Evaluating the Impact of International Service Learning Relationships

During my senior year of undergraduate studies at The University of Vermont, I conducted research and completed a thesis on service learning relationships between UVM and the St. Lucia community. Developed during the 10 year anniversary of the Community Development and Applied Economics department's service learning course and relationship with the government of St. Lucia, the project aimed to identify the benefits, pain points, and opportunities for UVM and its partners to grow the program in ways beneficial to both parties.

Role: Lead Researcher || Tags: Interviews, Research, Writing

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Desk research

For three months I researched an array of topics pertaining to the ideas of experiential education, international aid, and university partnerships. This included new teaching methodologies, user and ethnographic research methods, and international learning opportunities. I used this collective information to inform my project design and ensure mastery of the subject in advance of the project’s design.

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PROJECT DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT

With the input of my thesis advisor, I began to outline approaches to evaluating the ten year long relationship. I determined that utilizing qualitative methods would be the most beneficial in collecting information on whether the project had had an impact on the St. Lucian partners. This allowed for insight from the local community, as well as having their reactions, reception, and personal connections with the UVM community highlighted in a way that traditional numbers would find hard to showcase. These methods included questionnaires, focus groups, and observation.

 

STakeholder interviews & USER Research

For two weeks in early 2012, I visited St. Lucia to interview 16 partners and conduct one focus group. Interviewees were selected based on their relationship with the projects and their availability, and ranged from current to previous partners across the island.

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ANALYSIS AND KEY FINDINGS

Many recurring themes emerged during the analysis of the interviews.

One of the key insights identified was that the partners did not see the sustainability of the projects due to the short duration of each visit. With only two weeks per project, UVM students were not able to properly transfer how to continue the practices they were teaching or methods they were using, resulting in a loss of retained knowledge from year to year. Many community partners felt that this short timeline hindered the projects from realizing their full potential.

A majority of partners noted the importance of these projects and programs for both material and didactic benefits. They noted books and technology left behind as helping poor school communities gain access to materials they would not have had otherwise. Many also noted theknowledge transfer between students and participants in the HIV/AIDS and nutrition workshops, which otherwise communities would not have received.

The last key finding identified that the relationship between the community partners and the students from the University of Vermont had increased cultural awareness for those involved. It has bettered relations with the University itself as well as allowed students and citizens not typically involved with international opportunities a chance to engage in cross cultural collaboration. 

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IMPROVING FUTURE PROGRAMS

Based on these findings, I presented a list of suggestions for the UVM course leaders to improve their program design and strengthen the experiences for the partners. 

These included:

  • Increasing communication prior to starting the project and increasing follow up between courses to ensure partners are achieving their goals
  • Collaboratively setting goals as well as sharing expectations prior to each year
  • Creating a system for knowledge transfer, such as a database of past projects and lessons learned
  • Ensuring UVM students prepare a sustainability plan and the transfer of ownership of all materials

 

 

All photos copyright of Alyssa Kropp, except for "Project Design", which is courtesy of Unsplash.