Transformative International Service-Learning

By Kiely, Richard | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Transformative International Service-Learning


Kiely, Richard, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

This article discusses findings from a longitudinal case study that investigated how undergraduate students experience the long-term process of transformational learning as a result of their participation in an international service-learning program. This research led to the development of a transformational learning process model for international service-learning.

Introduction

This article describes the findings of a longitudinal case study that examined how a diverse group of undergraduate students experience the forms and processes of transformational learning as a result of their participation in a well-integrated international service learning program with an explicit social justice orientation (Author, 2002, 2003). The research addresses two fundamental problems in the field of service learning. First, educators tenuously cling to the assumption that participation in service-learning results in perspective transformation (Eyler and Giles, 1999, Kellogg, 1999; Rhoads, 1997). However, research suggests that while participation in well-integrated service-learning programs can lead students to experience profound changes in their world-view, their self-concept and their understanding of social problems, such transformational learning outcomes occur rarely in domestic programs (Eyler and Giles, 1999, Rhoads, 1997). The second problem addressed by this study is the lack of empirical data to support anecdotal claims that combining service-learning pedagogy with study abroad has tremendous transformative and empowering potential (Crabtree, 1998; Grusky, 2000; Hartman & Rola, 2000; Kadel, 2002; Kraft & Dwyer, 2000). As a result, transformational learning that stems from participation in domestic and international service-learning programs tends to be ambiguous and under-theorized (Author, 2004).

This study demonstrates that service-learning can be a transformative educational medium for developing students' critical consciousness, deeper structural analysis and engagement in social action. The following sections provide a review of the theoretical and empirical research that informs this study and highlights the six dimensions of the transformational service-learning process model that resulted from this research. In addition to providing empirical evidence that participation in international service learning results in perspective transformation, the identification of six transformational learning processes has significant theoretical and practical implications for service learning practitioners.

The International Service-Learning Program Setting

Since 1994, a college in upstate New York has offered undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in a three week service-learning program in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, a resource-poor community experiencing persistent poverty. Through service-learning work and other course-based activities (i.e., seminars on health, political economy, community development, Nicaraguan history, American foreign policy and Spanish language), US students come into direct contact with Nicaraguans who are experiencing significant poverty and who maintain diverse and competing ideologies, values, beliefs and traditions. Students' primary service-learning work involves organizing and implementing health clinics in collaboration with local community members. To gain a more thorough understanding of the community's health concerns, students also conduct participatory research with community members, participate in community dialogues, attend seminars given by health, government and neighborhood leaders, and volunteer at the local hospital. Students have conducted health assessments and distributed medicine that literally saved lives! Given the intense and profound nature of the interactions and outcomes that result from their service-learning work, U.S. students forge powerful relationships with Nicaraguans as they traverse the transformational learning journey. …

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