|COMM-ORG Papers 2005||
Should Service-Learning Sites be Selected on Need Alone?
Henry R. Cunningham, Ph. D. & Bernard J. Strenecky, Ed. D.
Service learning as a discipline had its beginnings in the college communities of the United States. The emergence of globalization resulted in service learning programs addressing not only local issues but those having an international scope. One of the purposes of service-learning is to address the needs of the community in which students live and learn and at the same time provide valuable learning experiences. (Hartman & Rola, 2000; Roberts, 2000; Vernon & Ward, 1999).
Initially the focus of service was within the community where a school or university is located. However, global issues resulted in the need to expand to the international community. For numerous social, political, and economic reasons, early service-learning programs focused their activities near the communities that hosted their programs. As the discipline of service-learning matured, the scope of the programs became more complex and the locations evolved into international settings. The internationalizing of service-learning was brought about by the geopolitical phenomena of globalization. Globalization enhances the development of the computer age and employed mass communication as a tool for connecting people and countries. This International human connectiveness resulted in that issues once considered parochial have now become international in scope.
With global integration and ever changing demographics, there is increased
diversity in world populations and problems are now spanning borders (Hartman &
Rola, 2000). Roberts, (2000) argued that world societies are becoming
increasingly integrated through travel, trade, and communication networks with
advanced technology. He claimed that the importance of citizens and leaders
understanding people, problems, and ways of life beyond the US's border is quite
The concept of the community now extends beyond state and national borders and thus resulted in the need for international collaboration in addressing transnational issues. To solve local problems, educators must deal with issues in other countries, for when the quality of life is improved in one country, other areas of the world benefit (Hartman & Rola, 2000).
Globalization has had a dramatic impact on college campuses. An increasing number of students are pursuing career paths that lead to employment abroad. There are increasing number of students who wish to pursue careers in such areas as international medicine, international law, international education, or international development. Others aim to serve in the foreign service. It is the responsibility of the university to provide such students with experiences that will prepare them for their careers. Practitioners involved in international service-learning programs argue that they afford students who serve abroad the opportunity to work with people in a culture different from their own. This experience enables them to have better cultural understanding (Hartman & Roberts, 2000; Roberts, Silcox & Leeks, 1997). Thus, international service-learning programs are important in fulfilling universities' missions to prepare students for careers in the international arena.
The belief that universities have a responsibility that extends beyond the United States borders led educational institutions to engage in international service-learning programs. These international programs attempt to address such issues as health, education, agriculture, and economics among others. Hartman and Roberts (2000) referred to a 1998 survey conducted by the International Partnership for Service-learning with support from the Ford Foundation, which indicated there were at least 97 institutions in 32 countries involved in such programs. Like local service-learning programs, international service-learning programs are carried out in countries and communities where there is a need for the services. These services are provided primarily to developing nations.
The selection of a service-learning site is the first and arguably the most important element of a program. Despite the importance that location plays in the success of a service-learning program, directors of such programs often pay little attention to site selection. The primary factors that often drive site selection are community needs and personal contacts. An individual or group of individuals articulate a given need, an institution responds resulting in the birth of a new service-learning program. The needs-driven model when employed at the local level is relatively easy and inexpensive for the university to change site. In international settings the change of site is complex, time-consuming, and often very expensive.
Despite the fact that many educational institutions are involved in some form of service-learning program there appears to be no systematic model for selecting communities for the implementation of such programs. An examination of the relevant literature provides no system for the selection of communities by educational institutions. It appears that service-learning programs are carried out in communities where there is a need that can be addressed by the institution (Glaser, M.; Holt, N.; Hall, K.; Mueller, B.; Norem, J.; Pickering, J.; Brown, K.; & Peters, K., 2003; Goodrow & Myers, 2000; Smith, 2000) or where a community or organization invites the institution.
