Transformation Experience: Service-Learning Student to Scholar

“While my peers were touring historical cities and partying until dawn, I was  supervising children who were routinely beaten, sexually assaulted, or forced to work the streets all night long.”

By Julia Lang

The day that I left my service-learning semester in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the street children with whom I had worked volunteering at a foundation every day for the past five months would not even look at me, let alone say goodbye. As I engaged with my host family, my emotions would soar and plummet as I was treated as a daughter one moment, then asked for special presents the next, told I was a wealthy American where money could not possibly be an issue. While I had close male friends in the US, I became withdrawn and refused to even look at men in Ecuador, uncomfortable and scared by the constant catcalls and aggressive behavior.

When I arrived back to my family in upstate New York, my dumbfounded parents watched helplessly as I refused to enter an overcrowded grocery store, nauseated by the rows of shiny, boxed, endless options and spoiled, cantankerous children who screamed and begged for yet another treat.

I would lie awake at night, eyes wide open staring at the glowing plastic stars on my ceiling, tucked under plush, pink, warm covers, my room lined with stuffed animals and storybooks, as I pictured the 6-year old children that had called me “mama” wandering the streets under a brutally less forgiving sky until dawn. I felt like I had been yanked out of my universe, experienced another world, and then plopped right back where I had left off and nobody else had missed a beat. I looked the same, everyone expected me to be the same, and nobody else seemed to have changed, but I couldn’t even remember who I was before, and suddenly, the people with whom I had felt closest seemed unrecognizable and out of reach.

As an undergraduate student, I participated in an experiential study abroad program in Guayaquil, where I worked nearly full time in a foundation for street children and lived with a local host family. In this program, I met with other Americans studying abroad only twice a week for Spanish language class. We discussed idioms and grammar, but never touched on the philosophical abstract components of studying abroad, never were encouraged to reflect as a group or individually about our service-learning experiences, the power dynamics in our host family and in the community at large, nor provided any re-immersion opportunities, all critical components of successful service-learning study abroad programs (Hartman, 2008; Kiely, 2005; Lutterman-Aguilar & Gingerich, 2002; Peterson, 2002).

Largely due to this and other experiences in service-learning programs, I am now a Master’s student researching global citizenship for my thesis. Many researchers call on specific program elements that are crucial in developing global citizens, such as service (and especially critical service) (Chesler, 1995; Chesler & Vasques Scalera, 2000; Groski, 2006; Mitchell, 2008; Pompa, 2002; Robinson, 2002), reflection (Lutterman-Aguliar & Gingerich, 2002; Peterson, 2002), analysis of power and privilege in a service setting (Kahn, 2011; Kendall, 2006; Madsen-Camacho, 2004; McKeown, 2009; Tatum, 1992), and reciprocal and meaningful service activities (Bringle & Hatcher, 2011). (Editor’s note: Links to most of the resources cited here can be found in this website’s wiki by using the search box in the top right of the page). 

Research on Global Citizenship is rooted in the need for reflection, power and privilege analysis, and reciprocal and meaningful service activities that address real community needs and challenge students to engage in change vs. charity-based work. Yet, my personal experience demonstrates that programs fall short of the charming brochure description, which promises “cultural immersion” and “reflective seminars,” where students will learn to become “civically engaged, interculturally literate, internationally aware, and responsive to the needs of others.”

My experience was nothing short of “service tourism,” where the local community benefited from tourist dollars, but I was not challenged to address my values and worldview (Susnowitz, 2006). I certainly gained practical skills by living in another country, improving my Spanish and learning how to live and travel independently, but like many other study abroad programs, there was no talk of social justice and I was not empowered to learn about, address, or achieve any real social change (Hartman, 2008). In order to develop global citizenship, international educational experiences must foster real engagement where students think beyond their personal needs and develop an ethos of care for their global community; this includes a real internal examination of one’s own inclusions, exclusions, and impact on a host community. This was not my experience.

It took years of processing those few months in Ecuador to come to grips with the fact that to the children in my foundation, many of whom had been physically and sexually abused and neglected, I was yet another over-privileged foreigner who came in, earned their trust and by my own accord (which was in the plan all along), disappeared, leaving them alone once again. My host family was told to treat me like a daughter, but was practically supporting themselves on the money they were paid to feed and care for me. I was entering a culture whose gender norms were radically different from the dynamics I was accustomed to at home. Service-learning experiences often involve a group of privileged students – be it privilege based on race, class, age, ability, sex, educational level, or even time – working with members of a marginalized community (Mitchell. 2008). I am privileged in most of these categories and not one of these concepts was discussed in any seminar or orientation.

