Remembering the "Why"

In a reflective guest post, Northeastern University’s Lori Gardinier (PhD, MSW) challenges us to clarify WHY we engage in global service-learning. She couples clear-eyed realism, “some student projects have measurable impact and others are dead on arrival,” with idealistic hope regarding the opportunity to “take people out of their comfort zones and provide a space to assess and refine their passions” in nonprofit practice and social change. We hope her reflections drive you to more clearly address your “why” and we wonder whether the Fair Trade Learning Standards might serve as a policy-response to this very important question.

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By Lori Gardinier

I recently had lunch with a former student, a Communications Director in a nonprofit.  She talked about the tendency of nonprofit organizations and their staff to highlight the “what” of their work, such as “we serve X number of clients in Y ways”.  She underscored the importance of nonprofits and their staff to highlight the “why”, meaning statements akin to, “I am doing this work because I believe that everyone has the right to… (Insert: quality education, housing, or safe and affordable food)”. As faculty members developing global service-learning experiences, we must ask ourselves, Why do people engage in social change efforts? Why are we inspired to engage in global service-learning?

Over the last ten years, I have led global service-learning programs in several locations including India, Mexico, Costa Rica and Benin. This past summer, I led my first program to Zambia. The basic structure of these global service-learning programs has been similar regardless of location, incorporating a blend of direct practice within nonprofits, project based service-learning, lectures and sometimes language instruction.  The program structure is purposely intense, consisting of long days filled with service-learning, demanding assignments, and the disorienting reality of working in a foreign setting.

At the beginning of the program I bullet through big questions such as, “Is selfish volunteerism okay,” and “Does altruism exist,” but I have historically focused on skills and content development, limiting the structured program time dedicated to the “bigger philosophical questions.”  In part, I suppose, because I’m unintentionally attempting to deemphasize the idealism that can surround global community engagement while concurrently encouraging realistic expectations about the experience and program outcomes.   In glossing over some of these themes, I’ve missed the opportunity to ground reflections and experiences back to the “why,” including, “What beliefs inspired you to sign up for this program?”

It’s typical for these programs to have high and low days, with students navigating a new culture, jet lag, group dynamics, organizational challenges and the frequent reminder that social and economic problems and their solutions are complex and multifaceted. Not long into this program in Zambia it became clear that several students were struggling with the intensity of the issues being addressed by our partner organizations including HIV, homeless and addicted youth, and sexual assault. The placements were very emotionally-intense, providing services for people living with complex trauma compounded by very challenging life circumstances.  Emotional reactions by students in these programs were not uncommon and they lend themselves to education around topics like self-care, compassion fatigue, and in some cases vicarious trauma, content I tend to engage students in informally.

The “expert blind spot” is something that educators often experience in the classroom.  After years of research and teaching in your area, you can move through the content and make connections within the material with remarkably less effort than your students. I realized that this is also true when leading experiential programs, particularly when working with individuals who have experienced trauma. I had developed my own expert blind spot from years of working in the area of intimate partner violence and through past experiences leading these programs.  I was unable to fully relate to the newness of student’s experiences working in this area and it compelled me to revisit my approach by envisioning a beginner’s mind.

In Zambia, I made a choice to step back from my typical project-based approach and use the bigger question “why” as a framing principle.  I was amazed at how easy it was for students to answer this, and how comfortable many of them seemed while sharing their ideas.  Call it age or call it values, my students had clear ideas of their “why’s.” Keeping your core beliefs or your “why” at the forefront is a critical strategy for longevity in the social sector and can serve as an anthem during periods of frustration.

Leading global service-learning programs provides an opportunity for students to unpack American individualism, including the Western notion that social change is the product of groups of individuals. It is important that we see ourselves as parts of larger movements while we concurrently identify as individuals committing a lifetime to social justice. Thinking synergistically, emphasizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, is critical to working in this field.  Students are often conflicted about what impact they can make in such a short period of time or in this field generally.  Although sustainability and impact are important goals for programing and policy, some student projects have measurable impact and others are dead on arrival. However, it is important to emphasize that this is true in the field and throughout professional life as well.  Some initiatives and programs ‘take’ and others don’t and often the success or failure of your efforts lie outside of your control. Even those that don’t “succeed” or have impact have the potential for positive parallel results such as bilateral learning through collaboration with local leaders and community members.

Societal challenges everywhere are more intractable than we would like, and can be overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing.  My role as a facilitator/instructor/mentor is to support students as they develop strategies to sustain themselves in social change professions, to let the challenging nature of the work serve as a motivating rather than a demoralizing force.  There are so many “whys” and “this I believes” that motivate and inspire me to lead global service-learning programs.  My contribution is the ability to structure experiences that take people out of their comfort zones and provide a space to assess and refine their passions and how they might best contribute to this field whether that is at home, abroad or both. These programs serve as a reminder that awareness of inequality alone is insufficient and that there are opportunities for everyone in the constellation of social change efforts for you to actualize your “why”.


Lori Gardinier, MSW, PhD, is a member of the Northeastern University faculty where she is the Director of the Human Services Program.  In her role at Northeastern she is a leader in experiential education, developing partnerships with many of Boston’s nonprofit organizations through her own practice and her continued implementation of service-learning.  Dr. Gardinier has also established project-based service-learning capacity building programs with nonprofits in Zambia, Benin, Costa Rica, India and Mexico.  In this role she and her students collaborate with local leaders to identify creative solutions to organizational challenges.