Identifying the needs of the community may seem like an appropriate approach to use in locating communities and organizations for the implementation of service-learning programs. However, such a policy can lead to the identification of communities that are not receptive to such programs. They may lack confidence in the ability of the service provider to meet their needs or the community may lack the human capacity to partner with the university. If the current practice continues educational institutions run the risk of choosing communities that will not be receptive to service-learning programs. Consequently, choosing unreceptive communities will detract from successful implementation. Selecting the wrong community can have negative economic, educational, and social consequences for the institutions as well as the community.
The purpose of service-learning is two-fold. It allows students opportunities for public participation in community affairs which can lead to them becoming more socially responsive citizens. Through service-learning students are also engaged in learning experiences that enhance classroom teachings. One of the major vehicles utilized by universities to strengthen their connections with the community is the implementation of service-learning. Vernon and Ward (1999) referred to studies conducted by Lynton (1995), Bringle and Kremer (1993), Cohen and Kinsey (1994), Ehrlich (1995), Giles and Eyler (1994), Harkavy (1992) Hesser (1995), Kendrik (1996), and others as well as their own study on campus and community partnerships to claim that with service-learning there is a win-win-win relationship for faculty, students, and the community.
Some universities see a need to focus their service on the world community and globalize their curriculum, which led to their participation in international service-learning (Roberts, 2000). With global integration and changes in the world’s demographics, the realization is that the world is an interdependent system. Social and environmental problems span across borders and therefore there is the common belief that all citizens have a responsibility to address problems of the world (Friedman, 2000; Hartman & Rola, 2000). Myers-Lipton (1994) suggests that problems, such as deforestation, ozone depletion, Third World loan crisis, as well as the issue of threats of weapons of mass destruction, are all transnational issues. These issues cannot be solved by any one nation but rather by governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals from around the world working collaboratively. It is imperative that citizens of the world collaborate their efforts on problem solving. With globalization, there is also the realization that universities need to produce graduates who are aware of their ethnocentric biases and who display interest in world events. There is a need for students to possess a second language as well as cross-cultural communication skills. Students need to be culturally sensitive citizens of the world.
There are some students whose career paths will include international work either in the diplomatic corps or in some other area such as business, medicine, education, or law. These individuals may work locally in the international departments of their organization or they may be assigned overseas. Despite their location they will be required to interact with internationals whose culture and ways of conducting business may be different from their own. International service-learning programs aim to prepare students to work with their international counterparts and thus develop cultural understanding.
The experience of studying and serving abroad tends to develop students who are more culturally astute and capable of working more effectively with people having different cultures and beliefs. Young Americans who serve overseas act as goodwill ambassadors to offset the negative impressions left behind by less favorable tourists and business people (Chisholm, 2003).
The realization that there exist social, economic, and political issues around the world and their impact on the US, challenged many educators to look at service-learning with an international focus (Hartman & Rola, 2000). Advocates of service-learning believe that when practiced in an international setting, it serves to encourage students to have a greater appreciation of different cultures and make them more aware of problems facing the world (Myers-Lipton, 1996b).
There are several reasons for wanting to conduct service-learning projects in communities that exhibit high levels of receptivity. Service-learning programs require a reciprocal relationship. The community needs to ensure that the services offered will be of benefit to them, and faculty have a responsibility to provide a location or site for effective learning to take place and where students can have a successful and enriching learning experience. The services provided should meet the community’s needs and the community should reciprocate by providing a rich learning environment.
When employing the service-learning paradigm, faculty and students find themselves working and learning in an international site thus enhancing the probability of cultural conflicts. Such difference in culture can lead to misunderstanding and consequently conflicts (Storti, 2001). Having an understanding of the new culture in which you are working minimizes the need to be defensive and the chance of conflict. Cultural sensitivity is an essential skill for surviving and flourishing in a foreign country (Roberts, 2000, Storti; Strenecky & Cunningham, 2001). Community receptivity is an indicator that there exists an understanding of the local culture on the part of faculty and students. For faculty and students to be welcomed by the host community, there must be evidence that a certain level of understanding of the local culture exists. There must be acceptance of the values and cultural patterns of the host culture, despite the fact that it is often quite different from what was expected (Chisholm, 2003).
