Guidelines for Community Engagement, Service-Learning, and Volunteer Experiences Abroad

Community engagement, service-learning, and volunteer experiences abroad offer students unique opportunities to learn through interaction and collaboration with communities, working alongside community members who approach challenges with a lens framed by their culture. The most effective community engagement, service-learning, and volunteer experiences abroad offer reciprocal benefits to communities and students.

Whether a stand-alone program or one component of a course or program, community engagement experiences abroad present a unique set of benefits and challenges for students and institutions/organizations. It is essential to ensure that the project(s) undertaken by visiting students are community-identified and driven. Community engagement, service-learning, or volunteer experiences can help address needs or challenges present in and innovations desired by the host community. Program developers and leaders bear an ethical responsibility to thoroughly research and investigate the service opportunity, organization, and/or issue to understand the implication of their activity.

It is critical that institutions and organizations developing community engagement opportunities empower the diverse voices and perspectives in a community, rely on local expertise, and involve community members from a range of perspectives continuously, from project idea through completion. Throughout the process of working with communities to build community engagement experiences, institutions and organizations should prioritize the value of listening, learning, and working together with the host community, and avoid a results-oriented approach focused solely on specific timelines or deliverables.

Community engagement programs present another challenge to students, faculty and staff: even those with previous travel and/or education abroad experiences can find it difficult to make sense of cultural, resource, and economic disparities in the on-site context. Community engagement experiences generally take place in areas that have fewer material resources than traditionally popular destinations for education abroad. Intentionally structured community engagement experiences abroad can moderate preconceived notions and stereotypes about a country and community, and guide students to develop their listening and observational skills, along with a capacity for cultural humility.

These Guidelines focus on community engagement, service-learning, and volunteer experiences abroad, but may be broadly applicable to other types of education abroad programming for considerations relating to host community perspectives and concerns. The Standards of Good Practice for Education Abroad apply to all education abroad opportunities. Use them together to develop and assess community engagement experiences abroad. For service or volunteer programs with a health care connection, it is important to consult the Guidelines for Undergraduate Health-Related Experiences Abroad as well.


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