Category Archives: inspiration

Service learning matters. And here’s why.

“I want you to be concerned about your next door neighbour. Do you know your next door neighbour?”
– Mother Teresa
    In a nutshell, this quote is why service learning matters to me. How many of us actually know our neighbours? I hardly knew the two girls in the apartment upstairs apartment of my old student house, let alone the family who recently moved in next door, or the other people living on my street. Neighbourhoods are not what they used to be. It seems that our communities are more private than in the past, and that people are too busy to make deeper personal connections. For example – we no longer chat with the tellers at the bank; we have ATMs that are more convenient. We can ignore the cashier at the grocery store; the self check-out is a faster option.Service learning, according to the Beyond Borders brochures, aims to prepare students as global citizens in a globalized world, effect social change, and make use of our abilities and education in service to others. But this final reflection requires me to answer ‘so what?’. Those ideals are positive, but don’t say much about what I’ve learned this term or why I’m a participant.I’m a big fan of lists. And so, inspired by the infamous top ten lists of David Letterman, I will convince you of the value and importance of service learning.
    top ten reasons why service learning matters:

  1. it holds us accountable. Service learning allows us to (pardon the cliche) “practice Italicwhat we preach.” Through service learning, we are taking ownership of our education by applying what we have learned in a wide variety of circumstances.
  2. it encourages (and requires) dialogue. Through service learning opportunities, we enter into relationships with others. Asking questions, searching for answers, we are constantly in conversation.
  3. you don’t actually need a passport. Turns out, you don’t have to travel overseas to participate in service learning. It can be as simple as spending a few hours a week volunteering with a local organization (i.e., the Working Centre).
  4. mutual empowerment. We are not sent to various international placements with a plan or a solution, to push our Western way of living onto a developing nation. We might not be all that helpful. Through building new relationships in a new culture, we are all on the same footing.
  5. endless possibilities. Service learning is not tied down to any one location or action, it does not have an agenda, it does not have an expiry date. It could be ten hours, or ten months, it could be a lifelong process.
  6. it is frustrating. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means you’re tackling something strange and unfamiliar, and in the meantime, new skills or ideas are likely developed. “It is when you are frustrated, that you really learn.” – Joanne Benham Rennick.
  7. it lays foundations for the future. Talking to Myroslaw was encouraging for Jessica and I, because we are building on success of the past. Five years ago, there were no volunteers at the Internat. Since then, numerous alumni have spent their summer months caring for the girls of this Ukrainian orphanage. In five more years, who knows – the university students of Ternopil may be in partnership with the Internat, working towards minimizing the strong stigma against the disabled. We may not be able to see the impact of our actions, but each individual action is a small step forward. Change is not impossible.
  8. exploration of the unknown. We live in world full of beauty, creativity, and diversity – Henry Miller said it best: “Develop an interest in life as you see it, the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
  9. the lost art of facilitation. Facilitation is an idea explored in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and is an incredibly valuable skill to possess. We do not use the skill of facilitation nearly as much as we should, and we’re really not that great at it. We do not practice it enough to become good, not to mention great, at it. Service learning opportunities allow us to develop facilitation skills throughout authentic education experiences.
  10. in the end, it all adds up. I’ve previously written about the power of our ordinary actions. Throughout the fall term, Scott warned us that we would not really have a significant impact on the communities that we will be serving this summer. I beg to differ. While things may not be profoundly different once we leave in August, I still think that whatever we accomplish in our various placements, no matter how small or insignificant our achievements are, will be worthwhile. If it only serves to teach us a lesson that we will carry with us, or if our visit only gives a disabled child the chance to venture outside of the Internat for the first time, I’d say that alone is a small victory. Baby steps, people… baby steps!



I originally wrote this post for TernoJen, a blog that followed my preparation for and experiences in Ternopil, Ukraine.