Another important reason for receptivity is that, when it is present, it provides credibility for students and faculty. When the community fails to perceive faculty and students as credible individuals, the likelihood of having receptivity for engaging in service-learning activities is diminished. Based on experience in service-learning, the researchers believe that community receptivity enhances the probability that both the community and the educational institution will reach their intended goals.
Community receptivity refers to the degree to which a community welcomes and embraces a program. When a high level of receptivity exists, support is high and considerable support is forthcoming. The researchers believe that a high level of receptivity is a critical element for a successful international service-learning program. This study investigates five indicators, which may suggest that a community possesses a high level of receptivity for hosting an international service-learning project. The five indicators of receptivity to the community are shared mission, community involvement, community attachment, community cohesion, and the existence of social capital. These five indicators were investigated with the intent of utilizing the results in creating a model for guiding decisions in the selection of successful service-learning sites.
Chisholm (2003, p. 272) referred to shared mission as "mutuality of benefit". Bringle and Hatcher (1996) referred to the work of others, which suggests that successful university-community partnerships are based on mutual benefits. In successful international service-learning programs faculty and students develop a thorough understanding of their needs as well as an understanding of the needs of the community in which they work. Having a shared mission creates a community-university partnership, which Gelmon, Holland, Seifer, Shinnamon, and Conners(1998) state allows the university to achieve its goals of “community-based teaching and learning” (p. 98) and enables the community to access resources and acquire expertise from the university. Leeds (1999) endorsed the idea that the university and community need to have compatible goals. Receptivity requires shared interests or experiences for the establishment of partnership between the university and community (Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue, 2003).
Community participation is evident in such variables as home ownership, length of residence and neighbor relations. Social organizations such as churches, sporting teams, and schools also play a role in community involvement (Bishop, Coakes, & D’Rozariioi, 2002). For example sports provide access to "formal community involvement" (Coakes & Bishop, 1998, p. 257) and churches also enhance the involvement of residents in the community. Irwin, Tolbert, and Lyson (1999) suggested that adherence to church embeds residents in the community and decreases migration.
Residents who are attached to their communities are more likely to support programs that will be beneficial to the community. Length of residence is believed to have tremendous impact on the attachment people have to their community (Goudy, 1990; Theodori & Luloff, 2000; Sampson, 1991). Residents who participate in community activities (Sampson) and have regular interactions with family and friends have a greater likelihood of feeling at home (Theodori & Luloff) and feeling attached to their communities (Theodori & Luloff; Tolbert, Irwin, Lyson, & Nucci, 2002; Sampson). The attachments residents have influence their contribution to the community due to linkages they have to it.
Lee (2000) defined community cohesiveness as residents of a community providing assistance to each other when needed. Smaller communities are more cohesive in nature as a result of more social interaction that occurs due to smaller geographical size as well as lower population density. Social cohesion is present in communities where people try to help each other (Sampson, 1991).
Social capital involves reciprocal relationships (Flora, 1998; Lylova, 2003; Meert, 2000; Svendsen & Svendsen, 2000), a high level of trust among individuals (Coleman, 1998; Falk & Kilpatrick, 2000; Flora, 1998; Perkins & Long, 2002; Putman, 1993), and norms and networks (Putman). When the trust level is broken, society is affected, however, successful collaboration builds trust (Putman) and "social cohesion" (Coleman, p. 175). Such expectation is built on norms shared by the community (Svedsen & Svendsen). According to Coleman, the high level of trust within the community is taken for granted and interactions occur smoothly. This high level of trust may be established in small close-knit communities where there are regular personal interactions (Svendsen & Svendsen).
In order to address the question of how to determine which communities have the greatest potential for hosting a successful service-learning program, the researchers conducted a study of a community in Belize, Central America that displayed the highest level of receptivity among the university’s network of service-learning sites.
