When I studied abroad the first time I was 19 years old and in Rome. It was such an amazing experience, and yet I often look back at certain aspects of my program with some regret. I (and perhaps most people) have the tendency to seek the path of most comfort and least resistance despite reminders to do the opposite. When in Rome, this led me to create a social and professional bubble of culturally similar friends. Particularly by the end of my time in Rome, most of the people with whom I interacted were U.S. students like myself.
This is certainly not ideal for intercultural learning! I am also quite confident that such a comfort zone is not a phenomenon unique to my experience. So now, as an international education professional, I often ask myself to think up strategies that can help myself and the students I work with to break out of our bubbles and interact with our host communities.
One of the most effective interventions I have found in this vein is the inclusion of community service initiatives within the study abroad programming. Volunteering with local organizations gives me and my students the chance to work alongside folks who are different from us towards a common goal. It can be a fulfilling experience that is also mutually beneficial to all parties involved. It is with this strategy in mind that I organized a small group of Dublin City University semester students from George Mason University to join me at the monthly Royal Canal Clean-up.
A big thanks is owed to the volunteers that organize a monthly beautification of Dublin’s Royal Canal (http://www.royalcanalcleanup.com/). The folks there welcomed us with open arms, high visibility vests, litter-pickers, and trash bags. The sun was shining as we spent the next few hours taking a nice stroll along the canal and cleaning as best we could along the way. Our small group collected six large bags of rubbish, and that was only a small portion of what was gathered by the wider community!
After the event, we were brought to a local pub and offered coffee, tea, scones, and conversation. It was a great chance to share our stories with folks who wanted to get to know us. Again, a huge thanks must be offered to the Royal Canal Clean-up crew for facilitating us in taking part in a fantastic morning.
I will be coming back to the next clean-up in June. Next time, I will have around 15 students in tow and we hope to continue our mutually beneficial relationship with our host community. I can’t recommend enough, both as a practitioner and as a participant, the value of including service projects in a study abroad experience.