Forum provides window into University service learning programs

Victoria Walker, Staff Writer

Members of the University staff and student body met Nov. 1 in the Center Room of the Elaine Langone Center for a lunchtime panel and dialogue that focused on issues of international development. The event was sponsored by the Office of Global Education and featured a brief presentation by associate professor of management Eric Martin of the Managing for Sustainability program, followed by a panel discussion featuring four students: Abdelhak Belatreche ’18 of Bucknell Advancing Communities: Educating and Serving (B.A.C.E.S.), Cali Wilson ’18 and Sarah Stroup ’19 of the Bucknell Brigade, and Yasameen Mohammadi ’20 of the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund (AGFAF).

To start off the event, Martin discussed his own experiences working with international development, beginning with his Peace Corps trip to Poland around thirty years ago. During that trip, he “started to recognize a few of the failures that were inherent in what [he] did in the Peace Corps, and then a few of the prospects” for that type of direct contribution of skill and labor abroad.

During his presentation, Martin recognized the complicated relationships between public multilateral and bilateral organizations, private sector businesses, and nonprofit organizations, all of which play a role in overseeing and bettering the human condition globally. He warned against “voluntourism,” and the often-held idea that American students can make manual contributions to foreign societies that locals cannot make on their own. Adding to this notion, Martin urged attendees to “think hard about what [they’re] good at and what [they] bring to the table,” and also to consider what they like to do and how their interests and passions could be translated into development projects.

“Service projects, and service learning generally, can be transformative educational activities,” Martin said. “They allow students to work closely with Bucknell faculty and staff. They expose all participants to new experiences, and push us all outside our comfort zones. And they typically produce a reflective component that solidifies learning in such an unusual way.”

This message was echoed by the four student panelists, who spoke in succession about their experiences working with their respective programs.

Belatreche, who works with the student-run service-learning program B.A.C.E.S. in the Dominican Republic, said that his organization’s work can “fluctuate depending on the needs” of the community. The program focuses on a “do with” approach to service that highlights the importance of identifying the specific desires of the community before arriving.

“They’re the ones who tell us what projects are most needed and most beneficial,” Belatreche said. “90 percent of the program is what we do before and after” the trip itself, he added. This proactive and retroactive work includes raising funds to support the trip and the work done on the ground.

A similar message was echoed by Wilson and Stroup, who are leaders for the Bucknell Brigade’s trip to Nicaragua, a program begun in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch.

“We’re very aware of that fact that we might not be as good [at the actual construction] as the workers who are doing the building year-round when we’re not here, but it’s important to be the free man-power and to fundraise,” Stroup said.

“We work very hard here at Bucknell all year round to fundraise and bring down money and supplies,” Wilson said. These funds are largely put towards medical donations and the construction of a medical clinic.

All of the panelists agreed that the work done by their groups and associated non-governmental organizations is not sustainable without outside support, oftentimes due to the lack of funding and the unavailability of supplies.

Mohammadi discussed her experiences leading the construction of the Hope Braille Library in Afghanistan, which aims to give her brother and other blind children and teenagers like him an opportunity to grow and play in the same supported environment that seeing children often inhabit. Mohammadi faced various difficulties as she watched her week-long project become a month-long project. One major challenge was the lack of available braille books in the country, largely due to the inability of the Minister of Education to provide many of them during times of war.

“We probably spent $1,000 or close to that to buy all the games and activities that I took with me,” Mohammadi said. “When I went back home, obviously I was not able to just go and purchase the braille books.”

The event was orchestrated to inspire broader thinking about service learning in general and outline the difference between completing “service” and working closely with a community to identify and best fulfill its needs. As a whole, the event gave attendees a window into some of the service learning programs being run on campus. According to Global Education Advisor Anita Casper, the event was intended to be “both informational and transformational.”

“We wanted to start a discussion on how we can best support international development and make people aware of the different types of international development,”  Casper said. “We started that discussion, but we can do more to inform people and work with groups to design sustainable development projects.”

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