Elizabeth Lakey and Megan McIntosh

Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne

As the world opens up, global exchange programs are again in full swing and service learning placements are being facilitated in country rather than virtually. Once again, students from the Global North are travelling to the Global South in pursuit of intercultural experience, exposure to the development sector and with the intention of contributing to some wonderful not-for-profit organisations.

Global Service Learning (GSL) placements are met with mixed views by development scholars. Some research points to increased intercultural competence as a result of such placements, others suggest that placements may contribute to further entrenching privilege and stereotypes. GSL placements tend to be quite short – around 4-6 weeks is the norm in Australia, as they need to fit into university academic calendars.

We have often heard students talk in terms of gratitude. While this may seem to be an unusual theme, it is indeed a recurring theme emergent from student reflections in our 14 years’ experience facilitating GSL.

Before departure, a common student narrative runs something like this:
I’m so grateful to my uni for providing the opportunity. It’s going to look great on my CV!

From a university perspective, it makes sense to provide GSL opportunities to a student cohort who will join an increasingly globalised workforce. However, higher education has become increasingly marketised, ‘selling’ goods to consumers (students), and the way GSL activities are promoted is often through high-quality brochures and webpages, featuring beautiful images of international locations. There is a heavy emphasis on becoming ‘job-ready.’ We have seen many brochures that promise students a wonderful experience in a distant location, with the added benefit of increasing their employability, all while counting as a subject. These things may well be true, but promoting GSL placements in this way might obscure some of the more altruistic motivations for volunteering and making a contribution to a community. Research has shown that students don’t often describe their motivations for taking place in GSL activities in terms of a desire to help others. Rather, they focus on professional and personal gain.

The second narrative we commonly encounter goes like this:
The locals were so grateful to us; they really needed our help

This kind of thinking poses the challenge of how to help students unpack their implicit assumptions. We encourage them to think of privilege, ethnicity and the Global North/South power dynamic. We believe true reflection emerges when we can support students to feel grateful for the opportunity they’ve been offered, and grateful to local people for their generosity in sharing insight into their culture and way of life. This also involves exploring the inequities commonly present in GSL placements; for example, the use of significant local resources for their training, access to the best accommodation possible, and the potential that they have filled roles which could have been better occupied by local people.

The final narrative is commonly expressed upon return:
I’m so grateful to be home. I couldn’t live like that forever.

When our students express gratitude to be home, it is nearly always because of a challenging experience abroad. Our pre-departure training focusses almost exclusively on how to reduce students’ risks to illness or theft, for example. When these unfortunate events occur, students usually have strong supports, and the option to return home if necessary. What we don’t spend nearly enough time doing is preparing students for the risks they themselves may pose to those they encounter in the communities they serve. We should broaden our pre-departure discussions to include more content regarding how our taken-for-granted norms may cause damage when uncritically transposed to the host community’s culture. We have experience of students encouraging their international colleagues to adopt inclusive approaches to LGBTQ+ people or to espouse feminist narratives in places where such positions may be unwelcome when expressed by foreigners, and dangerous when expressed by locals. We should support students to see their own positionality and develop mechanisms to engage flexibly with other cultures.

Where to next?

We propose a few considerations when moving forward once again with GSL placements. First and foremost, enhanced pre-departure discussions related to identity, positionality and intersectionality. Second, peer-to-peer discussions on the host location with fellow students who have spent time in, or are from, the host location. Thirdly, a more thoughtful approach to marketing! And finally, careful engagement with third party providers who facilitate GSL placements.

We believe implementing these recommendations would see us better placed to build ongoing partnerships with local communities that are focussed more on equitable capacity building, rather than on benefits to students. In this way, we might reposition the concept of gratitude, and use it to help students unpack their motivations, reflect critically on challenges and consider the reciprocal nature of the service work they provide to our international partners.

This blog is based off the following article: Megan McIntosh & Elizabeth Lakey (2022). Going global (again): gratitude and service learning in post-pandemic times, Higher Education Research & Development, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2022.2073978