Was this experience truly teaching me how to be responsive to the needs of others, or was I actually responding only to my own need as a privileged middle-class white woman to gain awareness of the outside world? Was my experience reciprocal; was it meaningful? I am still trying to answer that question today and after studying global citizenship now as a Master’s student, I am dumbfounded that nobody ever asked me these questions or raised these ideas before, during, or after my service-learning experience (which was one of two programs in the country at the time in 2007 that focused specifically on service-learning).

My jarring and isolating return to the US was in large part due to the little opportunity I had to reflect on my international experience while abroad, right before, or upon returning home. I was the only one of my American friends who participated in a service-learning study abroad experience. While my peers were touring historical cities and partying until dawn, I was living in one of the dirtiest city slums of Ecuador and supervising children who were routinely beaten, sexually assaulted, or forced to work the streets all night long. My friends returned with a taste for Spanish wine, while I returned frustrated, confused about social injustices, and 15 pounds thinner after giving my dinner to street children all semester.

In hindsight, I now see that I clearly suffered from a “chameleon complex” (Kiely, 2005), which purports that students undergo a radical transformative process while participating in international service-learning experiences. As a result, upon returning home, I might have looked the same to my friends and family, but internally, I felt profoundly changed from who I was before. Kiely (2005) explains how the foundational shift in identity that others cannot see leads to isolation and confusion as returnees are challenged to negotiate the struggle of belonging back at home while internally struggling to process their transformative experiences.

My sense of extreme isolation – from even my closest friends and family members – upon returning home   was exacerbated by the fact that I had no opportunity to process my experiences while I was abroad, embedded in my new environment, or at home, as nobody in my personal community had ever traveled to Ecuador, let alone lived in a slum or worked with poor and exploited street children.

As an emerging researcher on global citizenship, I am certainly biased toward experiential study abroad experiences, as mine was hands down the most powerful experience of my undergraduate career.  I am also biased toward programs that include reflection and re-immersion components, as I know I would have greatly benefited from these services. That said, my experiences in Ecuador dramatically altered the course of my professional and personal life and certainly positively affected my levels of global citizenship.

While my experiences abroad and transition home were often isolating and confusing, it was this detachment and disenchantment with the world I knew and emerging awareness of the world’s inequities and hardships that became the catalyst for my activism, continual curiosity about the world, and decision to pursue a career in service and international education in student affairs.

Since returning from Ecuador, I have traveled to Costa Rica to lead students on service-learning programs, spent this past summer in Sri Lanka as an intern learning how to lead international service trips, and am currently the Graduate Assistant in the Center for Civic Engagement at Oregon State University, where I create and lead service trips, and develop programming and educational opportunities to foster active citizenship and positive change via service, philanthropy, and activism-based work. But I cannot help but speculate how incredibly helpful it would have been to reflect on my experiences abroad and receive re-immersion support.

From this vantage point, my research is rooted in the following questions:

  • How can universities cultivate global citizenship in students?
  • What needs to be done to provide students with the tools, resources, and support they need to develop a sense of global citizenship?
  • Is studying abroad enough, or are further cultural and community engagement experiences necessary to create transformative learning experiences that significantly challenge and expand students’ worldviews and aid in the development of global citizenship?
  • Specifically, do international service-learning experiences significantly impact students’ levels of global citizenship?
  • If so, which components of an international service-learning experience significantly impact one’s levels of global citizenship?

My personal experience as a student in service-learning programs shaped the trajectory of my life, where I now find myself as a researcher studying the impact of service-learning experiences on students. In this way, my participation in the conversation has come full circle, from a participant, to a leader, facilitator, and finally to a researcher who hopes to contribute to the conversation on global citizenship and service-learning.


Julia Lang completed her B.S. at Cornell University, where she spent a service-learning semester in New York City studying Multiculturalism, a semester in Guayaquil, Ecuador working at a foundation for street children, and led service trips throughout Nicaragua over winter breaks. Upon graduation, Julia led high school students on community service trips throughout Costa Rica, worked as a study abroad adviser for AFS, and spent the summer of 2012 in Sri Lanka learning how to lead international service trips. Julia is currently a Master’s Candidate in the College Student Services Administration program at Oregon State University and works at the Center for Civic Engagement.



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