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Study Abroad: A 21st Century Perspective - Volume 1

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Breaking new ground: The impact of international service-learning programs on the study abroad field by Howard A. Berry President, The International Partnership for Service-Learning

Harold Taylor, an astute observer of international education, wrote a book with the quotable title, "The World as Teacher."1 In it he suggested that the world was changing, and that international education needed new pedagogies and ways of experiencing other cultures if students were to understand it. That was in 1969.

Now, as the new century/millennium begins, international education is faced with some profound conceptual and programmatic challenges. For many years study abroad has prospered and grown.

This very success, however, has fostered a tendency to continue doing many of the same things in the same ways. We send students to take classes at universities in other countries, still largely in Western Europe, and we count our successes each year in the published quantitative statistics of the numbers who have gone abroad. But the coming global world that Taylor spoke about is already here, and "programs as usual" may no longer suffice. Qualitative changes are called for.

As Walter Gr├╝nzweig and Nana Rinehart have pointed out in their article in the International Educator, much of what we do is functional and technical.2 They assert that comparatively little examination, critique and discussion has been held about the fundamental issues of education, learning, international/intercultural experiences, and what the implications of the already vastly changed - and changing - world are for these issues, for our field, and for our students.

These changes are often summed up in the term "globalization." People, goods, money and information flow virtually freely across borders. But this globalization also has complexities to it, not all of which may be adequately addressed by traditional study abroad.

Global wealth grows, but the gap between "haves" and "have nots" widens. People and populations mingle, but cultural in-turning and nationalism are on the rise. The world wide web and e-mail increase global dissemination of information, but lessen the need to go to another country to sit in a classroom to hear information delivered by lecture.

These developments have profound implications - both for education itself and for the programming and design of international/intercultural experiences. Both of these call for re-thinking the theory and practice of what we do, as educators and as internationalists.

Educators worldwide are seeking ways to reform their goals and mission. They are looking for new ways to engage their students and prepare them for the changed realities of the global world. Equally, internationalists are searching for alternative models that will allow students deeper and more meaningful intercultural experiences.

One response that addresses both of these concerns is service-learning. Service-learning - the union of formal and/or structured study and learning with substantive community service - has demonstrated the powerful effect it can have on teaching and learning, on the educational process itself. It puts teacher, student, community and academic subject matter into new and dynamic relationships with each other. It creates what might be called an ecology of active learning.

An additional dimension of this ecology is what might be termed "value added." In addition to the enhanced academic learning, service-learning encourages personal development, habits of civic concern, and the values inherent in allowing students to challenge and test themselves in accomplishing tasks for the common good. It permits students, in the words of Lee Kneffelkamp, "to be present at their own education."3

Over the past decade service-learning has moved well beyond being an abstract theory or another idealistic vision. In the US, through the work of Campus Compact and other organizations, thousands of students at hundreds of colleges and universities are engaging in service-learning in their local communities.4

Worldwide, a recent survey conducted for the Ford Foundation identified some 100 institutions in 32 countries which have inaugurated service-learning as a means to revitalize education, develop civic values and concern, and reshape their institutional mission to strengthen connections to their communities and societies.5

The values inherent in service-learning are particularly enhanced when it is conducted in international/intercultural settings. It allows students to experience and encounter levels of the other culture not usually possible with more traditional programs. It makes the issues and concerns of the other society immediate and real. The theories and concepts studied in class are given life and reality.

Instead of the cultural experience being secondary to the study abroad experience it becomes central and co-equal. There is strong evidence that cultural and language learning particularly are strengthened and accelerated through the service-learning experience.

The idea of service/volunteerism as a means of giving to and learning from the world is, of course, not new either in education or in international experiences. For many years individuals and groups have gone to other countries - as well as to areas within the US - to help and give and learn. Lisle Inc. (formerly the Lisle Fellowship) since the 1930s has fostered service and learning experiences in virtually all areas of the world.

In the 1950s Alec Dickson initiated Britain's Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) as a means of allowing young people to engage the world by providing needed health services in developing countries. The US Peace Corps, inspired by Dickson's VSO, has opened similar opportunities to thousands of younger and older Americans since the 1960s.

More recently a number of individual colleges and universities, private and public, have seen the importance of community service linked to intentional learning as deepening and making more meaningful the international/intercultural experiences of their students.

On a consortial scale, since 1982 The International Partnership for Service-Learning has provided international service-learning opportunities for some 4,000 students from more than 400 US, Canadian and other universities, thus allowing multinational student involvement. In recent years the IPS-L has inaugurated an M.A. Degree program in International Service, designed to prepare students to enter the growing field of international non-profit organizations as well as related careers in the wider international/intercultural arena.

