Reframing Service Abroad: A Call for Reciprocal and Reflective Global Experiences

Kathryn Pisco

Unearth the World

I will always remember the feelings of frustration, confusion, and emptiness that I felt after participating in an international service project in Thailand in 2013. My project was poorly planned, my fellow volunteers and I were unprepared, and I have no idea if there was any lasting impact from my time. I went on to spend 250 days visiting 20 countries and engaging in 4 international service-learning projects during a traveling sabbatical with my husband, Mike. Through our 5 projects, Mike and I grew to understand many of the promises and pitfalls of global service. We also quickly 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 that helps participants gain further understanding of global contexts, develop important life skills, and enhance civic responsibility while also contributing in meaningful ways to local communities and helping to build international relationships.

I returned home from my nine month journey uncertain of how to sort through my experiences. I had begun the project in Thailand with great intentions but quickly learned that the beautiful aspects of GSL — increased global-mindedness and cultural, social, political, and economic awareness (McBride, Lough, & Sherraden, 2012) — can only be realized with careful planning, reciprocal partnerships, and intentional pre- and post-trip support. My failed GSL experience catalyzed me to take an interest in the entire field of service-learning and community engagement (SLCE). I chose to use my energy and discontent to both study the field and improve upon shortcomings of practice by launching my own GSL social enterprise: Unearth the World. As a practitioner and business owner, I do not come to SLCE from an academic point of view. However, I have found it incredibly useful to examine where SLCE has been in order to comment on and contribute to potential improvements and directions for the future.

Zlotkowski’s (1995) piece “Does Service-Learning Have a Future?” is an important contribution to the development of SLCE. In this article, Zlotkowski contends that more attention must be paid to the specifically academic side of service-learning —  the “ways in which community involvement enhances the discipline-specific learning academicians see as central to their professional activities” (p. 9). It appears that many of the suggestions cited in Zlotkowski’s article have come to fruition as service-learning in general and GSL in particular have continued to grow rapidly. University faculty and administrators now generally recognize the importance of bringing global perspectives into the undergraduate experience (García & Longo, 2013). And, although only about one percent of all university students study abroad for credit, this number is growing quickly -– more than tripling in the past two decades (Institute of International Education, 2011). As the world has become more global and “at a time when 90% of the American public agrees that knowledge about international issues is impor­tant to careers of younger generations,” (García & Longo, p. 112) GSL seems to be here to stay!

Yet, despite its potential positive outcomes, both my personal experience and an extensive body of literature suggest that the list of potential improvements in GSL is seemingly endless. In fact, I believe if SLCE — especially in the form of GSL — is to fulfill its potential in the future it is vitally important to focus on two areas for improvement: deepening the role of community partners and improving upon post-trip curricula in order to ensure that transformational learning —  or making meaning of GSL experiences in ways that contribute to significant changes in worldview — does, in fact, occur.

Deepened role of community partners

During my project in Thailand, I found that the local people had very little say in what the international volunteers did on a daily basis; rather, the volunteers were directed by a Western NGO. I was supposed to be there to assist Thai students in learning English by working with them on their homework; but the project was scheduled by the NGO during the students’ summer vacation, when school was not in session, rendering my presence all but meaningless. I ended up playing games with the children but wondered what long-term impact I had made. Such disregard for the structures and voices of local communities must be changed. There has been extensive discussion among practitioners and scholars about the need to deepen the role of community members and the reciprocity of partnerships in both international and domestic SLCE (Nelson & Klak, 2012). Such a focus could bring more balance to the uneven power and privilege relationships that often exist between GSL students and communities.

Mitch Haddad — the owner of Project Bona Fide, a permaculture design farm in Nicaragua and one of Unearth the World’s community partners — calls for the “focus of international volunteer travel to be about building bridges and deepening relationships within communities around the world, the environment, and ourselves” with special attention to the goals of the local community (personal communication). I could not agree more but also assert that one of the best things about GSL – its laser focus on student learning – can sometimes take away from such a focus on communities and international relationships. So, in my mind, the question is: 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.

GSL projects might start with mutually-established goals for students, faculty, community members, and anyone else involved in the project. This would be a valuable exercise as part of a GSL curriculum and could go a long way toward aligning goals, values, and outcomes of the project. Additionally, 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. At Unearth the World, we engage in an intentional and detailed relationship-building process with our community partners. We have created a partnership questionnaire that not only assesses the viability of a partnership but also gathers information about the needs, interests, and goals of the community. We then have between three and five in-depth conversations with the potential partner (normally over Skype) in order to collaboratively strategize project goals. Finally, to connect personally with community members, someone from Unearth the World visits and serves with each organization before forming partnerships. The site visit is also a necessary component of the process that ensures an authentic assessment of what skills and contributions are needed by the organization. When it has been mutually determined that a partnership should occur, Unearth the World co-drafts a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with each community partner that lays out the nature of our relationship, expectations, and commitments. Unearth the World believes this framework promotes positive community impacts and parity rather than global inequality.

Improved post-trip support

In addition to increasing emphasis on mutually beneficial and co-created partnerships, GSL literature has also emphasized the importance of pre-trip training (Piacitelli, Barwick, Doerr, Porter, & Sumka, 2013). Oftentimes, the academic work focuses on critical reflection as the most important mechanism for ensuring that learning takes place. It is widely agreed that students must have structured opportunities to reflect critically on their experiences in order to maximize intercultural — and other — learning (see, for example, Kiely, 2005).

