International Service Learning Study Abroad Handbook/Introduction

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Building Relationships Abroad


Friendship 2


Dakar 2006 african women


“I sit on a man’s back; choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.” (Tolstoy)


"Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected."


It is clear that your interest in travel is sparked part by your curiosity and desire to experience people and places that are different. Take a minute to think about what kind of relationships you as a student might want to build with partners abroad. How can you make an impact on the places you are going and what is considered actually making an impact? How do you see yourself greeting people you have never met, who may speak a different language and may have completely different customs then you? How do you serve ethically, and build strong relationships? Think about the impact you leave when traveling to another place.


Within the last couple years, I have gone through two volunteer programs and traveled to many foreign countries on my own. I have seen many tourists repeat many mistakes, and realize I have made many of those mistakes myself. It is easy to go in with a mindset that you will make a positive impact, but sometimes it ends up being a waste of time for the community you are visiting, or can cause more damage then good. For example, a friend of mine traveled to India through a volunteer program she new little about. Not only did she lack knowledge in the program she was going through, she new very little about India as a whole. She came back with little to no knowledge about developing India, and built very few relationships with the local people. She had gone to see things, to be a tourist, and attempt to “give.” She tried to build relationships even though she did not know the best ways to go about it. After returning I asked her what she learned. Her response being, “I saw a lot of things that impacted me, but I did not really learn much.” How could she have made more of an impact, build relationships with those abroad, and serve ethically?


What comes into your mind when you think about serving ethically? Do you see a difference between serving, helping, or fixing a community, and which would you prefer doing? These are all different ways of looking at life. According to Rachel Naomi Remen, Author of Helping, Serving or Fixing? (See article attached), “When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.” She continues her article by emphasizing that service lays on the foundation that life is sacred and has an unidentified purpose. Now think again about what comes into your mind when you think about serving, helping, or fixing. If you have re-defined your meaning of each based on Remen’s definitions, then you will agree that when you serve, you know that you belong to a life and to the purpose of that life. We are all connected. As Remen put it, “All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.”


Instead of going through a travel abroad program with the mindset of building a community or building a house, re-evaluate your intentions and focus your energy into building relationships. Do not see others as weaker, needier, or less equal then you. Realize that you could potentially damage there confidence, self esteem, sense of worth, and take away more than you can give. Let the relationships you build with those abroad strengthen you. Open your arms to others and let your service teach and strengthen you as well as those around you and those you are visiting. Feel renewed by your service because, “In serving, we find a sense of gratitude” (Remen).


Objectives of Building Relationships Abroad:
To enhance the educational experience of student
To strengthen the networking between students and Universities
Broaden personal and educational perspectives
Explore, appreciate and understand different cultures
To enhance the ability of the student in second language learning
To eliminate fear and prejudice among nations
Enable student to experience international education
To immerse a student into a culture


Sometimes it can be difficult to view the world outside of your own perceptions and realize that not everything may be as you assume. Before traveling anywhere it is imperative that you open your mind to different ideas, different ways of life, and be willing to view other people’s lives as normal. That does not mean that you have to accept other cultures ways of life as normal for you, but learning to appreciate the differences that other people encompass will be a step towards understanding global citizenship.


With an open mind you may find it easier to become an ethical global citizen. The compilation of terms, ethical global citizen may seem overwhelming or possibly self-explanatory. The true definition may be a good discussion, but a broad, basic definition may be: demanding basic principles to be a starting point for accepting universal values and maintaining personal responsibility for all global citizens whether they are humans, plants, animals, etc.


Participating in service learning can be a positive way to establish your own views on becoming an ethical global citizen. Service learning programs aim to promote participation in organized, experimental, hands-on learning allowing education to occur through experience.


It feels unnatural to liberate ourselves from our biases and preconceived notions. Before traveling, an individual should be aware of their own customs, and acknowledge that they are representative of their program, school, organization, and country. It can seem subjective and overwhelming to consider the broader implications that a single trip can have, but some ideas can be illustrated through the following stories. I would urge those preparing to travel to hold onto these stories, and other experiences they have had abroad, to challenge oneself to consider all aspects of ethical global citizenship.


Giving: Though innocently well-intentioned, the concept of “giving” entails dynamics that must be considered thoroughly, and which depend on context. There are elements of favoritism and disparity that can arise when meaning to be philanthropic. Daniela Papi, in her “voluntourism” article, describes a sort of “feed the communities” option for visiting tourists. She describes the $45 “giving” excursion as more of a “feed the animals at the zoo” rather than a worthwhile service modality. She also explains that these volunteers often make a hundred times a typical local salary, and take unskilled labor positions from the population.


Hard Work: For Westerners, it is common to want to go into a service project with a fixed agenda. A story from a service learning student described a house-building project that took place in Guatemala. The student described passing up the opportunity to sit and drink coffee with the locals, while being busy with a rigid house-building schedule. Only later did he come to realize that the by being so project-oriented, he overlooked what the locals really valued; the gesture of sitting down and appreciating their work.


Assumptions: Some stories demonstrate the assumptions that foreigners have about us. The first comes from a friend’s trip to Ghana. After learning that my friend was from Seattle, a local asked, “can you get me a job with Bill Gates?” Caught off-guard, my friend at first took the comment as a joke. The local assumed that if this traveler was wealthy enough to travel to Africa, and from Seattle, he surely must know Bill Gates. A similar story from another friend was in her trip to India. Traveling alone as a white American girl, she endured comments and unnecessary attention from men who are accustomed to more conservative dress. They assumed that because she wore jeans and a T-shirt instead of a burqa, that she must be inviting attention.


Privilege: As travelers, we must recognize our own privilege, and handle with care the relationships we develop, as to dismantle any disparity. We must be mindful not to make iPods and cars the main topic of conversation, so that we do not come off as flaunting our wealth. Even a camera, in its one-directional nature, can display a sort of disparity, as the photographer has the privilege to point one-way. Respect can be built by asking permission when taking pictures, being in the picture with the person, or having the local take their own pictures.


Most importantly, a single trip has repercussions far beyond that trip. Traveling should be about building long-term, sustainable partnerships. Alanna Shaikh, of Blood and Milk, and Global Health websites, recommends spending at least two months learning about the country, and the systems in place, before attempting to run a project. Mark Overmann, in “Dispelling the Rosy View,” describes a long learning curve before getting a sense of a foreign country, and explains that short term volunteers do not play a significant role in a long-term partnerships.


Additional Resources:

Voluntourism: What could go wrong when trying to do right?

Helping, Fixing, or Serving?

2008 VolunTourism Survey Report Intro and Executive Summary

"Volunteering" or "Voluntourism"- who cares! It's how to design it!

International Development Volunteering: Dispelling the Rosy View