As we take a step back during this time of non-travel around the world, we’ve been thinking through all aspects of our journeys and especially the sustainable parts of our industry.
This week, we sat down with one of our Academic Managers from our Education Team to hear his perspectives on what the best practices are for sustainable service in the educational travel world. Daniel Casey-Dunn has taught service-learning courses and led service-based programs at Michigan State University before joining our WildChina Education team. He shared his thoughts on the best way to approach service projects.
So Daniel, who should be involved in creating service-learning projects?
Well, if the ultimate aim of service projects is to be of service, critically, the recipients need to be involved in defining what and how we give. Too often, universities and corporations approach potential partners with a pre-designed experience that must fit into pre-arranged course descriptions and hour requirements – as opposed to genuine needs.
When I was teaching service-learning courses, the University had a pre-determined hour requirement and frequency: 30 hours total, at 2 hours a week all semester. I had community garden projects who only wanted students once, for an 8-hour day. I was unable to send my students to these projects because they would have failed to meet the University requirements needed for credit. Service-learning should start with what the partners need and adapt to these needs, not the other way around. One-size-fits-all service leaves participants and recipients feeling used. And not every partner has the capacity to oversee regular service learners – crucially, these are usually the partners that need our student’s help the most.
And how can students start getting involved in these kinds of projects?
Often, and especially with short term service projects, I find that the students receive more benefits than the service recipients. Take Hurricane Katrina for example: Universities from across the United States paid for students to travel to New Orleans to rebuild houses. These students often had rewarding experiences: they gave back, they learned about the city, they were able to add something to their resume, and they had fun. On the whole, many students got more than they gave. Which is great for the students, but only if it serves as a starting point for a lifetime of service.
These types of projects, when done correctly, can lead students to think differently about critical issues, challenge preconceived conceptions, and alter behavior. Obviously, not all of that can be accomplished in a week. Often, these week-long intervention programs can have lasting benefits for the community, especially when co-ordinated over a period of years by a third party, which is where thoughtful providers like WildChina and Michigan State University come in – to connect long-term service needs with short-term service providers (our students).
Students should view their service opportunities as a starting point, not the end goal. Especially for travel-based service, as is often the case in China, it is critical to provide links before and after service projects that allow for students to continue to give and stay connected to projects they had first-hand experience with.
How do you ensure that students are really connected to, and stay connected with, the projects they’re engaged in?
At WildChina, we emphasize that service learning has a pre-service component, as well as a post-service component. Students need to know that the lives they affect continue once they leave a service site, and that their service is often one component of a much larger puzzle. They need to understand where they fit into larger societal issues, and how they can help, but also how they are limited.
When I was building sustained service projects in Detroit, I focused on framing student’s accomplishments across several years. Critical services, whether assisting in construction on the Tibetan plane, or filing paperwork in the City of Detroit’s Treasury office, are often not super exciting for students. What is exciting for students is the knowledge that what they contributed had lasting impacts after they left their service site. It’s critical for educators to frame this context, so that students can be of maximum service at their sites – even when its well, service. We set up webinars and in-person classes after projects have completed to ensure that this crucial framing continues after a program.
How do you challenge students to think about service learning differently?
I fundamentally believe that students’ motives should be regularly challenged. Sustainable service requires more than good motives – it demands an approach that considers long-term impacts over students’ desires and short-term learning outcomes. In order to have rewarding service that challenges preconceived beliefs and does not simply reinforce stereotypes, I believe that students need to be pushed in uncomfortable ways. I’ve found service lessons around effective altruism to be one of the best lenses for students to view their service: continually asking “is this project the most effective way to give in this context? Is the student the most effective person to be delivering this?”
An essential part of the socio-emotional growth of a young person (or any person for that matter) is learning to see issues as multi-faceted; service projects are no exception. Here’s a simple example: At first glance, an animal welfare project (Giant Panda Conservation) seems very morally straightforward. Giant Pandas habitats = destroyed by humans = bad. However, at WildChina Education, we ask students to think beyond the black and white of the issue (no panda pun intended there).
We bring students to meet farmers whose lands border ‘protected’ areas and facilitate a conversation. Why are these farmers living in these lands? How has their land productivity been influenced due to forest protection? Could they relocate elsewhere? What happens to their children if they cannot sell enough produce? It is important for us to build into our youth the joy of service, however, we want students to be thinking about the many nuances of each of their actions. An important component of designing wholesome service learning opportunities is in fact challenging stereotypical notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and instead curating a conversation about ‘why’ and ‘how.’ Nuance exists in thoughtful service – but often we have to challenge students to see it.
How do you get students engaged in these projects, when they have so much else going on?
COVID-19 has forced the world to redefine the way that we work and the way that we learn. It makes sense that service should be given an overhaul as well. Far too often, students view service work as a necessary, yet monotonous line for their CV or college applications or their CAS projects. At WildChina, we are constantly thinking about our projects and our students and how we can connect them in new, innovative ways. This means approaching reoccurring projects with a new lens, and frequently evaluating our impact.
Students are often under-utilized, especially when it comes to their ability to contribute. In Detroit, we challenged students to rethink urban gardens, to impact homelessness, and rethink the criminal justice system. At WildChina, we push students to impact community housing on the Tibetan planes, to conserve at-risk monkey populations in southwest Sichuan, and to immerse themselves with Miao Villages in Zhangjiajie in order to redefine the way they view ethnicity. Overwhelmingly, students respond to these challenges.