Service Abroad


By Lauren Nelson

Service learning is becoming an increasingly popular aspect of the study abroad experience.  It is a “new and growing trend” which “definitely hasn’t always been there,” says Elizabeth Brewer, director of international education.

Nearly half of Beloit College students will study abroad before they graduate, according to an annual report from the Office of International Education. However, this was not always the case.  When Beloit College began its study abroad program in 1960 only twelve students, nicknamed the “Brussels Sprouts,” traveled overseas to Brussels, Belgium, explains a post on the Beloit College Magazine website.

In the past, “destinations tended to be more in European countries rather than Asia and Africa,” says Natalie Gummer, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies. Over half of students studying abroad traveled outside of Europe during the 2006/2007 school year according to the Office of International Education’s annual report.

Just how many students are doing service work abroad?  It is difficult to quantify something like service work because the content of programs varies so greatly explains Ray Campos, Office of International Education intern. Some volunteer a few hours after class and then go back to student housing. Others are more fully immersed in impoverished conditions.

Traveling in third world country raises several ethical dilemmas.  “You’re viscerally feeling your privilege that is just there in your skin,” says Professor Gummer of her experience taking students to Kaifung, China,  “You feel like a walking dollar sign.  You’re there in their country, and they could never come to yours.”

This privileged status is further broadcast by the traveler’s race. According to the annual report, 82% of Beloit College students studying abroad identified themselves as “white.”  This status can create barriers between locals and travelers who may unwittingly behave with condescension.  In Abroad View magazine, Beloit College alum, Chris Ruder ’09, writes about the painful barrier of privilege that he experienced while living in an intentional community in Tamil Nadu, India.  The experience proved to be a far cry from the community’s Utopian ideals of “peace and progressive harmony.”

“I could find no way of bridging what I perceived as an inherited and irreconcilable divide,” he adds, “The last picture I wanted to bring home was the classic crowd of nameless, exotic and impoverished children pressing in towards the photographer.”

The service component can complicate matters.  “I tend to be a bit cautious with students who want to study in a developing country because there can be misguided intentions to ‘help out the local population’ or to ‘learn about issues regarding poverty,’” says Jennifer Esperanza, assistant professor of anthropology.

Brewer discusses her personal experience in the Peace Corps.  She says of her fellow workers, “They were taking two years of their life to be in another place and they wanted to make sure that they actually accomplished something… but that’s not necessarily what’s useful to the community.  You have to ask, are you going to be useful?”

“Who’s being served?” is another question Brewer asks.  Do students serve out of a desire to help others, or themselves?

Service work benefits the student in many ways.  It may, for example, give students a stronger footing in the job market.  “Employers want to see that when you come to the table, you bring a breath of experience,” says Lisa Anderson-Levy, professor of anthropology.

The challenges of service learning can lead to personal growth.  Anderson-Levy says, “Some of that discomfort is good.  It allows students to recognize their own privilege… I believe that some of the best learning happens when you are uncomfortable because you’re paying attention.”

Can students serve and do so ethically?  Kritika Seth ’11, a student from Mumbai, India thinks so. She says, “I am really glad to know that people go and visit India and also know the condition that people are living in… I have personally met people from the United States who have settled in India and are working with villages and refugees helping them to uplift their life.”

John Feine ‘11 feels that the motive for service is irrelevant. “We don’t have to be cynical about wanting to help,” he says.

Often, the benefits of personal growth radiate beyond the individual. Professor Gummer says that the study abroad experience can make students more aware of injustices happening in their own country. The experience may also be a catalyst for productive service later on in life. “Some students who participate in these programs will go on to do important work in these countries, and others will only grow up to be more compassionate individuals,” says Marion Fass, professor of biology.

How does one remain sensitive to the needs of locals while serving abroad? Anderson-Levy says that students “need to do their research,” because, “all NGO’s are not created equal.”  Some factors to consider include how long the organization has existed and how they collaborate with locals.  She says, “Often we people in western countries go to various places and bring them what we think they need instead of asking them what it is they need… a bottom up approach is what I’d look for.” Esperanza stresses that it is imperative that locals be able to voice their needs and be given the “resources, knowledge and motivation to keep things up.”

Ultimately, service must be carried out with humility.  Elizabeth Brewer, director of international education, says, “What’s useful to the community is that you’re there in the present and begin to understand what they need and if you can help them that’s great.  The most useful kind of work students are doing is when they come in knowing some of the context and are able to take on the role of the volunteer the outsider.”



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