Feinstein Institute Community Newsletter
Issue No. 4, August 2016

Learning & Engaging Globally: Then & Now

Magali García-Pletsch, Program Coordinator, Feinstein Institute for Public Service

Since its founding, the Feinstein Institute has been committed to promoting and supporting student learning outside the walls of our classrooms and the city limits of Providence. For example, Feinsteiners might remember the days of Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips, where students spent time alongside communities in places as far away as Guayaquil, Ecuador, or as nearby as Shutesbury, Massachusetts.
As a way to further deepen student learning and build reciprocal and sustainable relationships with our partners abroad, in 2013 we transitioned our program away from ASB trips and into a course-embedded service & cultural immersion program. Through this “Global Service-Learning” program, over the summer, winter, or spring break, students embark on an international immersion experience, which serves as the central “text” of a semester-long course where students analyze and critically reflect upon their experiences abroad. Each course is also designed to deepen student learning on a diversity of issues, ranging from crossing borders, to social infrastructures, to the art of storytelling.

In this issue, we’re honored to share the stories and reflections of three of our colleagues—globally engaged leaders who each offer a unique perspective of our program, as well as learning and engaging globally as a whole.

On Service-Learning and Searching Beyond Personal Transformation

Stephen Skelly '17

Over the last two years, I have taken part in the Global Service-Learning (GSL) course “Global Border Crossings;” once as a student, once as a student leader/co-facilitator. The course focused on critical analysis of the historical, social, political, and economic contexts of contemporary migration and policy in the case of the US and Mexico; contextualization of the historical and contemporary border; and analysis of the cultures within these border regions, specifically cities or towns extremely close to the border. Most important, in my opinion, was the cultural immersion and international experience. We traveled for a week during Spring Break to Tijuana, Mexico and worked with the non-profit Esperanza International and its Mexican sister, Fundación Esperanza de México. While there, we worked with families who are constructing their own homes and also visited one of the border walls between the US and Mexico. The point I want to emphasize, however, is our “working with” the community: we may have started a house, we may have finished one, but we were not there from beginning to end. The work continued after we left; the object of the work is truly to empower the communities and the families, not just to give volunteers the feeling that they “did good for the underprivileged.” The communities, Esperanza/FEM, and the families all have the tools and the knowledge to build their homes; we were and must simply be labor. We saw ourselves as equal with the community and the family – not superior, not paternalistic, not as saviors. 

One of the great characteristics of GSL is the focus on confronting and mitigating the global systems of inequality, power, and difference that shape our worldview: how we think and ultimately how we choose to act or not act. As a consequence, individually you do change; I will testify to that. More so, Global Service-Learning interrogates how those personal changes, formative and impactful images, actions and conversations can be used to inform greater transformation in a global society. The import is to push beyond traditional social service activities (ex. volunteer work) and Band-Aid solutions in order to work towards social change around global issues – economic inequality, housing quality, healthcare access, sustainable development, community empowerment, immigration, and more.

From what we’ve heard in feedback from other students, the foundation, and the communities we worked with, curricular component of our cultural immersion does truly make a difference. We act and treat people differently and think differently than other groups, so much so that we have shared our syllabi with Esperanza the past two years in order to increase awareness in other groups. It really is not just another Spring Break trip.

We Are Better Together. We Thrive in Partnership.
Nuria Alonso García, Professor, Providence College

“Dare to change the world. There is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world. It is possible. It is the age-old vocation of all humanity. I can't think of a better life than one dedicated to passion, to dreams, to the stubbornness that defies chaos and disillusionment.”- Gioconda Belli 

Driven by my commitment to widening the circle of learning and building partnerships that transcend the limits of the classroom, I strive to develop educational initiatives that examine how issues of international resonance intersect with matters pertaining to local communities. Service-learning has infused creativity and a deeper sense of solidarity into my pedagogical practices, and stimulated me to engage more intentionally in critically reflective teaching.

Prior to my immersion experience in Nicaragua, I was the most concerned about not being able to connect with my community abroad, not knowing how to inspire people's trust, not developing a sense of belonging. I guess I underestimated the power of penetrating a new environment with humility, appreciation and a sincere desire to learn. I was searching for opportunities to grow in my understanding of the world, to engage with folks from Central American traditions with the hope they would educate me with their stories on their perception of culture and relationships. I wanted to experience first-hand ideologies and behaviors that would allow me to reframe the realities to which I have been exposed in my years living in Europe, Mexico and the United States. 

