Entering our fourth and final week of this university study abroad in New Zealand program, “Empowering Healthy Communities,” I continue to reflect on how to incorporate service-learning in an international setting, and how to incorporate it in an ethical and meaningful manner. By service-learning with a community health focus I use Serena Seifer’s definition:
“Service-learning is a structured learning experience that combines community service with preparation and reflection. Students engaged in service-learning provide community service in response to community-identified concerns and learn about the context in which service is provided, the connection between their service and their academic coursework, and their roles as citizens.”(Seifer SD. 1998. Service-learning: Community-campus partnerships for health professions education. Academic Medicine, 73(3):273-277.)
Within a community health and health professions context, service-learning focuses on student engagement in non-clinically focused service work. Thus, our typical community health nursing clinical rotations are not technically considered service-learning, although the lines can get blurred at times.
In a health systems course I teach for senior nursing students, I have included a service-learning option. Students in my course have concurrently volunteered as emergency youth shelter overnight workers, assisted in food banks, and served as buddies for hospice patients. Through this work they can step out of their ‘learning technical skills’ nursing student roles and begin to make systems-level connections and practice critical thinking skills. It has worked well because I’ve partnered with our wonderful University of Washington Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center. They do all the legwork in establishing and nurturing community partnerships, defining student service-learning placements, and monitoring student progress.
Including service-learning in study abroad university-level programs can make for high impact educational experiences. Studies indicate that inclusion of service-learning in study abroad programs significantly increases students’ sense of connectedness with a wider world community. It also helps students confront their own biases and prejudices, and increases their comfort in working within diverse communities. But those benefits come from well-designed study abroad programs that include pre-departure workshops/readings, embedded critical reflective writing by students with faculty feedback, and debriefing sessions after service-learning activities.
Done poorly, international service-learning can be exploitative and can deepen cultural arrogance and economic disparities. As Sara Grusky points out in her article “International Service-Learning: A Critical Guide from an Impassioned advocate,” most international service-learning study abroad programs from the U.S. are done in poor countries, and can become nothing more than ‘poverty tourism.’ (From the American Behavioral Scientist. 2000. 43: 858-867.)
New Zealand is not a poor country and it continues to rank much higher than the U.S. on many health and wellbeing scales. Yet it suffers from rising socio-economic and health inequities. During our study abroad program we have visited a variety of communities–some have been in higher socio-economic brackets, but most have been within impoverished, multi-ethnic and Maori communities. Before doing any community-based service-learning projects, we’ve first learned about the local and national context, including cultural, political, and socio-economic factors impacting the community. Students learn this through carefully chosen readings, and from talks by community leaders.
My co-leader for this program, Jim Diers, is a social worker and an international consultant on community-led, asset-based development. He has a decade or so experience working with various communities throughout New Zealand. So between his contacts and those of the New Zealand based community-development group, Inspiring Communities, we developed this study abroad program. Jim believes in more upstream thinking, policy-changing work versus direct service. It’s an important point, but I think there is room for both in life and in educating university students for their role as civically-engaged change agents. Students have stated that they are now more interested in knowing about and getting involved with their own ‘home’ communities, and of doing service-learning in the Seattle area.
Here are photographs and brief descriptions of various service-learning activities the students have been involved with during the program. Some of the activities were planned ahead of time and others ‘just happened’ spontaneously. All of them were driven by the community members. They have expanded my notion of what ‘counts’ as international service-learning.