The purpose of my narrative study was to hear stories about how community members are affected by international service-learning programs. At a time when universities and colleges in the United States emphasize internationalization efforts and the civic purpose of higher education, more institutions are designing and delivering international service-learning programs. More questions must be raised regarding how these programs affect communities. Despite the centrality of reciprocity in the service-learning paradigm, the extant literature primarily focuses on the effects of international service-learning programs on students.
I spent two weeks collecting data at a primary school in Ithemba, a predominantly Black African, Xhosa-speaking township in South Africa characterized by one of my participants as “the other side.” Three participants at Korhaan School—Bhejile (the principal), Dunyiswa (the deputy principal), and Peline (a teacher)—engaged in two semi-structured interviews and one focus group. To mask the identity of my participants, I selected pseudonyms for the two universities, the primary school, and the community where the primary school is situated, and I use the names selected by my participants throughout the manuscript.
Three key findings emerged from the data. First, my participants’ stories underscored the interconnectedness of the community and the community-based organization. Second, the students who participate in the international service-learning program bring a myriad of benefits to Korhaan School, and the students’ actions align with ubuntu, a cultural framework that shapes an individual’s engagement with others. Third, areas for improvement exist for the international service-learning program.
A number of implications for higher education professionals are presented as a result of the findings. First, faculty members and practitioners must involve community members as co-educators in the long-term life cycle of an international service-learning program. Second, U.S. higher education professionals must learn from international models of service. Third, faculty members and practitioners who design international service-learning programs must restructure pre-departure programming to include domestic service opportunities, academic preparation beyond surface-level knowledge, and the postcolonial perspective. These strategies will help higher education professionals construct meaningful partnerships with community-based organizations that are characterized by thick reciprocity—partnerships that are more inclusive, just, and reciprocal.