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Bringing hosts into the centre of international service learning

Hosts are a critical aspect of students’ experience. Here are five recommendations for treating them equitably.


International Service Learning (ISL) is understood as a practice where students, often from the Global North, travel to another place, often in the Global South, to volunteer.

The shift to increased online teaching and learning offered accessibility for many, and changed possibilities for international connections. In a recent co-edited volume of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, authors reflected on what the pause on travel meant for ISL and what pedagogical assumptions are built into the practice. For example, authors challenged the assumption that ISL encounters with others must be in person as well as the notion that encounters are necessarily transformative (in a good way) for those (students) who are doing service work.

What is often missing is a consideration of the experiences of hosts: community members who welcome students into their homes, workplaces, and communities (although this is changing – see for example this recent issue of Frontiers). Hosts often spend time preparing to welcome students, worrying about students’ experiences, and doing an extensive amount of care work. Emerging from our joint research projects with hosts of ISL, we offer five recommendations for how to centre equity in building and nurturing ISL programs:

1. Sharing university resources

In our research, we often heard from hosts that they wanted more opportunities to benefit directly from the university. Given that hybrid classes are now more common, we suggest that the partnership should include virtual education opportunities for community members.

2. Compensation

Hosts spend a significant amount of time preparing to welcome students, reflecting on student experiences, and caring for students while they are in placement. Their compensation should cover this time and expertise. Beyond direct financial compensation, we suggest that giving hosts access to experiences that students engage in like visiting museums, beaches or places of national significance should be included as well.

3. Centering care principles

The pandemic helped us to understand (at least for a time) how important our connections are to one another through mutual aid, the reliance on health care, and witnessing the impact of our global interconnections. Dean Spade defines mutual aid as “the radical act of caring for each other while working to change the world.” How would your ISL programming change if mutual aid was a guiding principle for the program? We cannot offer clear recommendations here, as this must happen in relation and collaboration with communities.

4. Partnering with hosts

Hosts and universities will likely work together for years. We suggest that universities and program planners include hosts in planning programs and include their desired outcomes in planning. You might ask, why are hosts interested in participating in your ISL program? What are the benefits they receive from participating? What is difficult for them?

5. Inclusion

International service-learning is often built on the assumption of white, middle-class students. Learning outcomes often reflect this – for example, cultural competency when participating students may already have cross-cultural competencies. We suggest that programs should be more accessible and affordable but should also reflect ethics of mutuality rather than treating student learning as a way to shift from assumptions of white students’ transformation. How are the experiences of non-white students understood (see this incredible piece by Gabrielle Hickman)? What accessibility needs are there on your campus (for example part-time students)?

As scholars working in and researching ISL for many years, we have complex feelings about it. We have both seen the transformative potential realized through relationship building, humble learning, and involvement in host communities, but we have also seen the harm that can happen when students enter communities without preparation, language skills, or ongoing support. In our work to try to foster and nurture mutuality through service learning, we have created Transnational Service Learning in the hope that it can serve as a hub for those wanting to do this work. The site houses open interactive educational resources to help students prepare for their trip and for program developers to reflect on their program design. We plan to add resources for hosts in the future.

As universities shift back to facilitating ISL travel for students, we hope that principles of mutuality can guide the (re-)building of partnerships that can both foster learning and transformation for students and hosts, as well as work to change the world.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Katie MacDonald is an assistant professor in sociology at Athabasca University. Jessica Vorstermans is an assistant professor in the faculty of health at York University. They are white settler scholars, from Treaty 6 and Treaty 13 territories. Dr. MacDonald’s research engages with transnational feminism to think about two distinct sites of inequity: international service learning and affordable housing. Dr. Vorstermans’ research makes critical interventions into the field of international service learning, engaging plural ideas of human rights, disability and equity.
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