At the implementation of the program in the first year, the university was given a warm welcome by village leaders and members of the community. Throughout the service period, members of the Village Council, the local governing body, were on hand to provide assistance to the university’s team. Villagers befriended members of the team and socialized with them. At the departure of the team, residents came out to express their gratitude and brought cards and gifts. The level of interaction on the part of the community is an indication of receptivity to the university and its International Service- learning Program. Addressing the needs of the community is important but receptivity is also necessary for proper implementation.
Five indicators of receptivity were studied to develop a model of community openness for service-learning programs. This model was developed from an international service-learning perspective and is based on six years of experience in conducting service-learning programs abroad. To carry out the study, interviews were held with leaders of the community on the five indicators. The findings from this study contribute to the body of knowledge on selecting communities for the implementation of service-learning programs.
This study is significant in that few, if any, studies on community-university programs have addressed the criteria for community selection. The most frequent criterion for selection was community need (Glaser et al., 2003; Goodrow & Myers, 2000; Smith, 2000). Although serving the needs of the community is important and will most certainly make an impact on the welcome received, it should not be the only criterion used in the selection process. This study investigated overall indicators of community receptivity. In assessing communities prior to the implementation of service-learning programs universities and organizations can use these indices as a tool in the development of their site selection model.
In the area of community selection, this study suggests a model that may be employed as an initial paradigm for developing and designing service-learning programs. Because there is limited research in the area, this study will build on and contribute to the body of research and may provide important insight in the selection of receptive communities. The study addresses five distinct criteria that relate to community receptivity. The following five areas were examined:
This study alleviates the misconception that addressing community needs is the only criterion used in selecting a community for the implementation of service-learning programs and is of particular relevance to educational institutions and organizations involved in community programs at the national and international levels.
Due to its exploratory nature, the study utilized qualitative methods. Sampling was driven by the need to identify leaders in the community who were in a position to share information pertinent to the research topic. Community leaders were selected using the snowballing method. Through the snowballing method, the goal was to identify the leaders or most knowledgeable persons in the community. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with community leaders until saturation was reached. The interview guide was pilot tested to ensure linguistic and cultural sensitivity.
The data analysis for this study utilized Glaser and Strauss’s (1999) Constant Comparative Method. There are four stages to this method a) comparing incidents applicable to each category, b) integrating categories and their properties, c) delimiting the theory, and d) writing the theory. According to Glaser and Strauss, this method of generating theory is a continuous process. Each stage of the analysis provides continuous development to generating theory.
The results of this study support the notion that the careful analysis of a community in which an international service-learning program is to be located is a prudent and valuable procedure. Community needs can very well be an important rationale for selecting a site but having needs as the sole criterion is indefensible. The research results further supports the utilization of a five criteria selection model. The elements of this model are: shared mission, community involvement, community attachment, community cohesiveness, and social capital.
There was a shared mission between the university and the community. The leaders of the community all had an interest in seeing their community grow and develop. There were certain needs that they wanted addressed by the university's team. One such need was health care, which was expressed by all participants in the study. One participant shared, “Some people in the community had only one or possibly two medical examinations in their entire life. We love what the university is doing.” This need was met through the services of nursing, medical, dental, and health communication students and their faculty. Medical and dental services were provided to over eighty-five percent of the community. There existed a reciprocal relationship where both the International Service Learning Program and the community benefited from the relationship. Medical and dental needs of the community were met and the students had a real-life laboratory in which to apply theoretical constructs learned in their classes.
The community leaders in turn assisted the International Service Learning Program by welcoming the team, encouraging community participation, and arranging for social interaction between the team and the villagers. The community leaders also indicated that they understood the mission of the university and were willing to embrace the mission and ensure that it was accomplished. Assisting each other to achieve their individual goals is a symbiotic relationship between the community and the university's international service learning program. Having a shared mission leads to receptivity of the university’s project.
