The field of international learning is growing at rapid rates for Canada’s universities. In recent years’ past, we’ve seen a strong insurgence of strategic missions for internationalization come out of many universities; objectives to bring more international students to Canadian institutions, while also sending Canadian students to destinations all around the world to experience culture, engagement, service and research, with hopes that these experiences will prove to be transformational for both students and communities alike.
I’ve been a participant in higher education programs that sought to send students abroad for a variety of experiences, and during this time, I engaged with the community of practice surrounding this type of programming. Sadly, but not to my own surprise, I consider my time and contributions during these international education programs my biggest failures of my personal, academic, and professional life. So I quit international learning, but at the same time, international learning quit me. Here’s why.
I do not know enough about international development to be an international learning educator. And I don’t know what I don’t know.
My failures in international learning are amongst the most humbling of my life. I broke rules. I broke the BIG rules of international engagement. I engaged in practices or behaviours that at times perpetuate colonialism, voyeurism and the gazing eye, reinforce first/third world paradigms, and ran the risk of exploitation, even if I didn’t really know it at the time. On the ground and in my own experience, I was building relationships, learning from people, sharing precious and real moments of connection, learning about history and culture, and approaching every experience, and the way they were shared, with best intentions. Through the eyes of others based on the tiny portions of my experiences that were shared on social media or hurried emails home, I had potentially reinforced stereotypes, perpetuated colonialism, and produced “poverty porn”. Yikes. I did? It was then that I realized I knew nothing about international development as I made my way through my international learning experience: I wasn’t engaging in these perceived activities on a conscious level – I was literally just clueless on how to approach all cultural situations and recognize the “fine lines”, and unknowingly I had the potential to cause harm in place of good intentions. My experiences showed me that I have a lot to learn about international development and what it takes to build a successful and ethical international learning program before I give it another shot and throw my hat back in the ring. Not only do I need to move from a place of ignorance to being a bit more “in the know” but I also have to gain a handle on what I don’t know I don’t yet know… the learning curve is a daunting one.
The gaps between the research on best practices, the actual practices, and pressures universities face are too big. And it’s no one’s fault. There is an emergent body of research surrounding best practices for international engagement by educational institutions. Recommendations contained in these works span from length and content of training programs, to effective evaluation methodology, to best practices for site visits to host communities. The body of research is extremely useful and gives a glimpse into the ways that international education programs can and should do better. However, at the practitioner level, pressures to send out as many students as possible to fulfill Internationalization missions within often constrained time frames forces some of these “best practices” to fall by the wayside, and it’s not for lack of wanting to “do better”. Oftentimes criticism can lead to defensiveness, a desire to change becomes frustration that the infrastructure is not set up for change and innovation. At all levels: senior leadership, researcher and practitioner, there needs to be a harmonizing of research to inform best practices, institutional goals that focus on quality rather than quantity, and for the playing field to be conducive to allowing international programs to be executed by practitioners that addresses the concerns that are revealed in evaluative research and within their community of practice.
