In 2006, I was invited to write "Global citizenship in the making: The process of putting pieces together," (below) in honor of the 20th Anniversary of National Campus Compact. Prompted by the theme of global citizenship, I reflected on my undergraduate studies abroad and the efforts I made to connect my international experiences with my local community upon my returns home. I found over and over again that what I saw abroad wasn't so different from that with which I was most familiar.
As such, my hope in keeping up with you all here in the next month and a half is to synthesize my experiences and reflections in real time. I expect my lessons learned during the program will be equally applicable here in Minnesota and moreover, that I will enjoy the challenge of figuring out just how. I invite you to follow along and help me do so!
Global citizenship in the making
I went to college considering my time in activities outside of the classroom to be the more practical and useful education I received, but with every intention to sync my studies with parallel practical application in order to continue engaging in what I now learned was referred to as “service-learning.” Already a student of the Humanities, I self-designed my International Social Policy double major by taking advantage of the opportunity to cross-register for courses at neighboring state universities as well as studying abroad and away. The local institutions provided me enhanced studies of policy and politics and my time with outside programs helped me develop cross-cultural competencies both domestically and internationally.
Being previously able to move from group to group without accountability to a single core organization in my prior activist experiences, I lacked mechanisms to analyze how I was growing or benefiting as a result of the overall experience. When I studied abroad in Cuernavaca, Mexico, however, I shared my reflections and insights on my experiences, asked others their opinions, and shared how I was changing based on what I was learning, as part of the living and learning community the other students and I made up; I suppose I learned to speak English during my time in Mexico. Through structured classroom discussion and free time with friends, I found my voice while studying abroad and questioning what I was then experiencing versus what I already knew.
Participation in that service-learning based program with a focus on social justice informed my decision to pursue a year away from my home institution, first as a Citizen Scholar at the Institute for Civic Leadership at Mills College in Oakland, CA, during the fall semester of my junior year, and then with the Center for Global Education’s “Nation-building, Globalization, and Decolonizing the Mind” program in Namibia and South Africa in the spring. The similarly styled service-learning based approaches underlying each of these programs gave me an ability to compare and evaluate their varying structures and components. After all, to be able to see across trends is to be able to assess and critique comparatively.
While the semester in Mexico focused heavily on issues of social justice and U.S. hegemonic practices towards their neighbor to the south through structured time spent listening to speakers in the community and site visits, my time with the Institute for Civic Leadership emphasized intentionally building a community of women students engaged with democratic leadership and group process and work. My experience with the Center for Global Education focused on nation-building after civil wars and apartheid. We visited museums, toured neighborhoods, and spent time with our internship organizations to get a sense of the institutionalized racism that we could see not only in the slums and townships in which the black Africans have continued to dwell since their initial residential segregation, but also in the lack of power the government had when negotiating with the wealthy Group of 8 nations.
My home stays with families in Namibia and South Africa opened my eyes to the fact that perhaps our lives, families, work, and dreams aren’t all that different. I cooked with my auntie by helping grind millet into a fine powder to be made into mahangu porridge and clapped along as my meme (mom in Oshiwambo) and younger sister danced to traditional Namibian drumming, but I also played soccer with my younger brothers when they arrived home from school, watched television with tate (dad) after we finished supper in the evenings, and my Namibian family and I celebrated my birthday with a delicious cake from the local store. While the language was new to me and the national challenges unique, several of the flavors and aromas reminded me of my own mother’s Vietnamese cooking and somehow, the joy of family road trips next to siblings in the back of a large vehicle seemed to transcend cultures.
My return home at the end of each program consistently imparted a deep personal desire to ensure I could integrate the new learning, understanding, and habits I came away with. From the moment I walked into a new situation, I became hyper-observant, more acutely aware of the differences in lifestyle, culture, speech, and more, between this new place and that from which I came. I became mindful of the impact of the words I chose to use, the clothing with which I presented myself in certain situations, and the type of attitude I portrayed. Traveling, whether to a new city or a new continent, illuminated that which I didn’t know to appreciate or recognize previously in my home life. Not only did my experiences abroad and away deepen my intercultural competency, they also highlighted my understanding of what shaped my own country’s norms and values.
I began to see how my home culture defined my view of reality and how that reality is produced. I realized that I, being exposed to several distinct cultures, now had the opportunity to compare the varying lifestyles and personally choose how I wanted to live. I realized if I chose some of the values I saw more prominently in Namibian culture, it might be difficult to maintain those practices at home, because U.S. culture would not necessarily be already in support of this value. I knew though, through my work with activist groups, that as long as a community exists to support the valued practices, it is possible to carry out values in cohesively. I would need to make sure I found such the people and places to support my ideals.
The beginning of my senior year in college was also the beginning of my commitment to being in the country, at home, for an extended period of time, and acting on the recognition that I did not have to leave home in order to change the world. I once again took the post of Reading Buddy to a kindergartner and a fifth-grader at a nearby elementary school collaborative, which I viewed as an extension of my work on international children’s health and rights issues with the Student Campaign for Child Survival. I resumed volunteering with the English as a Second Language program local to my school community, and in listening to the stories of immigration, heard insights into what may have characterized my own parents’ arrival in the U.S.
Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.” As a proponent of service-learning, I argue that once education and practical application are integrated, they can never be disintegrated for a student. We recognized that the programs we had taken part in combined an active reflection that analyzed our changed environments as well as changes within ourselves. We learned we are only as important as we are in this world in relationship to each other and to the communities in which we dwell. The support we had in the programs we participated in were a group of students committed to engaging in a semester-long experience of growth and challenges. In continuing our local and international activism, we wanted to take the time to transform our beliefs and new insights into mindful, daily action. We sought to intentionally create a similarly supportive and globally-minded community in our own college home.
