College was one of the first colleges to create a study abroad program. So long ago, in fact, that the first group of students traveled by steamship to Paris! The college's longstanding commitment to education abroad and to broadening their students’ horizons moved them to add a new component—service learning during a student’s time abroad—further expanding the impact of the experience.
How you can do it
Colleges and universities looking to institute a similar plan can take advice from Cheri Doane, director of community-based Learning, and Jessica Klyn de Novelo, associate director of Study Abroad.
Setting up your program. You need to have representatives from the academic side, as well as the study abroad and service learning departments. Cheri also says that having their resident directors at their sites abroad weigh in when they were getting started was very useful, too, to share more about what’s going on locally.
Getting buy-in. Getting the president and academic dean at Central to sign off on the program was “not a difficult sell,” because of their existing commitment to service learning on campus, but Cheri says what might help at other schools is summarizing the powerful research on service learning, which shows how it takes strictly academic learning and gives it further context.
Preparing staff. Having staff who understand what you’re trying to accomplish is key. Central provided their staff abroad with lots of professional development to get up to speed on service learning, and continue to provide professional development opportunities to their resident directors when they gather in Iowa once a year.
Finding local partners. Locating service opportunities for students happens best on the local level, because staff from that area can best navigate the needs in the community. The resident directors at Central make it a priority to network with and listen to organizations, while also taking advantage of their strong ties to local universities and their partnerships with organizations in the community. Providing service opportunities for students is beneficial for the college, of course, as experiential learning opportunities, but an organization should also benefit significantly from the extra—and free—support.
Decide how service will be structured. Take into account what kinds opportunities students can get involved in, how they’ll apply, how they’ll be placed, and whether participation is required. Jessica says the only real requirement for Central is that the opportunities meet identified needs in the community. Each site operates independently, too, and that’s something else to take into consideration—the autonomy of different locations and their specific needs. For example, Central’s site in Paris requires service from all participants.
Promote the program. Peers are often the best way to promote anything on campus. At Central, study abroad alumni go into first-year classes and talk about their time abroad, inevitably talking about service and how it helped enhance their experiences. The study abroad staff at Central also promotes service learning during any academic conversations with students. Jessica says that she’ll talk with students about the number of credits they can take, specific courses, and remind them that service learning is another opportunity.
Prepare students. Generally, there’s a lot to discuss before a student studies abroad — history, current events—but prior to service, it’s important to prepare students about social issues as well. Cheri shared an example: At their London site, students often work with refugees from other countries. Not only do students need to understand UK policies about refugee populations, but also the countries where these people are coming from and what conditions are like there. This “homework” expands a student’s understanding even further and is well worth the effort.
Measure success. While there are quantitative markers, much of the success of this kind of initiative comes from what students are learning, and reflecting on how their experiences abroad have changed the way they think about their majors and what they’d like to do professionally. Other connections that Central students make when they get back home—like recognizing that what they learned in an Iowa classroom gave them context for what they experienced abroad—tells more of the success story of service learning.
Most students participate in service learning while abroad and really see it as a way to get even more out of their experience.
Jessica says: When you’re planning, make sure there’s an academic voice in the room. It’s also important to engage in community listening when thinking about service projects abroad—to truly serve and not impose your own cultural expectations on others.