International learning and international development cannot be mutually exclusive. Participating in the international learning sphere leaves you open to a lot of criticism, as it should. It is difficult to articulate learning in ways that honour and respect international development principles, mostly because international learning is often messy. When you decide to travel to another country to engage in community development work for the purpose of learning, and pack your bags, you automatically also pack assumptions, power, privilege, perception and ego along with you – your own, and those of your allies and critics. I’ve come to recognize that there is this thing that exists called the “international development hyper-lens”. In every international experience, especially when you are engaging closely with communities, there HAS to be the presence of an international development lens; this lens allows us to determine whether in pursuit of our learning we may be causing damage, and should be carried into every experience. On the flip, the international development hyper-lens can become dangerous and stifling by taking every single situation and experience of cultural discovery and subjecting it to splitting hairs, looking for the injustices or the exploitation that you’re undoubtedly causing just by being an outsider in a “third world” country, and engaging a little zealously in the critical discourse we have necessarily learned to become a part of. It’s incredibly important to use an international development lens in every experience of international learning, yet automatically assigning a negative or exploitative stance to learning experiences can stifle cultural discovery – and most importantly human connection – when people become afraid to engage with the world around them. My own sharing of learning experiences became subject to the international development hyper-lens, and took my experiences away from me to become about someone else’s need to tell me they knew more about international development than I did or to project their views that I was doing damage, when no damage was being done. My visit to a cultural site in Africa that takes ex-poachers and places them with secure jobs educating tourists about history and culture became exploitation and gazing; a piece of writing describing one’s experience of experiencing being racially identified for the first time became an insensitivity to the racism experienced by minorities at home; fundraising, but only being able to give a one-time donation became setting an organization up to fail due to not being a sustainable funding-source. Where’s the learning to be taken? I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere within the nuances of the mistakes we make, the lenses we view things, and the on-the-ground relationships and experiences that prove to be personally significant. The learning from the educational perspective occurs when we continue to ask the questions that come up in the relationship between international learning programs and international development principles. Personally, I’ve determined that I am educationally, mentally and emotionally deficient in my abilities to successfully participate in international learning programs from the educator perspective, but this doesn’t mean that I will discontinue engaging on a global level as a traveler, and someone who has important global connections and a desire to work globally. I think it’s OK if I demote myself back to “just a traveler” with a vow to always do right by people, be kind and respectful, always remain transparent in my intentions, and always consider the point of view of others as best I can.
There’s work to be done right outside my own door. Being on the periphery of international development work through international learning has exposed me to the age-old argument of “why do work in other countries when people in our own countries need help?” This is an argument I’ve always tried to stay away from in a direct manner, as I’ve seen how these kinds of arguments can often go off the rails to places I don’t want them to go; we saw some of this happen with the recent Syrian refugee crisis. However my experiences of being a North American working within “third world” countries has underscored that in some cases the countries we think need our help can actually be negatively affected by our presence. The North American mentality has persisted too long that these countries are deficient, or look to the West for the best solutions to community development issues. Our relationships to other countries are best leveraged when we engage in relationships of mutual knowledge exchange and exchange of community development practices, as there is a lot to be learned by the countries we have traditionally seen as “needing help”. Instead, I always come back to the Goethe quote: “Let everyone sweep in front of his [sic] own door, and the whole world will be clean”, and have personally decided to focus my energies into my local community for the time being. The Rwandan practice of “Umuganda” engages citizens in mandatory community-clean up once a month, which contributes to the country’s immaculate conditions. What if all municipalities and communities mandated this practice, but it was expanded to all aspects of society, beyond just environmental cleanup? What if everyone swept outside his or her own door – would the whole world be clean? Perhaps I can be too utopian, but I’d like to hold onto this utopian view for just a little longer.
I quit international learning, and international learning quit me, but it still remains a big part of my life. My experiences have turned me into an advocate for better training for staff, faculty and students involved in international learning. My experiences will never have me stop advocating for host communities. My experiences have allowed me to develop a skill set that will help international learning programs asses their impact. Since these kinds of programs aren’t going away, I can at least use what I have learned to help them work internationally a bit better.
I am encouraged by the changes in international learning that are occurring and will undoubtedly occur in the next while, and I am also excited to witness university programs emerging as leaders in best practices for fostering learning in international environments that place community first and emphasizes quality over quantity. I hope practitioners, researchers, and participants who engage in international learning programs harmonize their efforts in ways that foster collaboration rather than criticism in order to do right by all who engage in these programs and the communities who host them.
Some helpful resources for practitioners, researchers and participants alike. These have certainly been helpful for me in learning the tough lessons that brought me the greatest learning:
End Humanitarian Douchery. http://endhumanitariandouchery.co.nf/the-7-sins-of-humanitarian-douchery/
Ernesto Sirolli – “Shut Up and Listen” – TED Talk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chXsLtHqfdM
GlobalSL.org – http://globalsl.org/
Larsen, M. (Ed.). (2015). International Service Learning: Engaging Host Communities. Routledge.