The value of the experiential in education, including international education, is well known. It has been recognized for decades. Internships, practica, and co-op experiences all have a long and legitimate educational history.

While service-learning is based on similar principles, it has dimensions, levels and values that merit consideration of it as a separate and larger category relating not only to specific careers but to general education itself.

For one, any student can engage in service-learning, and learn from it. Although service-learning can certainly respond to the personal, career and professional interests of students, its potential is far broader. It spans the curriculum, and allows any student of any major to benefit from it.

For another, service-learning enlivens and energizes the disciplines. When integrated with the experiences and the issues encountered in community service agencies, history takes on new meaning, political science becomes real, the characters in literature come alive, language study takes on new dimensions. The same is true of other disciplines.

Intellectually, learning about the nuances and complexities of society and culture is intensified, critical thinking about the realities of international relations and global issues is sharpened. Students go beyond stereotypes to understand the realities and complexities of the interactions between culture, social institutions, and international relations.

Even further, service-learning develops what Robert Bellah termed the "habits of the heart." Through the service experience students are encouraged to continue their concern with the larger dimensions of society. They are introduced to the realities of what it means to be a citizen, of their nation and of the world, and to be a part of active civic involvement. There is growing evidence that the knowledge and leadership developed from a service-learning experience continues in later behavior.

On a personal level students are given an opportunity to do what much of our current educational practice does not encourage. Through the service experience, especially in another culture, they are allowed to challenge themselves, to find their strengths, weaknesses, and potential. Their knowledge about themselves, their abilities and limitations, is clarified.

Finally, as Humphrey Tonkin has summarized, "When all of this has gone on, there is something left behind, and that something is good...It is not exactly that it (service-learning) makes a world of difference...but that it turns of world of difference into a world of cooperation."6

Service-learning has many strengths and immense potential for the field of international/intercultural programming.

It is not a panacea, nor is it for all students at all times. So-called traditional study abroad programs most certainly have a role, and for some students may be the correct recommendation.

For others, however, service-learning can respond both to the changed conditions of the world and to the need for us as internationalists to take on our role as educators, to be active in creating intentional, imaginative and innovative international/intercultural experiences for our students. Experiences which challenge them, expand their horizons, and allow them to develop the skills of international and intercultural literacy and global citizenship.

Additionally, service-learning can help strengthen our own field and its position at our institutions. As mentioned above, thousands of students at hundreds of colleges and universities already are engaging in service-learning in their local communities. These students, energized by the experience, seek ways to continue and enlarge their involvement. But campus service-learning programs and study abroad offices seem largely unaware of each other and the rich potential in joining forces.

Also, let's not forget the international students on our own campuses. In many of the same ways mentioned above, service-learning can deepen and enrich the experience these students have of the US and its culture.

International service-learning can indeed "break new ground" for us. But only if we ourselves are willing to ponder seriously the realities of a changed world, only if we ourselves are willing to become involved with issues of values and social responsibility. In short, only if we ourselves are willing to take on our full role both as educators and internationalists.

Perhaps, 26 years later, we can open to our students the reality that Taylor suggested in 1969, and allow them to use "The World as Teacher."


1 Taylor, Harold. The World as Teacher. Doubleday, Garden City, NY. 1969. Still a fine and readable account of international matters and needed educational approaches to them.

2 Gr├╝nzweig, Walter, and Rinehart, Nina. "International Educator," NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Fall, 1998. pp. 41-48. A solid conceptual and philosophical analysis about the intellectual foundations called for in international education.

3 Kneffelkamp, Lee. Keynote Address, IPS-L Conference. March 1, 1991, St. Louis, MO, USA.

4 Sigmon, Robert L., and Colleagues. Journey to Service-Learning: Experiences from Independent Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities. 1996. Available through the Council of Independent Colleges. A description of service-learning as conducted by almost 200 US colleges and universities.

5 Berry, Howard A., and Chisholm, Linda A. Service-Learning in Higher Education Around the World: An Initial Look. 1999. Available through The International Partnership for Service-Learning. An international survey of service-learning's role in educational reform. Also contains a good summary of the rationale for service-learning and models of various ways of implementing it internationally.

6 Tonkin, Humphrey. "International Educator," NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Fall/Winter, 1999. pp.35-37. A short but literate and cogent. summary of the need for reform in higher education and the importance of international service-learning to achieving that reform.

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