Kerry Stamp, Susan Appe, and Nadia Rubaii, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY
This post is a reflection upon our experiences- one administrator and two faculty members- in implementing a summer Global Service Learning (GSL) program in Cusco, Peru in 2013 and 2014 through Binghamton University. For this program, the concept of solidarity is central to the academic coursework component; and achieving solidarity with our partners is an aim of the program. Therefore, we have been reflecting upon the question: How can we best advance solidarity between stakeholders in our program?
Our reflections are informed by data from a multi-stakeholder evaluation process conducted after the conclusion of each program cycle. Data are available from student course evaluations and reflective essays that each student wrote within one week of returning from Peru. Additional data were gathered from surveys sent to student participants, program faculty, program administrators, and our Peruvian partners. Our observations here are also informed by interviews and discussions that took place on site during the program implementation.
Values of Solidarity
Reference to solidarity is becoming more popular in writings about GSL and International Service Learning (ISL), but what exactly is it referring to? Solidarity encompasses the values of a movement away from the charity-orientation of service and instead towards that of social justice. Baker-Boosamra et al. (2006) identify three core concepts of service-learning that are necessary to accomplish this transition. Reciprocity is the notion that the university and host community are equal partners and both gain benefits from the service. Mutuality relies on balancing the interests of stakeholders and facilitates the creation of a unified vision among these partners. The final concept, which Baker-Boosamra et al. (2006) label as power, acknowledges existing differentials of power and privilege and asserts that community members need to be validated as collaborators—driving the objectives of the service—not merely helped by the experience. When solidarity is applied to GSL, the key is on students doing with rather than doing for the community (Tapia, 2010). While the requirements needed to successfully carry out this vision of solidarity in the context of service-learning are many, here we focus on two of the aspects that have demonstrated to be critical to advancing solidarity in the Peru Program: 360˚ program assessment and ongoing, meaningful communication with partners.
Relationships are the foundation of any partnership. In GSL we know well that there is a high risk in—even unintentionally—forming a relationship of dependency and difference that is unethical or harmful for the hosting partner and/or community (Baker-Boosamra et al., 2006; Ethics of International Engagement and Service-Learning Project, 2011; Grusky, 2000; Schroeder, Wood, Galiardi, & Koehn, 2009). If not designed and implemented properly, GSL has the potential to reinforce stereotypes, power differentials, and uninformed views of “the other”. The difficulties of developing partnerships and truly including the participation of all stakeholders in GSL program design are repeatedly observed (Crabtree, 2008; Littlepage, Gazley, & Bennet, 2012; Moore, McBride, Brav, Menon, & Sherraden, 2006; Wodicka, Swartz, & Peaslee, 2012).
Partnerships of course begin in various ways; for the Peru program, it was a connection made with a Binghamton University alumna who had established a non-governmental organization (NGO) in the greater region of Cusco that provides a myriad of educational services to youth. Conversations with the alumna led to the identification of three additional partners to collaborate with in the same region—an additional NGO which also focuses on youth services, the municipality of Cusco, and a language school. An initial visit made by representatives of the Binghamton University Center for Civic Engagement led to the creation of the study abroad program in conjunction with faculty from the Master of Public Administration department and staff in the Office of International Programs.
We observed that implementation of this program as a model based on solidarity was challenging in many ways that related back to communication with partners. Specific challenges we observed that demand enhanced communication and continuous assessment involving partners include: (1) lack of sufficient time for joint goal-setting resulting in inconsistent objectives and expectations across stakeholders, (2) the perception that students benefitted more than service partners and (3) the need to establish long-term, meaningful partnerships that show year-round commitment to collaboration.
Consistent objectives and expectations?
We quickly realized that determining all details of the service-learning projects was not going to happen far in advance, or in advance at all in some cases. We have found that true collaboration with partners, which in many cases due to logistical or other challenges can only be achieved face to face- is of course key in advancing solidarity. However, it is also challenging to develop cohesive program goals together on site. Inconsistent interpretation of program goals led to varying experiences across sites.
