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Global Citizen v Global Subject: A critical discussion of study/service abroad

Full disclosure: I have developed and led service-learning abroad programs in Central America for 5 years. It is my experience as leader and as traveler that have led me to question the methodology and intent of such programs with regard to their implications for the communities outside the USA in which they are implemented.

As globalization penetrates the towers of ivory, there is a push for the development of graduates who can participate in the world beyond their own localities and their own national borders. This corps of 'global citizens' are supposed to have an identity that transcends geography and borders with an identification with the common humanity that bounds us all.

To create this cadre of new world graduates, institutes of higher learning are pushing the study/service abroad agenda. With colleges and universities setting targets for how many of their students get to go abroad before they graduate. Of course, this trend is also growing among the high school crowd who seek to gain an edge on college admissions or to improve their language skills.

The primary goals of study abroad are usually to build intercultural skills and often to build language fluency that help develop such skills. There is also an emphasis on experiential learning of global problems. The places students go include local language schools, foreign-based branches of American or UK institutions, international schools or a home-stay and attendance at a local educational institution.According to Sachau and Braser (2010), more than 250,000 American students study abroad.

Service learning abroad includes the goals of study abroad but these are achieved through direct service in local communities abroad. Reflection is an integral part of this process as students grapple with the issues that come with integrating service into their learning.

So I am not going to argue that there is anything wrong with the intention of service/study abroad programs. Human beings need to engage with each other across borders in order to understand each other, both culturally and linguistically.

However, I will argue that the one-directional structure of most programs create global subjects that are studied or serviced in the development of global citizens. The class bias of the latter is obvious as most middle class or poor students cannot afford the cost of study abroad tuition and travel and the opportunity costs of lost wages from their jobs that support their educational pursuits. This class bias that already exists in higher education relegates most study/service abroad programs to the reach of wealthier students who then gain further advantage for graduate and hiring programs who give an edge to such 'global citizens'.

But how much global citizenry do these students develop? On a recent trip to Greece, I ran into a group of students who were obviously American students doing study abroad. (As a leader of such trips I have acquired a sense of who these students are when I see them). These students were mostly white, mostly girls and were exploring the Ancient Agora on their day trip from their Semester at Sea. I spoke to a few of them about their engagement with local populations as they traversed the oceans and were taught on board by an international faculty. They admitted that the trip was what each person made it but that most people hung out with their friends and did not make friends where they visited. This tends to be the trend among most students who don't do a home-stay version of these programs. Language programs that are full immersion are much better than ones where groups of American students go off to Florence or Paris and spend a lot of time visiting sites and partying as much as they spend learning the language, which they often don't speak because they have each other with whom to speak English. Having local communities learn about American life through these programs is not usually an objective. There is hardly an 'exchange' but more of a "Thank you for letting me learn about you" attitude. And if you're an Italian in Florence, you don't learn more than a bad stereotype of the worse of what American college life can be.

As for service-learning projects, these also tend to be one-dimensional. Students fly from the USA to countries near and far in the East and South (mostly) to donate their time and develop their skills, in contexts that challenge them in many ways. This is great for the American student but the short-term and often non-sustainable aspects of this service is questionable in value for the local communities. I am sure there are programs for foreigners to do service in the USA but I have yet to read of them. Foreigners may come on their own but America is not seen a place that needs 'service' but is a source of 'service'. The socio-cultural and economic implications of this belief reinforce neo-imperialistic ideas of who Americans are and what their place is in the world.

After reviewing hundreds of articles on these programs, there were only a few that bothered to evaluate the impact on communities because the focus is on the education of the students. Most of the time, the communities that students serve are not the ones requesting such service but are the ones that are chosen for students to serve. These sites are chosen for many reasons that often have to do with the connections of the instructor to those communities or historical ties of an institution to a community.

So how do we make these programs more of an exchange and not an exercise in which students in one country gain skills through their contact or engagement with people of another culture? How do these programs go beyond 'educational tourism' or 'volun-tourism' to be a cultural engagement that involves meeting and greeting and engaging with local people? I will keep the list short.

1. Make them truly an exchange. Students of each country should engage with each other in learning about each other and learning language skills from each other. If possible, there should be an exchange of students across borders; not a visit of one to the other.

2. Let reception communities drive the service/learning that occurs. What are their needs? How can they be met in a sustainable way? Projects should include products like grant proposals, educational curricula, training, buildings etc

3. Evaluate the impact of these programs on local communities. People of the South and East do not exist to be the cultural experiences of American students that change their lives. They too have educational needs that includes cultural engagement.

4. Engage with educational institutions in the locality where studies/service takes place. Including local teachers as the cultural guides and paying them for their services makes these trips more valuable to local communities.

5. Engage before and after the trips take place so that the experience can be meaningful to participants on both sides of borders. Technology makes this extremely easy and engaging this way in the classroom may be a temporal and technological challenge but well worth the equality of experience for both cultures.

6. Use locally owned services and purchase locally made goods as much as possible. No point in going abroad to enrich the pockets of American service providers.

This post is based on a presentation I gave at The Learner Conference held in Rhodes, Greece, July 11-13, 2013.


  1. I see this problem in Peace Corps as well. Too many volunteers in one area usually leads to a bunch of partying and a lack of integration into the community.

  2. Amelia, the question your point begs is: Why is it that people would go that far away from home only to socialize with people they could meet at home in a way they would do at home? Is the experience a box-checking exercise that brings prestige and other opportunities for the ex-pat lifestyle or is it that making friends with the locals is fraught with the 'unknown' and so fear keeps one within the familiar?

  3. I've been thinking about this idea a lot. I'd like to see more exchange going back. I feel like the money that it takes for a volunteer to fly to these places could be used more efficiently, especially when they only come for a short period of time and there is not existing structure to help them start work right away. That being said, I am doing research overseas and I am working at the community level, but the amount I will benefit career wise I think far outweighs what the organizations who helped me conduct my research. It weighs on my heart a lot and I struggle daily about who is actually benefiting from this so called cultural exchange. When I first arrived, the org I worked for stated that there should be programs where staff members go abroad and have internships like mine in western organizations. I'd like to see funding go towards this and I believe this could help aid work more effectively in the end as well.


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