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Comparative Service-Learning: Particularities, Transcendent Themes, and Lessons Learned

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byTahi Wiggins
onMay 27, 2021

For all the attention given to service-learning, the concept is extremely broad and can include an enormous diversity of experiences. I am passionate about the essentiality of service learning and have sought out several such experiences. In this article, I will compare three of my own service-learning experiences, analyzing both their particularities and their transcendent themes in an effort (a) to reflect on service-learning more generally and (b) to draw lessons from my experiences.

In the summer of 2020, I served as an intern for the All-India Federation of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA Bharat). SEWA Bharat is an organization “committed to strengthening the movement of women in the informal economy.” I worked in their social enterprise branch to support women-led cooperative enterprises, although, of course, everything took place from my bedroom in Virginia. As the internship progressed, I was fortunate to develop significant relationships with two of my supervisors—I felt that this was one of the most important factors in my being excited about the work and feeling connected to the organization. The latter state was a difficult one to reach, as I quickly realized the difficulty entailed in a remote internship. I had little context about the many environments in India in which I was supposed to be working, leading me to experience significant impostor syndrome about my abilities to contribute anything meaningful. This also resulted from my recognition and consciousness that I was but a privileged Westerner hoping to contribute in some way to this venerable organization in the global South. Given these difficulties, however, I learned a lot; these lessons were both in project-specific, technical areas (what examples exist of small-scale medical cooperatives?) and more transcendent, global themes (what are the differences in a rights-based and an outcome-oriented approach to development?).

Then, this fall, I interned for the High Atlas Foundation. A sharp difference between the two experiences was quickly made apparent: whereas my initial tasks for SEWA felt a bit mundane, menial, and “intern-y” (the online equivalent to fetching coffee), my work for HAF immediately felt more meaningful. I felt trusted with more weighty and intensive tasks, which I really appreciated. That being said, I felt like I developed somewhat less of a relationship with my supervisors—of course, a feeling I wish was different. Despite these differences, there were certainly similarities in the two internships, the main one being my impostor syndrome, difficulty grounding myself, and struggle to contextualize my work in broader knowledge about the region and field. I’m still reflecting on to what extent these challenges were actually also helpful to my learning experience and personal growth. One thing that was certainly valuable in this area was the accompanying class—I truly appreciated having a pedagogical and experiential foray into this domain.

I also worked part-time this fall (virtually) for an organization in my hometown; I ran a youth program focused on using creative expression and meaningful discussion to facilitate resilience and self- and community-consciousness. Needless to say, it was a very different role than the aforementioned internships. Whereas I had trouble grounding myself in my global internship work due to lack of knowledge and experience about the region, I’ve lived in this town since I was eight years old. Even with this stark difference, I found many parallels with my other roles. For one, it was an equally intense learning experience: I learned how difficult facilitation can be, about how youth experience social phenomena, and about trauma-informed programming. Additionally, HAF’s emphasis on community-centered, participatory approaches felt reinforced by my job in my own community. The emphasis was unfailingly on the thoughts, lived experiences, and feelings of the young people with whom I was working—not of some central authority. In designing curricula in cooperation with my supervisor (with whom I had a great relationship), we engaged in critical conversations about the messages we were sending relative to larger societal forces. This reminded me of how our HAF class discussed broad social theories that, while abstract, were relevant to our internship experiences.

Though these experiences were diverse, some common lessons may be drawn from them. First, having contextualization to ground the work is important. Without it, service-learners can feel disconnected or insecure about their ability to contribute. Second, meaningful relationships with one’s supervisor facilitate connection and feelings of deeper meaning in the service learning. Third, having a pedagogical component to accompany the experiential activities can create a mutually complementary framework of experience for service-learners. More generally, service-learning offers the opportunity not only to learn more deeply about the organization and cause for which one works, but to experience profound personal growth—the kind for which I am extremely grateful.