International Service Learning: Why it is Essential

International service-learning is not an entirely new concept. It has its roots in experiential learning, which has been helpful in both formal and informal education.

This form of learning combines the value of real-world experience with intricate planning and implementation. It is then followed by reflection and documentation. A thorough analysis comes after the execution phase.

There are benefits to be enjoyed by all parties involved: students, faculty, and communities.

International service-learning is a form of experiential learning which combines an academic curriculum with related service to a community. Therefore, in this article we will cover;

  • Definitions
  • Examples of International Service Learning
  • International Service Learning is not…
  • Benefits of International Service Learning
  • Stages of the Process
  • Conclusion

Definitions of Service Learning

Before we delve into the concept of international service-learning, let’s take a step back. Let’s be clear on the basic concept of service-learning. Here are a few definitions to consider.

Definition 1:

Vanderbilt University defines it as a form of experiential education in which learning happens through a continuous cycle of action as well as reflection. Learners aim to meet real-life objectives in communities and through the process, sharpen their skills. In the end, they achieve a deeper understanding of themselves.

Definition 2:

Another expert definition is from Northern Kentucky University. They define service-learning as a course-based, credit-carrying educational experience where students

  1. Take part in organized service activities which meet a community’s needs
  2. Reflect on it in order to gain a deeper understanding of course content and a broader appreciation of the discipline.

We can therefore conclude that service-learning takes university students at senior levels of their course out of class and into a community. Here they implement skills learned in class to solve pre-identified problems in the community.

Through this process, they achieve a deeper, more wholesome understanding of the course. Moreover, they get to understand their value as experts in the field.

What is international service learning?

With clear comprehension of the idea, we can extrapolate it. International service-learning is service learning with a global perspective. Students in one part of the world apply their skills in communities across the globe.

Examples of International Service Learning Programs

Students taking international service-learning courses typically work with international non-profit organizations to acquire requisite links and general guidance. Although international service-learning is often associated with medical students, learners in virtually any field can explore it. Here are a few examples in other areas to illustrate it better.

Business: Students organize and conduct workshops for members of low-income communities on budgeting and personal finance skills.

Communication and media: Students create non-commercial radio and television programs and public service announcements to help non-profit organizations in developing countries achieve their goals.

Information Technology: Learners assist a non-profit organization in developing a website to create awareness of its activities among the general public.

Education: Students go to public school to assist teachers design and implement new lesson plans to incorporate emerging issues in the community.

What International Service Learning is not

With numerous definitions out there, some experts go further to explain what it is not.

International service learning is often confused with other similar learning processes. Many people believe it is synonymous to community service, volunteering, internships, or even gap years. While these are all valuable forms of education, none are the same as international service-learning. Here is why:

It is not volunteering.

Volunteering is where one performs a service willingly with no expectation for remuneration.

In volunteering, the focus is on the service and, in some cases, the informal learning accompanying it. There is no developed curriculum in place. With service-learning, the curriculum incorporates both pre and post-service involvement. Volunteers still learn from the experience but in a far less structured manner.

It is not community service.

Community service is a form of volunteering in which individuals provide services, also for no pay. Here the focus is on taking action with little or no emphasis on education. Yes, students do learn and grow, but none of these is formally monitored or even discussed. The analysis is an element taken very seriously in international service-learning.

It is not an internship.

The primary goal of internships or practicum is career development. It serves to develop hard and soft skills, which one translates into a resume. In contrast, service learning’s focus remains on community involvement and making educational connections.

It is not a gap year.

No, it is definitely not a gap year. Gap years are about traveling and experiencing the world as a break from studies. The focus is solely on travel.

Service-learning, on the other hand, may involve travel, but learning continues. There is a structured program involving pre-determined communities. Reflection always follows purposeful learning.

Benefits of International Service Learning

We can examine the benefits of this form of learning based on the different parties involved. These are:

              a. Student

             b.   Faculty and institution

             c. Community

             d. Organization

Benefits to the student

  1. They get hands-on experience with clear and direct links to coursework. This promotes a deeper understanding of course content.
  2. Students get to earn credits since it is always a credit-bearing course
  3. Exposure to different people in addition to new cultures
  4. The student gets to confirm it is a career path they want to proceed with
  5. A sense of fulfillment.
  6. Gives the student an understanding of the value he brings as a professional since it is a lot like a job would be.
  7. Prepares students for the job market and also enhances confidence to take on challenging roles.