One finding from this study is that there is much involvement of residents in this community. There was involvement in the community council, environmental projects to protect the wildlife, the school, and sporting teams. The rationale given for wanting to be involved in the community varied from wanting to provide residents with a better place to live, to a desire to preserve the village’s culture. One resident who was interviewed claimed it was important for him to be involved in the community’s affairs because it was his obligation. The community leaders further believed that they had a duty and responsibility to serve the community and guide its development. In addition to a feeling of responsibility and civic pride, the leaders felt that serving one’s community provides a citizen with a sense of satisfaction. Tolbert et al. (2002) suggested that involvement in community organizations provides an important institutional mechanism to link individuals with each other and the community and increase civic engagement.
One of the findings of this study is that service-learning prospers in communities where the leadership and community members are intricately involved in the life of the community. By being involved citizens develop a sense of ownership in the community and care about prosperity, each other, and the well-being of the community. The social bond between these people and their community is strong and therefore they are less likely to be involved in activities that will be detrimental to their village (Holman & Quinn, 1992). Individuals who are bonded to their community are more apt to want to support and participate in service-learning activities. Such individuals, because of their involvement and positive connection to their community, are more likely to be receptive to programs that will be beneficial to it. The researchers believe that such individuals are more likely to be more receptive to international service-learning programs, which are designed to assist communities in meeting their developmental needs.
Over seventy-five percent of the participants in the study were born and lived their entire lives in the village. Individuals who have lived in a particular community for such a length of time are more likely to have a feeling of attachment to the community. The length of time an individual has lived in a particular place has an impact on community satisfaction (Brown, 1993) and community attachment (Theodori, 2001) in referring to the work of (Austin & Baba, 1990), Brown; Goudy, 1990; Theodori & Luloff, 2000). Such attachment is likely to place individuals in a position where they want to see the community benefit and are more likely to be supportive of programs like service-learning which aims to serve and improve the lives of residents. Many of the residents expressed their happiness with living in the community. “This is my roots, my family is here”, one man shared. Another individual with happiness in his eyes expressed that the community is home and it is a great place and you have to return. “There is no place like this one.” He said, then added. “I don’t know what kind of magic it has but it is special.” The sentiments expressed by the people are an indication of the attachment they have to the community. People who are highly involved in their community’s affairs are more likely to have some form of commitment to its development and want to see the community grow.
The community appears to be stable with few members entering the society and few moving out. This stability provided continuity of community members with little turnover of community leadership and group membership. This group stability makes it ideal for conducting longitudinal projects because the participants and community leaders are constant. According to Brown (2002), the decision to migrate from a community is highly influenced by social relations including those in one’s social networks.
This strong social network was illustrated in the respondents claiming they were happy to be living in the village and that the community was a family-oriented society in which many people are related. The reasons for remaining in the village involved low cost of living, safety, and a love for the place in which they live. The researchers believe that individuals who have such a strong attachment to their community are more inclined to want to see it benefit from positive activities. These are people who have a higher probability of wanting to support a program such as international service-learning program where residents know that their community will benefit from the services provided. It can be assumed that community attachment is a strong indicator of receptivity to international service-learning programs.
The fourth variable that was investigated was community cohesiveness; that is, the degrees to which community members unite in their efforts and have positive relationships with each other. This variable is important to successful service-learning programs because such programs involve group activity that requires members of a community to work collaboratively as well as with members of the university community. If members of a community are not capable of working successfully with each other then the possibility of them working with an outside group is highly unlikely.
An analysis of the results of the interviews indicated that the majority of the interviewees felt that the community was socially cohesive and its members had positive relationships with each other. This allowed community members to work well together during times of crisis. “In dire situations we help each other,” commented one person. “We will forget our differences during a crisis and come to the assistance of the person in need.” Communities that are capable of working well together have the potential of being more successful working with an outside group. They are familiar with collaborative efforts in addressing an issue. Such communities are more likely to become partners and collaborate with the university in conducting service-learning programs to benefit their community and people. This unity and community cohesion is a positive factor for conducting a service-learning program because the members know how to work successfully as a group and hence possess skills, which are conducive to a successful service-learning program.
