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Summer 01
Faculty Involvement
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Educating for Social Justice on the International Front: Principles and Pitfalls
By Thomas Drexler, former Assistant Director of Community-based Service Learning, DePaul University and Executive Director of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps International, Ann Folwell Stanford, Associate Professor in the School for New Learning, and Charles R. Strain, Associate Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University.


""If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.""
---Lila Watson, Aboriginal Australian

What happens when relatively privileged North American students embark on an international service learning project in settings of deep poverty and injustice? For whom is this experience transformative? How can service learning lead to justice-seeking that will carry over beyond the class itself? How do we take responsibility for what we and our students learn and come to know? These questions have underpinned our reflection with our students as we have studied, traveled, and worked in El Salvador and Nogales, Mexico.

We developed the following model programs as part of an overall strategic plan for establishing and maintaining a strong international social justice focus at DePaul University. In the process, we found it essential to adhere to the following principles:

  • Build on existing faculty and staff relationships in the host country
  • Work with partner organizations in the host country
  • Participate in ongoing service projects developed by partner organizations in the host country rather than creating short lived service opportunities
  • Connect the global and the local both in classroom discussions and in preparatory and follow-up service learning experiences in Chicago
  • Build a "ladder of social engagement" in which short term, study abroad experiences are linked to a variety of opportunities for further study and engagement
  • Coordinate academic-based programs with student affairs co-curricular activities to maintain a regular presence in the host country

Model 1: Nogales, Mexico

DePaul first began taking students to the Arizona/Sonora borderlands in 1994 working with a Tucson and Nogales-based educational organization, Borderlinks. La Frontera is a place where the so-called First World and the Third World meet face to face. Because we are aware of the limitations of short-term study abroad experiences, we designed the program so that students would be encouraged to take one of two "funnel" courses, World Political Economy or Liberation Theology, in the quarter before the December trip. Eventually the latter course became a service-learning course.

In Nogales, the students live with families in the colonias, speak with owners and workers in the maquiladoras, and discuss border issues with journalists, politicians, and social labor activists and members of the Chamber of Commerce. On the border itself, we meet with the Border Patrol, Public Health Officials, and ecological activists. The "funnel" courses provide students with a theoretical framework for raising questions and interpreting answers.

The experiences on the borderlands--particularly witnessing the struggles of people surviving on the average of one dollar per hour in the largely American-owned factories--pump life-giving blood through the body of theory. After students return, they develop public presentations on border issues and their relevance to people living in Chicago for church groups, Latino organizations, and members of the DePaul community.

Model 2: El Salvador

In the case of El Salvador, students met with faculty to discuss assigned readings, to hear from Salvadorans who live in Chicago, to prepare for three weeks of living with families, and to begin forming a sense of community with each other. We had designed this experience to incorporate both an urban and a rural element. We drew upon DePaul's Vincentian roots for our housing, living with families from a Vincentian parish located in a poor, working-class community in San Salvador.

Likewise, our formal relationship with the University of El Salvador, which we have had since 1992, provided us with our first week of service-learning opportunities. We thus found ourselves boating each morning to poor estuary communities on the coast for the first week of the course, working in various capacities, but primarily struggling to think through how we could be useful in these desperately impoverished places.

During the second week, we traveled to a rural cooperative and resettlement community. We visited important sites of the war, focusing on U.S. policy and its role in El Salvador's 12-year civil war. Students listened to stories and analyses of past, present, and future.

In San Salvador, students worked in a day care center for the children of maquila workers, most of them single mothers. We visited non-governmental organizations (NGOs), exploring women's issues, human rights, gangs, labor, and the arts, among others. We also spoke with political leaders and representatives from community groups. This gave our students a context for their own analysis of what they were seeing and experiencing. For example, one student commented on how many of the children in the Center were ill or uncared for, but instead of assuming the mothers' neglect, she recalled the facts about maquila work, pointing out how the unjust demands and conditions of one system lead to individual consequences, in this case, for the children.

It is this kind of analysis that we hope to foster through our service learning trips. Indeed, international service learning could well become an exoticized voyeurism or a paternalistic charity without careful preparation and regular reflection sessions (in our cases almost nightly). We worry that, while our students are receiving transformative learning experiences, they may be doing so on the backs of the poor. We realize that our efforts to respond to human needs while respecting human dignity and simultaneously bridging cultural differences with our grassroots partner organizations are never perfect.

Lest our students return home with a sense of how "bad" things are "over there," and remain unaware of the injustices and impoverishment in our own country, we made clear the link between the global and the local. The El Salvador students began by having several classes in Chicago before traveling, but upon returning, they engaged in follow-up work in the Salvadoran community within the Chicago area. In the future, we will be asking our students to design a three-day "course" in Chicago that would include visits to at least six community-based organizations and would provide an analysis for similar issues facing poor and marginalized people in Chicago.

Plans for The Future

As a way of insuring that these two projects continue beyond the involvement of a few key faculty, the university has invested faculty development funds, and we have taken groups of faculty to each location, with an eye toward their involvement in future courses and trips. Indeed, our next El Salvador service learning course will be staffed in part by faculty who were on these orientation trips.

On the drawing board are plans to link these study abroad opportunities with special sequenced Spanish language courses which will include a service learning component and also with several paid internship opportunities in Latino Community organizations. For the many DePaul students who cannot afford to study abroad even short term, we are considering home stays in Chicago's Latino communities coupled with the internship placements. When these educational opportunities are linked with the funnel, follow-up, and study abroad courses, we will have truly created a "ladder of social engagement" around issues of justice in the international arena.

We hope students' experiences with international service learning will lead to a critical awareness that pushes students to think against the grain and question their and others' realities. We hope to see engaged citizens, activists and people of vision. We hope that our students will emerge from these trips hungry to know more and with the tools to continue their learning journey far beyond university walls.


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Students' experiences with international service learning will lead to a critical awareness that pushes students to think against the grain and question their and others' realities.

Communication tips
Students who participate in service learning programs in other countries have stories to tell about their experiences that will interest the media. Those stories can serve to educate Americans about the realities of life in Mexico, El Salvador, and other countries, and can shape or re-shape opinions about how students learn.

Ask students who have participated in such service learning projects to hold a press briefing when they return home. Such a briefing can be held over breakfast, and can include three to five journalists who have an interest in the subject. In this case, consider inviting a student newspaper reporter, alumni magazine editor, feature or education writer from a local newspaper, editor from a local Spanish-language weekly newspaper, and perhaps a National Public Radio affiliate reporter or producer. Prepare the students with anecdotes and talking points to be sure that they do not repeat one other. Ask the professor who runs the program to participate so that she or he can explain why the program was created and how this kind of education benefits students, communities, and our society.