Pay attention to the man behind the curtain of international learning

When I worked within international learning programs in the university setting, many things kept me up at night, and ultimately led me to reconsider my career in international learning, but one issue that I struggled a lot with was the lack of authenticity in the construction of some of these international learning programs.

North American higher education institutions are touting the “Internationalization” flag with, in my opinion, a lack of resources, know-how, and mostly time to carry out authentic, ethical and meaningful international partnerships that actually produce results for the institution (students) and the host communities involved. This idea that I am bringing up is nothing new. We’ve thankfully seen some great critical perspectives come into the purview of the public about these programs in recent years. I love Talya Zemach-Bersin’s perspectives shared in the 2008 article “Why American Students Abroad Can’t Be Global Citizens” that questions the whole “why” of it all, and in 2015, CBC’s Doc Zone came out with the documentary “Volunteers Unleashed” that looked at the phenomenon of voluntourism: programs designed to combine international tourism experiences with the promise of making global impact (worth a watch!).

For many years, and until recently, I was involved in sending university students abroad to work on service and engagement projects within host communities touted with the idea that a student could “give back” to the global world while engaging in an authentic, integrated cultural experience among the locals. The idea universities would sell the students was that through true integration within local communities (usually only for a week), and providing a service based on “defined” community needs, they would make true impact on the global level, and in turn, be provided an enlightening and transformational learning experience. Truthfully, it hurt to say it anymore, but it was my job to.

Universities work from strategic plans. Within these strategic plans includes a quota or goal of sorts for their International programs. For X year, the academies will accept X number of students (cha-ching!) and send out X number of students, with exponential growth year after year. It provides great PR.

University staff and the departments that make up the university (i.e. student life, housing, etc) are usually tasked with meeting these outcomes. They recognize that with quantity you have to risk quality, and thus, this is why universities turn to (usually for-profit) third-party providers* that provide “canned” experiences, designed for large groups, and designed to meet Internationalization missions of higher educational institutions. The spots with the third party providers are committed to before the students have been recruited to fulfill them. With this magic number of students to send abroad to be met in mind, students are recruited into these international learning programs at both the co-curricular (non-academic) and curricular (course-based) levels at a price (of multiple thousands of dollars), with the idea they will provide a much needed service to a community in the Global South or third world who needs them. They are recruited, are accepted into the program and pay a fee to participate. They are provided orientation, reflection exercises and lessons on intercultural communication, cultural humility, and all the wonderful things that universities sell as global citizenship (a term still so engrained in my own vocabulary). The students go on these experiences, participate in a highly scheduled roster of activities, and are put in service situations with people in host communities who “need them”** so that these students can fulfill resumes with eye catching experiences that they’re told employers eat up. The students come home, with a promise and a dedication to save the world, but then altruism gets replaced with ambition, and in more cases than not, the student resumes on his or her own path from their academic to professional lives, and their international experience, and the people they worked with, becomes a distant memory. Only in some cases with the structure of the academic year allow students to have adequate debriefing experiences to help draw out the learning that the universities expect of them. Then rinse and repeat for the next year.

I don’t want to paint all international learning programs with a bad brush, as I have been witness to some incredible programs that are still continuing that ARE actually making meaningful global connections that I’ve been able to evaluate first-hand with the host community and the students involved. I still remain proud to have been involved in such authentic moments of exchange and experience, and I am happy to be affiliated with a new institution whose international learning programs I have become a big fan of. Within these programs, the third-party provider is left OUT, and the relationships are built directly between university staff and/or faculty member, and a host community abroad. This process requires a huge degree of time, money, travel, and thorough process of negotiating the partnership and understanding what each party hopes to get out of the experience. These programs also don’t stress that they are bringing something as a service, but rather, position these as opportunities for true exchange where not one party is more advantaged than the other. These programs are still built on the premises mentioned above of quotas, economic exchanges, and designing of experiences, but when these experiences are made with a high degree of intention and host community participation, where the host community’s outcomes are placed before the student outcomes, better outcomes truly are produced for all involved.

How an international learning experience is advertised can make all the difference. If you are going to another country to strictly observe or learn from them, name it as so. If your international learning experience represents more of a tour rather than a true engagement experience, name it as so. It’s OK to travel abroad without an altruistic purpose. It is not OK to travel abroad with stated altruistic purpose that it is inauthentic, and doesn’t represent altruism at all. Let’s all stop kidding ourselves by placing fancy names on things to make it sound better than it actually is.

While it may appear to the contrary, I do not think that international programming within higher education programs that tout themselves as engagement experiences should stop, however, I can pose a few questions to those considering international learning, as practitioners or participants, that may allow these experience to move towards a place of authenticity:

  • What is the source of the partnership? How was the connection to an international host community made? Why was it made in the first place?
  • Are resources available to ensure that proper time is spent visiting the host community in advance, building relationships, and understanding opportunities for true engagement?
  • Are students provided universal financial access to these programs? Are students with disabilities accommodated in these programs?
  • Are host community participants given the opportunity to participate in similar experiences within North America? (i.e. read about fair trade learning)
  • If working with a third-party provider, is it a for-profit or nonprofit? What are the margins for overhead vs. financial contributions made to the host community?
  • Is host community impact measured? Are impacts reported? Whose testimonials are being used to recruit students into these programs – the students or the host community’s?
  • Exactly how is this North American presence building community capacity within third world countries? Is it at all?

Tough questions that make you think, don’t they?

The truth can’t be denied that universities will continue to increase their numbers of students going abroad; everywhere you turn, another university in North America is smattering the news with a renewed dedication to internationalization, and the buzz words: integration, global citizenship, service, international development, transformation, new perspectives, new horizons, intercultural, are not showing any signs of dying.

I wish and hope for the future of international learning within higher education to be less based on numbers and more based on impact. For funding to be provided so that relationships can be developed first-hand between universities and host communities rather than having to turn to sterile, canned packages provided by those who profit off the international and altruistic missions of universities and the eager willingness for host communities to accept these students for their own economic benefit. For a unification of the scholarly attention that is being paid to the true impacts of international learning and the practitioner, quota-based approaches. For international learning programs to move away from canned alternative reading week/spring break co-curricular opportunities to international engagement through discipline-specific, curriculum based international experiences that require rigour in the planning and intentionality in the building of the partnership. I wish and hope at the core of it all that we can all just be authentic and transparent in our intentions, actions and strategies as people of the world, and the institutions that facilitate our mobility across cultures and continents.


*Third-Party providers are usually for-profit (but some are non-profit) companies and organizations that provide international learning opportunities as a service. These organizations claim to have created true partnerships within host communities and constantly work to design student activities around community-defined needs at the time. Universities can pay these third-party providers a per-student fee, and in turn the third-party provider will organize all aspects of the travel experience. I do not agree with some of the practices of some organizations, but have witnessed some excellent and ethical practices by some organizations, namely Solidarity in Action (Canada-based) and Amizade (US based)

**Another blog post for another day will be the activities that students can sometimes be engaged in as part as service trips. Many times, students will be placed in remote villages that do not have access to medical services, and students (aka children) are placed in situations where they are wearing medical scrubs and providing basic medical triage activities after being trained for only a few hours. The host community does not understand that these students are not trained medical professionals, yet the students clothing leads them to believe they are. I don’t think I have to write much more to highlight how wrong it is to extend a scope of practice to a third-world country where that wouldn’t be stood for in North America.

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