Deepening Service Abroad: A Call for Reciprocal Partnerships and Ongoing Support

Kathryn Pisco

How can GSL programs stay committed to student learning while simultaneously becoming more dedicated to the needs and desires of communities and more nurturing of relationships among individuals and communities around the world? What good is a perfectly executed GSL … experience … if the mix of enthusiasm and turmoil students undergo is not converted into sustained learning?


I will always remember feeling frustrated, confused, and empty after participating in an international service project in Thailand…. My project was poorly planned, fellow volunteers and I were unprepared, and I have no idea if there was any lasting impact from my service. I went on to spend 250 days visiting 20 countries and engaging in 4 international service-learning projects….. [and] learned about the differences between international volunteering and global service-learning (GSL). Even though both involve learning while serving with individuals and organizations abroad, GSL, when done well, incorporates reciprocal partnerships and structured reflection. It helps participants gain further understanding of global contexts and develop important life skills. It enhances civic responsibility while also contributing in meaningful ways to local communities and helping to build international relationships….

During my project in Thailand, … the local people had very little say in what the international volunteers did on a daily basis … such disregard for the structures and voices of local communities must be changed. … reciprocal relationships could be strengthened if students worked side-by-side with local leaders and community members to develop both the GSL curriculum and the project itself.

Returning travelers are often unprepared and unequipped to deal with their evolving global consciousness.… I remember shedding tears the first time I entered an American grocery store after my nine months abroad…. But many GSL programs fail to include post-trip support – including reflection – that addresses challenges associated with re-entry and capitalizes on opportunities to bridge the international experience to students’ daily lives back at home.… The key is to … build post-trip reflection opportunities into GSL curricula from the onset …., not … simply encourage[ing] voluntary, individual post-trip reflection … [but] routinely include[ing it] in syllabi and other descriptions of trip-related components and expectations.

KATHRYN PISCO (kathryn.pisco@gmail.com) is a social entrepreneur from Chicago with a passion for travel and giving back. After graduating from Cornell University, she spent years working in sales for large corporations. In 2014, she founded a social venture called Unearth the World (www.unearththeworld.com) after her own transformative international experience. Unearth the World’s mission is to promote cross-cultural learning, foster reciprocal partnerships, and elevate social consciousness through responsible volunteer exchange programs.

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2 thoughts on “Deepening SL Abroad

  1. Whitney Szmodis says:

    What would this look like for GSL partnerships between university students engaged in GSL in their coursework and alumni or other participants as a collaborative effort?


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