The fifth variable that was investigated was social capital, which is defined as the norms, behaviors, reciprocal relations, and trust level that exist within a community. The investigators believe that communities that are rich in social capital make excellent host communities for service-learning. There exists some mistrust in the village however; the community members recognize that having community trust is necessary for unity in the village. The community members realize that trust is something that must be earned and hence takes time to develop. The implication of this conclusion is that a service-learning team must be willing to invest time and energy in developing the trust of the community before they institute a comprehensive program.
Having trust is reciprocal within the community whereby individuals would lend an item believing that when they need the use of something they will be able to borrow it in return from a neighbor. There are certain norms and behaviors in the village to which everyone is expected to adhere. When these expected behaviors were infringed there were consequences for the offenders. The use of drugs and stealing are two of the more common offences that are against the norms of the community. Because of the consequences for infringement, the researchers believe citizens are more likely to engage in responsible behavior. A requirement for successful service-learning type programs is communities where the people are responsible and adhere to community norms. Otherwise there could be chaos and programs could be in jeopardy. The researchers believe that communities where the people adhere to norms possess a high level of social capital, which can be transferred to relationships with other groups. Communities that display a high level of social capital because of their uniqueness are more receptive to programs like international service-learning.
Limitations of the Study
There are several limitations to this study. The first of these limitations is that there is no available research on community receptivity to international service-learning. Consequently, this work is exploratory in nature.
A second limitation is that the study was conducted in only one community. It is possible that this community is unique and thus the results may not be generalizable. A study of other communities would be helpful for comparison purposes and would have added strength to the study.
Another limitation is that only one method of data collection was utilized. To reduce the effect of this limitation, the researcher conducted as many interviews as necessary to achieve theoretical saturation. This saturation provided information-rich data to increase reliability and validity.
A fourth limitation is the selection bias of using the snowballing method. This method may not have identified all individuals who are actual leaders in the community. To address this limitation, the researcher modified the method of sample selection and invited obvious leaders in the community to participate in the research study.
As a Belizean the first author may have had personal biases that influenced the research. Because of knowledge of the culture the researcher also may have influenced the responses of the respondents. On the other hand, this familiarity was perceived as strength because the researcher understood the people and their culture and was able to be culturally sensitive in conducting the interviews. Understanding the local dialect also helped in carrying out the interviews.
The presence of the five elements in a community indicates that it has a high likelihood of being receptive to service-learning programs. These communities are invested in themselves and welcome initiatives that support their mission. Because of the nature of service-learning programs to provide assistance, receptive communities will embrace such programs which can lead to a higher level of success in implementation.
For communities to be receptive to international service and educational type programs there must be a win-win situation. Both the community and the institution must benefit from the experience. Both must want to collaborate and partner to ensure that both parties serve to benefit.
This study also indicates that receptive communities are those that have a strong sense of attachment to their community and are actively involved in its affairs. These are communities that are stable with few people leaving and few moving in. There is a love for the place in which they live and the comfort level and feeling of belonging is high among individuals. There is a sense of community pride among the people. Because of their love for the community they are actively involved as volunteers and participants of activities. In addition, it appears that people in receptive communities have a strong sense of unity among themselves and have a high level of social capital. There is trust among the residents and they engage in reciprocal relationships.
This study provides a model that can be used by institutions and other service organizations in selecting their sites to conduct service projects. It serves as a guide on what a receptive community may look like and what qualities they display.
Bishop, B.J., Coakes, S.J., & D'Rozariioi, P.N. (2002). Sense of community in
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Henry R. Cunningham is an adjunct faculty member in the College of
Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville. He teaches
courses in Cross-Cultural Competency. He also serves as Associate Director of
the University's International Service Learning Program. In this capacity, he is
the liaison between the University of Louisville and the country of Belize. Dr.
Cunningham's research interest which includes international service learning and
community development has taken him to Central America and Africa.
University of Louisville, International Service Learning Program. W310 Students Activities Center, Louisville, KY 40292. Phone: (502)852-0357. Fax: (502)852-7007