Inspired by the work of NGO Waves of Hope in Nicaragua, we established a partnership with the organization in 2012 and envisioned service-learning projects that would support the literacy programming for youth that Waves of Hope was crafting. Our partnership embraces the plurality of talents, perspectives and experiences that all those involved bring; it encourages shared responsibility of tasks, and supports an organic distribution and redistribution of power among partners. Partners challenge each other constructively, and developed a sense of community in which every member is valued for their unique contribution. We co-create opportunities for engagement across borders based on authenticity, inclusivity and trust. This means engaging learners in international service experiences in Latin America that have meaningful connections with the mostly Hispanic local community in Providence.
The service-learning trips have allowed us to interact with rural Nicaraguan youth, to learn by immersion about the life and heritage of the local community, and to practice a global service-learning model that nurtures respect, fosters civic responsibility and supports learning in partnership -nurturing each other's knowledge with curiosity, rigor and sensitivity. Student leadership creates a more vibrant global pedagogical framework and contributes to ensure the long-lasting impact of the international service-learning experiences.
Our purpose is to promote sustainable practices in connection to art education, reading and writing literacy, and storytelling; to offer a public forum for stories to unfold, and to support youth communities across borders to embrace their voices with pride and confidence.

‘Unlearning’ in the Context of Cape Town: the Importance of Social Infrastructure.

Janice McMillan, Professor, University of Cape Town

Before a group of 9 Providence students came to Cape Town for 2 weeks in Summer, I remember saying to the group in a Skype conversation:

Think of language and the ‘verbs’ that you are using linked to your upcoming trip to Cape Town. Are they words like ‘help’, ‘serve’, ‘improve’? or are they more like ‘learn’, ‘engage with’, ‘accompany’, and ‘listen to’?"
After the visit, I found myself using the following words when asked if I would like to contribute to the Feinstein newsletter:

It was such fun having Magali, Nick and the students here with us, it gave the class an expanded feeling – and I am not just talking about numbers. There were new insights, interesting additions to the conversations and a vast array of new and different questions that were brought up about community, development, and social infrastructure."

I work as a Professor at the University of Cape Town in the broad field of community engagement and direct a program on global citizenship. I also worked on the Stanford Program in Cape Town for 5 years (2010-2014) together with Tim Stanton who was the Director. Tim met Nick Longo at a conference in 2011 and after talking to him, felt that we had interests in common and suggested I look at Nick’s work. In 2012 I had a chance to meet Nick at a service learning conference in Baltimore - I went up to him and I think I said something like ‘Hello, I think we might have some common interests…’!  

Out of this was borne a commitment to develop our work and thinking in the field of community engagement across two different contexts, with a particular focus on student learning and pedagogy. I spent 6 weeks of my sabbatical in Fall of 2014 at Feinstein, where I did quite a bit of teaching. Nick then came on a visit to Cape Town in Summer 2015 while on sabbatical and taught on a course that I lead called ‘Social infrastructures: engaging with community for change’. The course is aimed at engineering students (although not exclusively) and asks them to think about the social consequences of their technical engineering expertise. It is a is very experiential course with lots of discussions and engagements with a number of largely under-resourced off-campus communities in the greater Cape Town area. This visit led to the group of Providence students coming with him this past Summer. 

One of the key challenges we discuss on the course is the idea that in order to learn new things and ideas that might disrupt our current thinking – particularly in community engaged learning contexts – we often have to first ‘unlearn’ many things. In particular, we need to realize that university knowledge is only one kind of knowledge and often can be limited in helping us to understand many social justice issues in contexts of inequality. This is both in Cape Town but relevant in the US too. A Providence student wrote to me after the course saying:
"Taking Social Infrastructures and being able to study community engagement and development at the social level, while letting community leaders be our educators helped me not only to learn so much, but also to unlearn a lot as well (emphasis added)."

The ‘expanded’ feeling I talk about above helped my students in Cape Town realize that students in a very different part of the world are interested in similar issues to themselves. This was an important realization for the Providence students too. As one put it in his post-course essay: 

"It was interesting to have met someone so similar to me half way around the world and at the same time I realized something. The interaction between myself and […] is exactly what Janice wants from the course, the construction of social infrastructure…I think that that’s the point of this course, to learn how to interact and build relationships with people in ways that foster equality, integrity, and justice.

To conclude: if we think about the language and in particular the verbs we use to describe community engagement, ‘unlearning’ might be an important one. I believe it can help us re-look certain assumptions, unpack our own stereotypes and be open to understanding and building social infrastructure across global contexts. 
The Feinstein Institute is thrilled to welcome two new Rhode Island Campus Compact VISTAs aboard this year. Take a moment to learn more about them and the rest of our staff!
As we wrap up the Feinstein Institute Community Newsletter's inaugural year, we would appreciate your feedback in this quick survey!
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