Worlding Topics: International Education and Service Learning

Tomorrow’s Leaders Today: Engaging the World through Service Learning

By: Richard F. Johnson, Ph.D.Director, Office of International Education

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In higher education, it has almost become a cliché to say that we need to educate our students for a global future. In fact, it was nearly ten years ago that the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) identified global competencies and intercultural skills as essential components of a 21st century college education. And yet the nation’s nearly 1200 community colleges have lagged behind 4-year institutions in acknowledging the vital importance of global education in their mission statements, curricula, faculty development agendas, declared learning outcomes, and global education programs including education abroad.  As community colleges are charged with graduating students able to participate effectively in a global workforce, they will need to prepare them to function in an interdependent, highly diverse, and fast-changing world, one that is increasingly marked by volatile differences. As an educator, I can think of no more effective way to prepare a young person for these global realities than by having them engage in an impactful service-learning opportunity.

In the spring of 2015, the Office of International Education at Harper College and Unearth the World entered a partnership that offers Harper students the opportunity to participate in service projects in both Latin America and Africa. The goal of this initiative is to incorporate service-learning curricula in Harper College classrooms and provide international service-learning projects to all students interested in studying abroad. In August 2015, I travelled to three of Unearth the World’s Latin American partner organizations where I participated in service learning projects and documented the process.

I began my travels at Light and Leadership Initiative’s supplemental education program that works with women, children and teens in the Huaycán community on the outskirts of Lima to offer free afterschool and weekend education programs. Service learners work with children and teens through workshops and classes teaching English, Math, Science, and Art. I then travelled to Nicaragua where I first visited Project Bona Fide, an educational organic farm, which uses permaculture design and agroforestry to support the rural economy and environment on the Isle of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. Typically, students work in the gardens or tree nursery; they might plant trees, harvest fruit and vegetables, or even take on larger building projects, such as constructing a biodegradable outhouse out of local natural resources.  I ended my trip at La Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-hotel in San Juan de la Concepción, Nicaragua. While there I witnessed visiting students and families learning Spanish from local professional teachers and engaging in service projects overseen by La Mariposa, including working at a local organic farm, with special needs children in afterschool programs, and at a women’s cooperative bakery.

At each location, I was struck by how intentional and grounded in the local communities their missions are. Each partner project strives to respond to the needs of their community, whether it’s assisting women and children through educational workshops and programs, promoting food security and production through sustainable agriculture, or bringing responsible tourism, jobs, and sustained income into the local community. Immersing students in service projects with this level of intentional design is what service-learning should be about. All too often, programs promoted as “service” are in fact little more than “feel-good” volunteer opportunities. And while there’s nothing wrong with volunteering, its long-term impact on the participant is far less significant than true service-learning, which entails not only action in and among a community based on its needs, but also involves structured learning outcomes and critical reflection. Intentional service-learning programs are a dynamic way to engage our students in meaningful learning and growth in an international setting. They afford students the opportunity to serve another person, another community. Through this service, students acquire linguistic and intercultural skills highly prized in the global workforce. But perhaps most importantly, global service-learning fosters compassion, empathy, and cultural-sensitivity.  In the present climate of global violence and political unrest, the world could use a whole lot more of all of these qualities. We owe it to our students, our families, our countries, and the world to instill the next generation of leaders with life-affirming values that embrace differences.

For more information about global education at Harper College, visit our website.

Originally published on Unearth the World’s blog.




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