Putting the pieces together
I intend to detail the process we undertook in putting this community together, in this part of the paper, to demonstrate that it was with specific intention that our program looks precisely the way it does. It asserts that where we sit now is merely the experience of being on others’ shoulders. The recommendations at the end of each paragraph can be viewed as part of a brief lesson plan on creating a globally-engaged and student-centered learning community. These can also be seen as key ways for higher education to revision the scope and components of their service-learning and international programs.
1. Recognize students as key stakeholders in the success of the learning community.
While we knew up front that certain factors could not be accounted for while trying to meet our objectives, we realized that developing a strong core that invites dialogue in response to conflict can help to foster equity in access and group cohesion. Planning a group to be open, honest, and responsible to one another, we decided a student-led program that went beyond a traditional discussion or writing group would meet our objectives. Global citizenship education would be an inherent part of the process, as students shared their different perspectives and paradigms, giving voice to their concerns and engaging each other in dialogue.
I remembered a professor who presented an agenda before the beginning of each class and asked for amendments before asking for agreement. Once she had unanimous approval she would begin class. Though the agenda is generally a tool of meetings rather than classrooms, it struck me as democratic and participatory that she included every student as a key stakeholder in their own engagement and ultimately, learning.
2. Trust students to take action if you foster the questions and provide support as they work to answer them.
One of my college professors on the study abroad program in Mexico admitted she was also learning alongside us. She shared that she used to teach elementary school and would have the students read older children’s level books and they would respond with so many questions. Then she started teaching university students and they would never have questions. She wanted nothing more than to work to recapture whatever was lost in between childhood and college for those university students.
We thought back on courses we had taken and the mechanisms they had provided us for learning. After our initial service-learning experiences, we all realized that we asked more questions and thought twice about whether or not to immediately accept what a professor — or any other authority figure, for that matter — told us. We asked ourselves who had the power and privilege to write the texts and newspapers we read. After all, that determined from whose perspective and biases we were receiving information. We intended to make sure we would support paradigm-shifting, as well as basic learning questions, and allow them to be asked in a non-confrontational setting.
3. Give them context and history and they will give you the vision.
Without larger comprehension that the world has been changed many times over, that it is still continuously changing, and even that the change they make will someday likely be changed by another, how is a young person to realistically understand where to use his/her energies most effectively and meaningfully? Students benefit most from an understanding of how to learn themselves.
The most important instrument in coming years recognizes the increasingly globalized and cross-cultural society that shapes politics and international relationships. This tool is of cultural competence. Students must be able to work with any groups they come across, ethnically and culturally, but also be able to cross sectors and be able to get along in business, academia, public, and governmental sectors. Given a context, they’ll get you a vision for how to foster those relationships into a meaningful collaboration.
4. Schools must be open to dialogue; they must respect and genuinely respond to critique. They must give serious attention and funding to student-initiated projects.
There is a tension I have perceived, from both angles, in working to empower a disadvantaged group by providing them with tools, critical thinking, and movement-building skills. This tension arises since it may lead to providing the newly empowered group the power to restructure or critique the organization. Critical thinking, however, is one of the desired outcomes of higher education. It seems that there is a paradox within the institutional education system that in order for its students to fully realize its teachings; it must ultimately give up a share of its power.
At the end of a one day, student-led conference on campus, a professor attended the afternoon student-led panel sessions and remarked that students giving papers to each other in such a manner prompted him to ask the question, “What do they need us [professors] for, anyway?” His words demonstrated acknowledgement that faculty can place trust in students they teach by giving them ownership over their own education and the ability to advocate for themselves.
For universities to seriously invest in service-learning and student empowerment, however, it will take much more than mention in the college handbook or a couple more activities each school year. Students must have support and tools available to them, as well as money to fund their endeavors. If students surmise a meaningful vision to enhance their local or global community, the university’s role is to provide for their genuine contribution to bettering society. Students can no longer be given an unfunded and unserious mandate to volunteer in the community; they must be funded and acknowledged as a real way in which the college relates to the community in which in dwells.
Setting the course
The student-led Social Justice 101 course was housed in and served as a program of the Center for Just Living in the fall of 2005. 9 students met weekly for one hour for 10 sessions. A regular format of: agreement on the agenda, announcements about members’ activism events, personal check-in, critical analysis of reading, personal reflection and application of the reading and a skill demonstration or exercise was democratically led each week by a different member of the group. Short essays and articles challenging commonly accepted notions around community service and social justice engaged students in discussion and critique of current social change work.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” the course evolved from its original title into a more appropriate fall Be the Change: Seminar and a spring Be the Change: Practicum. The fall Seminar focuses on analyzing specific examples of social change in readings and critiquing the motivations for and methodologies of social activism. The spring Practicum is a further exploration of the theology and motivations behind social justice, combined with an active implementation of learned reflection techniques in an Action Project. Housed in the Honors Department, the courses were approved by the institutional Curriculum Committee by the end of the school year.
The Big Picture
Students graduate to positions of change-makers and leaders of the U.S., and the world. Whether they are nurses or managers or teachers, they must agitate to create a world that we envision and believe should exist. Schools must teach their students how to vision, how to imagine a world different than one in which they currently live. As the global reality in which we live continues to change, so too, must teaching be transformed in order to accommodate the new competencies required for intercultural and inter-sectoral exchange. It is hard to equip students with the tools to ask critical questions or visualize something new when they have only ever been told how things work and have been. Students must be fully supported in learning that persons in power or many people with collective power created the past. Similarly, they can now gain power, not necessarily through money or force, to be able to, in community, create the world in which they wish to live.