Benefits to faculty and institution

  1. Works to reinforce concepts taught as theories in the classroom. In fact, many facilitators admit that international service-learning presents a learning experience for them too. Quite often, concepts they have taught for years are confirmed through this practical learning.
  2. Helps to boost teaching efforts and motivate teaching staff
  3. Provides information necessary in course content modification, therefore helping to match it to real-world requirements.
  4. Causes improved interaction between faculty and students thus creating a better learning environment.
  5. Improves relationships between the university and the community. In addition, programs help to build positive reputations for the institution.

Benefits to community

  1. Provides much-needed professional service
  2. Injects resources into the community
  3. Creates awareness of needs in the community. Consequently, other organizations which come after the service-learning program can structure their programs towards the same needs.
  4. Promotes a community sense of empathy and responsibility

Benefits to organization

Benefits to students and communities are clear. However, supporting organizations and what they stand to gain are often overlooked.

As mentioned, students in international service-learning programs often work under non-profit organizations. Here, their role is to provide linkages between the institution and communities which need the kind of service they can provide. They too enjoy some benefits:

  1. Students provide labor and expertise in organizations that are constantly in need of volunteers.
  2. Students and faculty bring fresh perspectives and ideas to employees. Staff may need an external eye in their everyday efforts.
  3. Organizations and agencies meet potential future employees. There is a direct match between the student’s skill set and the agency’s core work.

Stages of International Service Learning

The process of service-learning requires careful planning and consideration of a myriad of factors. We can break it down into five main stages: investigation, preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration.

Working through these stages allows students to meet community needs and achieve academic goals. In addition to that, they develop a sense of civic responsibility.


The investigation could be considered a pre-process activity. It involves taking inventory of students’ interests, skills, and talents. At the same time, a social analysis to determine specific needs in the selected community is done.


Once this is established, the team then embarks on research to gather information on the issue. Research could be through interviews of experts or a survey among a population sample. It could also be as basic as direct observation. In some instances, you only need to spend some time in the community to observe the challenge to be addressed.


Every process requires some form of preparation. This one requires a fair amount of it. Here students work with the facilitator to come up with a plan of action. It should contain details of tasks with necessary schedules, not forgetting timelines. Contingency plans in the event something doesn’t go as expected should also be included.

Defined roles and responsibilities

It also works best with well-articulated roles and responsibilities for team members. The aim is to create a sense of accountability as each member will try to do their part to perfection. Such accountability also makes it easier to identify who dropped the ball when something goes wrong.

International service learning in action

This is the central and most critical part of the process. Here students, guided by a facilitator, implement the plans made. They apply skills learned in class for the benefit of the community. As a result, concepts learned, in theory, are experienced practically.

Mutual Agreement

Many international service programs have run into problems despite perfect planning.

Another critical point to note in the action stage is that learners should do all activities within mutual agreement and respect for the parties involved. Community members must be willing and happy to receive the assistance. Similarly, students must demonstrate respect for the culture and lifestyles of community members.

These elements should be covered by the institution as well as the organization linking the learners to the community.

Reflections on international service-learning

Reflecting is an equally important stage. Firstly, it sets international service-learning apart from other forms of service such as community service and volunteering; secondly, it is the only stage that permeates the entire process. Every stage of the process requires reflection. This is why Learners should take time to reflect before and during every phase.

Third eye open

Here, students guided by a facilitator consider their thoughts and feelings at each stage. Being constantly present to situations and moods in the community is behind growth. It is therefore necessary to sensitize them about keeping a third eye open. As a result, they learn to identify how their experiences and skills learned in class all tie in.


In addition to all these, there is a need for creative demonstrations. Volunteering and community service also leave out the demonstration stage. Here the students find ways to present their experience and lessons learned. The demonstration should capture the entire process, right from the investigation stage, detailing lessons learned. The learner should show clear connections between concepts previously learned in theory and activities in service to the community.

Telling the story

This stage boils down to telling a story. A story to enlighten peers as well as parents on the issues addressed and the process of international service-learning. It should enable students who are not familiar with the process to understand it better. A well demonstrated international service-learning experience leaves other students dying to embark on one.

Additionally, it must e noted that demonstrations could take any form. It could be in the form of a detailed report. A more artistic approach such as a skit or an article in the school newspaper could be equally effective.

After this, the process is complete.


‘We don’t learn from experiences but rather from reflecting on them.’

These are words of prominent American scholar, philosopher, and psychologist John Dewey. These wise words are best illustrated in international service learning.

Students benefit from experiential learning in a carefully structured model which emphasizes planning, demonstration, and, very importantly, reflection. Through this, lessons learned in class come to life. Students learn lifelong lessons while enjoying immeasurable fulfillment.

They also earn credits towards the full completion of the course.

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