Ways we serve and learn abroad

ISL opportunities develop distinctly in the context of each country and program goals, ranging from course-related ABSL, ethnographic study, or a career-related practicum. Students serve, study, and conduct research at a variety of community placements, such as NGOs, schools, health clinics, or churches. ISL enhances teaching effectiveness, immerses students in the host culture and cultivates reciprocal relationships with community members.

Six principles to guild international service-learning

Recent collaborative work led by Dr. Richard Slimbach produced eight essential principles of international service-learning (ISL). The document has yet to be published, but was used as a template to craft a similar statement to guide ISL programs implementation at Calvin University. This statement outlines six principles to be used as a set of goals to work towards and strive for as ISL in included in various off-campus programs.

  • Purpose

    Clearly defined purpose

    There is no universal model to incorporate an international service-learning (ISL) component to an off-campus semester or interim. While we believe that the benefits from ISL are many, it should not be included for all study abroad programs. Before including service activities in an off-campus curriculum or itinerary, the purpose of such service must be clearly identified and known by all stakeholders in the program: directors, professors, students, and community partners. To avoid the dangers of short-term service projects, both students and community partners must be aware of (and possibly included in identifying) program goals regarding service and learning outcomes. Service goals will be community-centered, identifying standards of community development, various community actors and short and long-term outcomes of service. Learning goals will generally be student-centered, identifying outcomes regarding academic objectives, worldview development and personal growth.

  • Communication

    Transparent communication

    An essential element of an emerging or already well-established ISL program is communication. Communication refers to the exchanges of information between program directors, professors, students, and community partners. Each party must be aware of the program goals, expectations and requirements. An international setting may present technological, cultural or linguistic hurdles to effective communication. Program directors will need to intentionally identify various means of communication and appropriate times for communication. In a service setting, it is imperative that communication be transparent due to inherent power and information asymmetries.

  • Preparation

    Intentional preparation

    The potential benefits of ISL are directly related to the quantity and quality of programmatic preparation. Apart from the time it will take to design an ISL curriculum or course and establish connections with community partners, students will need to intentionally prepare for their ISL placement through pre-departure, classroom and community partner orientations. Such orientations should introduce students to program guidelines, cultural differences, academic learning goals and service expectations.

  • Reflection

    Opportune reflection

    Deliberate student reflection will turn ordinary service experiences into transformative learning opportunities. Program directors or ISL professors should consider opportunities for both formal and informal student reflection. Formal reflection should be a course requirement and may take the form of journals, papers, projects or presentations. Informal reflection should also be encouraged before and after service activities, while traveling to the placement site, between peers and between the faculty member and student. Effective and sustainable ISL programs will also incorporate formal and informal mechanisms for faculty reflection.

    One example of deliberate reflection is a website called Now Trending: Quality/Quantity created by a few of the students from the Honduras Justice Studies Semester from the Fall of 2016. It serves as a guide to many companies and it explores the ethics of their production as goods on the international market, and it seeks to inform readers about ways in which they can use their purchasing power in order to perpetuate just practices

  • Evaluation


    The combination of opportune reflection and supportive evaluation will result in positive program development. The purpose of evaluation is to identify programmatic strengths and weaknesses from the various perspectives of faculty, students and community partners. While methods of evaluation vary, an online or printed survey offers program directors or professors a formal means of collecting data. Adaptable evaluation surveys for students and community partners are provided below. ISL program evaluation may also occur informally through one-on-one meetings, round table discussions or email communication.

  • Relationships

    Reciprocal relationships

    Reciprocal relationships between the educational institution and community partners act as the foundation for sustainable ISL programs. Two key elements of reciprocity involve authentic celebration and mutual support. Community Partners (CPs) offer an invaluable educational opportunity for students, how can program directors adequately compensate CPs for their efforts? While issues of compensation are subject to the local context and programmatic means, program directors should think of appropriate ways to “say thank you” to CPs. How can the work of both students and CPs be celebrated? Yet, reciprocity must move beyond mere celebration and gratitude, but lend itself to the genuine support of CPs or surrounding community.

In Their Own Words