But many GSL programs are still missing the boat because they often fail to include post-trip support that addresses challenges associated with re-entry or opportunities to bridge the international experience to students’ daily lives. Longitudinal research confirms that participation in GSL programs causes many students to experience significant dissonance and intense moral, political, cultural, personal, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual transformations in their worldview (Kiely & Kiely, 2005). This upheaval can have serious implications for students, including difficulty communicating with family and friends and sometimes even a complete rejection of previously held beliefs or difficulty fitting back into their ‘normal lives’ — a dynamic that Kiely (2004) describes as a “chameleon complex.” I personally remember shedding tears the first time I entered an American grocery store after my nine months abroad; something about the abundance of fresh and well-lit food was difficult to handle. And, I have spoken to countless students and Unearth the World travelers who experience similar challenges re-entering their home communities. One student expressed to me that it was easier to simply not talk about her GSL experience because her friends and families “did not get it.” Unfortunately, this internalization can be harmful to returning travelers,  potentially causing long-term inner turmoil and uncertainty. Returning travelers are often unprepared and unequipped to deal with their evolving global consciousness; and I have personally seen this lead to discontent and feelings of isolation or depression.

Given how intense and transformational GSL can be and how important post-trip reflection is in helping students act upon their new global consciousness, one might assume that post-trip re-entry support is prioritized in most GSL curricula. Unfortunately however, it is actually very common for post-trip curricula to be very light or nonexistent (Kiely, Kiely & Hartman, 2005). Even though post-trip reflection and support appears to be the most important step towards crystallizing and sustaining learning, it is systematically the most neglected. This gap in the process begs the question: What good is a perfectly executed GSL course (or GSL experience through a third party for that matter) if unbridled student transformation is not converted into sustained learning? I would argue that even if every aspect of a GSL program — from detailed orientation, to ideal community partnerships, to useful service and structured reflection — is flawlessly integrated, it could all be rendered useless, even harmful, if students are not able to incorporate their transformations into their day-to-day lives back home.

So how do we go about filling this void? I believe the key is to consistently build these post-trip reflective opportunities into GSL curricula from day one. It is not enough to simply encourage post-trip reflection. Rather it must be routinely included in syllabi and other descriptions of trip-related components and expectations. For instance, could educators mandate that the international travel be positioned in the middle of a GSL course to allow for intentional post-trip class seat time? Or, might there be a required one-credit post-trip course that incorporates this re-entry guidance? Alternatively, I could envision creating an interconnected community of students who have engaged in intensive GSL in which they network with and support each other using virtual means, helping to lessen feelings of isolation.

Unearth the World has incorporated structured re-entry support into each of our programs. Travelers are first prepared ahead of their trip to expect a certain level of discomfort after returning home from their GSL experience. We provide trip participants with a robust re-entry packet that includes information and strategies for personal and emotional re-entry, opportunities for critical reflection, and specific suggestions on ways to increase civic engagement, professional development, and social action. And, perhaps most importantly, Unearth the World engages all travelers in a post-trip coaching phone call that guides them through preparation of an action plan to help them integrate their learning into their post-program lives in a meaningful way. It has been documented that students greatly benefit from this type of exercise (Kiely, Kiely & Hartman, 2005).

I have found that GSL participants envision a variety of ways to integrate their international experience into daily life. Some begin or continue to engage in service locally, while others want to stay connected to the international community. Still others find it useful to incorporate their GSL experience into the workplace. Caitlin – an Unearth the World traveler and elementary school teacher who spent time working with a school in Ghana – credits the post-project support she received via Unearth the World and the creation of a “Service Action Plan” as the reason she has been able to adjust so fluidly back into her normal life. Caitlin states, “I have been able to teach my students about children in Ghana and I am able to demonstrate the importance of everything we have here in the U.S. and how fortunate we are” (personal communication). Caitlin has even organized a fundraiser at her local school in Massachusetts to raise money for the nonprofit she visited. While this is a small example of successful post-trip reflection and action, it can be used as an example of the potential of a more vigorous and intentional post-program component in GSL experiences.

Where do we go from here?

GSL has come a long way in the last 20 years since Zlotkowski (1995) called for the curricular integration of service-learning. Such growth is important for the evolution of the field, but we must not stop here. This essay is intended to highlight the need for more meaningful and reciprocal global experiences across the board — whether in a university-run GSL program, a service trip through a third party provider like Unearth the World, or a solo international SLCE project. Great care must be taken to ensure the focus on student learning does not preclude a heightened emphasis on reciprocal community engagement and intentional post-trip support.

Unearth the World will continue our focus on developing and maintaining mutually beneficial and co-created partnerships and on deepening our post-trip support. We also find it vitally important to understand and document the effect our pre/post-trip training and immersive service-oriented travel has upon our travelers, so we have begun to design an innovative measurement tool utilizing Q-methodology (Davis & Michelle, 2011) to study our participants’ varying perspectives. And we are beginning to build a virtual network of GSL participants to provide a forum for sharing and discussing experiences.

The continued growth and success of GSL depends largely on how carefully we all — students, community members, instructors, and all who help design and deliver GSL — work to deepen partnerships and improve post-trip support through enduring critical reflection across GSL curricula. My own experience suggests that GSL students — and their future work with communities — can benefit from critiquing their experiences and entering the broader conversation about the future of SLCE. Through such critical practice we can ensure that meaningful GSL becomes the standard for the field and truly generates the positive change we seek.


KATHRYN PISCO (  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 ( 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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