Service learning courses present unique challenges, including developing community partnerships, assessing and meeting community needs, and balancing academic learning requirements and personal growth experiences for students. These challenges become even more complicated when the course takes place in a foreign community. In the process of developing two new service learning study abroad courses, two Elon University faculty members set out together to determine the best, most effective method of accomplishing their course goals, while attending to the service needs of local communities.
Building on Institutional Strengths
For the past three years Elon University has ranked in the top twenty institutions for Service Learning according to US News and World Report. This process began in 1988 with the establishment of the Elon College Habitat for Humanity program. The Service Learning Community was formally established in 1995, and developed into the Kemodle Center for Service Learning in 1997. In 2002, the North Carolina Campus Compact was formed and housed at Elon. Service learning has become an essential component of the "Elon experience", a catch phrase that emphasizes the importance of experiential pedagogies.
Elon University has a winter term in January, and the Experiential Learning Requirement (ELR) is often met during this period through a "Call to Service" winter term program (established in 1996), or through numerous short-term study abroad courses, that can also be used to meet this graduation requirement. To build upon this existing institutional structure by combining the benefits of study abroad and service learning, the co-authors are developing service-based study abroad programs. We aim to prepare students for the complex challenges of the 21st Century and develop their awareness of global citizenship.
The need to develop partnerships with communities beyond national borders has been recognized in the literature, but remains a relatively unexplored territory. In Fall of 2000, the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning in cooperation with Campus Compact produced a special issue on "strategic directions for service learning research". In the introductory article, Howard, Gelmon and Giles (2000) discuss the need to further stimulate research in service learning. They assert, "Topics that merit future research attention include, amongst others, international education". However, before we can begin to investigate the impact of international service learning, we need to make every effort to develop programs that reflect the best practices of domestic research in service learning.
Building Collaborative Community Partnerships
A common goal for service learning projects is that they are collaborative in nature. Doing a project with a community rather than for a community tends to help foster local ownership of the project. Maurrasse (2003) emphasizes the need to build partnerships between the university and the community in which residents play an important role in project development. By working alongside local community members, students avoid feeling removed from the people impacted by their service. This also provides more opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and cross-cultural challenges, both of which are areas rich in potential for individual processing. In addition, the face-to-face contact with local families and individuals provides richer and more meaningful growth opportunities for students, a fundamental goal of exemplary service-learning practice.
On the other hand, considering the short period of time students have in the field, working collaboratively on a new service project might be a demanding request for the host community. The local community might not be able to sustain a project after the students leave, and the instructor might be limited in his or her ability to sustain a long-term commitment with an agency so far away. …