Clarifying the misconceptions surrounding Service Learning
It always happens when I am telling someone about my summer: they ask me about my trip to Belize. And I’m all too excited to tell them about it – it was the trip of a lifetime. Thanks to Immersion Service Learning here at StFX, I spent two weeks at a tropical zoo and in a local village. I got to hold a boa constrictor, climb a Mayan ruin, join teachers in the classrooms – I even ate fish (a thing that, if you know me, is almost unbelievable). When I tell people it was amazing, and that I wouldn’t trade those two weeks for the world, sometimes I’m met with a smile, or at least a “congratulations” in some form.
While other times, I’m accused of perpetuating stereotypes and having a “white saviour complex.”
Here’s the problem: there’s a negative connotation that people give humanitarian aid. To put it bluntly, it is assumed that when a group of white university students go to a foreign country, they go with the preconceived notion that they are going to “fix” that country. Humanitarian aid then tends to be treated like a new form of colonialism – especially in these instances, when its participants perpetuate a sort of supremacy over the culture they are visiting.
“It was a great experience culturally and education-wise, but it goes a lot deeper than that... It forced me to re-evaluate my privilege as a white, lower-middle-class female pursuing a degree... The Service Learning Program in and of itself is an act of privilege. There’s still a very noticeable white saviour complex present. In the end, the trip is for the benefit of the participant, not the communities they visit. No matter how it’s approached, the fact remains that ‘volun-tourism’ perpetuates dependency between host communities and Western societies rather than actually establishing the infrastructure needed for improvement,” says Ashley Duguay, a student who went to Grenada in 2011
Here’s the other problem: people attack and try to invalidate my trip by telling me that I oppressed a local village in Belize, just by being there. Immersion Service Learning and humanitarian aid are not the same thing. Service Learning is about reciprocity. It is a program dedicated to immersing students in a new culture to teach them about the world beyond what they are accustomed to.
The goal of Service Learning isn’t really the service at all. The Vision Statement for Service Learning explicitly states that the program is composed of “opportunities that combine direct experience in community settings with academic study.” In other words, the program’s use of “service” is meant to enable cross-cultural understanding and respect – it’s a learning opportunity.
I can personally vouch for this. I know that the tropical zoo didn’t need a group of white girls to gravel nature trails – they could have done that themselves. But they let us do it so we could experience something new. After all, we were working in the savanna. Between the heat, the humidity, the sights, and the actual guided hike we did after gravelling, the entire day was about the immersive learning experience.
The same can be said for our time in the classrooms. The teachers didn’t need us, but by letting us help out in classrooms and talk to the kids, we learned about some really interesting differences and similarities in our education systems. Again, the actual “service” component of the trip was just
another facet of the learning experience. Were we perpetuating stereotypes? Were we impeding or imposing? No, we were learning by doing. The people in Belize who kindly guided our trip knew that, and so did we.
Brittany Sampson, a student who traveled to Belize in 2016, says, “Service learning is a reciprocal process where both the student and the host organization or country benefit... It’s brings a new way of looking at both others and yourself. Thinking these trips are simply volunteering and the “do good, feel good” that goes with it is a lack of knowledge about what Service Learning really means... Service learning is the new form of pedagogy that they are trying to incorporate into higher education because of the benefits it provides and the kind of students it has the ability to create.”
In fact, during one of the first meetings with my Service Learning group and faculty leader, we were given stickers that read: “The world you were born in is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” We all put these stickers inside our travel journals, and the meaning of them was ingrained in us from the day we signed up. We were going on this trip to learn about the world, not because we were ignorant enough to think we should, or could change it.
Beyond the idea of service itself, a lot of people believe that humanitarian aid hinders the development of communities and promotes projects that aren’t sustainable. Again, I don’t think Service Learning and humanitarian aid are the same thing in this regard. Service Learning actually fosters positive and collaborative relationships with communities. In the case of my trip to Belize, I specifically remember being told that StFX’s education students could actually do their practicum in the very village where my group stayed, with the family who hosted us.
Plus, the projects completed by Service Learning participants are completed over time. My group painted the floor of a kitchen, which was actually built by the Immersion Service Learning group who were in Belize the summer before us. Sustainable projects, and a mutually beneficial relationship between the global community and StFX is not exactly the oppressive organization that people have tried to tell me it is.
“Service Learning does give everyone on campus a chance to explore other cultures and lifestyles. In Guatemala, we learned about the native Maya tradition and spent time with amazing individuals... But I really see the argument about how Westerners spend huge amounts of money to travel to these places only to take potential work from the local economy. On the other hand, the knowledge regarding permaculture and food security in Guatemala can have a greater effect on us, because we experienced it firsthand rather than with a text book. So becoming an active traveller and considering the impact of your actions would help to lessen the effects of modern colonialism,” according to Mark Danylchuk, who went on a Service Learning Trip to Gautemala in 2016.
All of this is to say that, as much as I understand the concern with treating other countries with respect and nurturing development, I think Service Learning is doing everything right. It offends me when people try to treat my experience in Belize like some corrupted or evil thing, when it actually opened my eyes more than any textbook ever could to social justice issues. Furthermore, until you experience it for yourself, you can’t honestly know exactly what it’s like – I’m sorry if that seems like cop-out answer, but it’s the honest truth. You cannot know the impact that an immersive trip has on your perspective of the world until you experience it for yourself. It is my genuine and unadulterated opinion that Immersion Service Learning is an amazing program, and it’s much more valuable to celebrate and improve it rather than attack it.