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Jenny Clark
What is international service learning

International service-learning combines community development, studying abroad and experiential education. And it’s one of the best ways to learn just about anything. 

So, if you’re interested in studying abroad and want to develop your community-building skills, getting involved in an international service-learning program is a great way to go about it.

Let’s take a closer look at what international service-learning actually is.

What’s the foundation of international service learning?

volunteers on an international service learning abroad trip


International service-learning programs have three main characteristics: 

  • They allow you to engage in organised service activities that address community needs.
  • They make it easier to get involved in practical learning experiences and cross-cultural interactions.
  • They allow for regular reflection sessions. 

These cornerstones of service-learning programs abroad allow students to gain a deeper appreciation of the host country, academic study, and of global and intercultural issues. 

And this can encourage any learner to become an active player in global development efforts – also known as being a global citizen.

Further reading: Seven steps to become a global citizen

What are the benefits of international service-learning?

1) You’ll develop skills

International service learning will help you develop new skills


International service-learning allows you to grow your intercultural understanding through both personal and professional development.

It’s also a transformative way of learning. This means you won’t just learn new concepts, you’ll gain new perspectives! And this can go a long way in helping you decide what you want to do for a living. 

In fact, many people end up planning their futures around experiences they’ve had while on an international service-learning trip. 

Further reading: How to choose the right service-learning organisation

Service-learning will also help you develop critical skills associated with leadership, teamwork and problem-solving. 

You’ll also gain insight into your own thought processes and become more self-aware. 

This is a step towards knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and making a meaningful contribution in the global community.

2) You’ll experience the importance of community

Experience the importance of community on an international service learning trip


Besides set learning goals, international service learning also takes the local community into account. 

And, the best service-learning programs abroad incorporate respect and consideration into every activity aimed at addressing the needs of local people. 

This means you’ll have the chance to engage with people from other countries in a meaningful way, while working on shared projects.

And, what better way for any visitor to learn about important global issues, and the social, environmental and political power structures that are in place within the host community?

In service-learning programs, all participants are seen as both learners and teachers, and the relationship between all individuals is collaborative and equal.

How is international service-learning different from other volunteer programs?

International service learning has a lot of overlap with international volunteering, international internships, and gap-year-abroad programs

Each of these takes community engagement or conservation and mixes it with travel and adventure. 

But, international service-learning adds additional components of experiential education – learning through experiences –that’s specifically related to a certain academic endeavour. 

Further reading: How to prepare for your first international-service-learning course


Volunteers conducting biological surveys during a service learning abroad program


On an international internship for example, you may receive training and then conduct biological surveys for 2–4 weeks. And, your focus will be on gaining work experience, alongside skills development.

Similarly, if you are volunteering abroad with an organisation, perhaps as part of a gap year program, you’ll engage in community or conservation work that isn’t necessarily directly linked to some kind of study. 

Overall, international service-learning is a great way for you to gain global competency and leadership skills. 

Further reading: Future-proofing your career: leadership training for students

And, service-learning experience is even seen as a great benefit by many higher-education institutions, like Harvard University

By gaining international knowledge and experience, you’ll grab the attention of employees locally and globally.

And don’t forget that service-learning is also a great way for you to learn more about yourself! 

By discovering where your individual passions lie, you will become more inspired to continue learning and contribute to the world in a way that makes a positive impact. 

Find out more about GVI’s, award-winning international service-learning programs, and pick a course that speaks to your goals for the future.

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