Editor’s Note: These insights parallel the community wisdom and research that led to the development of Fair Trade Learning, along with a Fair Trade Learning rubric designed to engage these challenging, important conversations in community-campus partnerships. View the rubric and more here.
For example, the feeling at one was more of a “meet and greet” whereas, at other sites, major projects were immediately undertaken. This was observed by students who expressed conflicted feelings about varying levels of work accomplished at the service sites. A service partner from one of the sites noticed the variation and encouraged the Program to better prepare students for the projects. She explains: “I think it would be good to implement an orientation (1-2 hours) before starting future projects so that students will be familiar with the organization, know exactly what we hope to accomplish, and have the basic language and child management skills necessary to do it!” Other information, collected through an interview with the Director of one of the NGOs, revealed a profound misunderstanding regarding a plan for the delivery of supplies to their organization.
According to the Municipality in Cusco, the communities served at their two service sites benefited from the collaboration, but the municipality expresses a desire to achieve more outcomes in the future through better coordination and more thorough identification of the needs of the community. In addition, it welcomes an extension of the visit and wants to build on more resources to fully complete the projects. A program administrator noted after both program cycles that the students likely gained more benefit, as the partnership had not become developed enough to truly couple student learning objectives and community partner objectives. Additionally, a student expressed hesitation regarding the benefits gained by partners, noting in a survey that “As a student it was easier to see and understand the impact that our service projects had on us individually. It is harder for me to know what the impact was on the [service] site.”
Meaningful, sustainable partnerships?
Data demonstrated the need to enhance long term relationship building to advance solidarity and offered suggestions for accomplishing this. These included a recommendation from a faculty member for a mid-year visit while planning the next on-site portion of the program and an administrator’s call for more on-going communication with service partners; she included students in this as well and notes that two students joined the board of one of the NGOs after returning from Peru, an example of a positive step toward sustainable student-service partner engagement.
Not only did these observations collectively demonstrate that constantly nurturing and developing communication with partners is key, but it proved that multiple forms of assessment that involved partner organizations was crucial for proper program evaluation and bringing barriers to advancing solidarity to the forefront. The observations discussed above would not have been identified had we limited our assessment to the traditional focus on student experiences and perceptions. Overall, we observed that in order to achieve the Program’s goal to have all stakeholders, with a shared vision, to benefit equally, relationship building of many forms needed to persist on an ongoing basis. It is obvious that if a true mutual benefit is going to be realized, there must be a high level of effective communication between the program faculty/administrators and the host partners. It is equally essential that the partners are included in the program evaluation process. In order to understand if a true collaboration leading to reciprocity, mutual benefit, and validation of the host community is achieved, of course it is critical to involve the host partners in the evaluation process.
Kiely (2005), a service-learning champion, has written about student learning objectives and the transformative quality of service-learning. However, he and a growing number of other scholars are concerned about ISL stakeholders beyond students, particularly the service partners and communities where students are engaging in ISL activities. It is clear that no matter how many other efforts are made to foster ethical partner relationships, those efforts are futile without the critical aspect of considering partners in the program assessment stage. By including all stakeholders in our evaluation process, we collected invaluable information that will direct changes in the program necessary to advance solidarity.
Many scholars have noted the slippery slope towards unethical and even harmful structures of well intentioned global service learning programs (Baker-Boosamra et al., 2006; Ethics of International Engagement and Service-Learning Project, 2011; Grusky, 2000; Schroeder, Wood, Galiardi, & Koehn, 2009), and time constraints, communication challenges, and lack of sufficient resources may lead partnerships down this path and away from solidarity. Our research demonstrates that two critical elements to achieving ethical, mutually beneficial partnerships are ongoing communication and 360 evaluation processes that actively involve the service partners. Through the experience of the Peru Program, data from various stakeholders has revealed that frequent communication, joint goal setting, and evaluation is a continuous circular process necessary for advancing towards solidarity.
Kerry Stamp is the Assistant Director for Study Abroad at Binghamton University. Susan Appe is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Binghamton University. Nadia Rubaii is Associate Professor of Public Administration at Binghamton University.
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