by Kendra Ansotigue, ISA Student Services Advisor
During college, I was fortunate enough to participate in a 3-month ISA Service-Learning program in one of the happiest countries in the world, Costa Rica. I immersed myself in the Pura Vida lifestyle, while also building my professional portfolio. Before going on this program, I was not sure how this experience was going to unfold, nor how much my life would be effected from the involvement with such an amazing organization, the Women’s Microenterprise Development.
Service-learning programs allow participants to not only learn about civic engagement, but also build professional experience, make connections, and foster relationships that will impact their future. However, a common misconception is that while students gain amazing professional benefits during service-learning programs, they have to miss out on certain joys available to students participating in more traditional study abroad programs. I want to highlight a few common myths regarding service-learning programs.
Myth: I won’t have enough free time to travel and explore my host country.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions of service- learning programs. During my time in Costa Rica, my commitment to my host organization was my top priority, but I was still interested in exploring outside of my host city and immersing myself in Costa Rican culture. While at my host organization, I helped with administrative tasks, developed marketing initiatives, and led the English language program Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This allowed me to explore throughout the afternoon and evening, as well as travel wherever I wanted to go during my three day weekends. In addition to plenty of time to travel, service-learning participants have the added bonus of working with locals and knowing the inside scoop about the best places to explore! Locals know the ins and outs of the secret places that not all students have the chance to hear from just being in the classroom. So, take advantage of your local connections. Get out there and go explore!
Myth: I won’t meet anyone.
While meeting people in a new country can be challenging, service-learning allows students to step out of their comfort zone and make new friends just as ISA students on a traditional program would. Service-learning participants have the opportunity to meet other ISA participants and international students at nearby universities. Another reason why loneliness is a misconception is because not only can you meet students during your free-time, you can also meet other locals at your placement. Since you are at a host organization for a good amount of time during the week, this gives you a chance to build relationships with locals and learn about their culture instead of being tempted to only hang out with other students from the United States. If you are in a country that does not speak your first language, this is an excellent opportunity to practice the language of the host country -for free!
Myth: There’s no way I can get (university) credit for this.
I received 6 credits from my university through my service-learning program, which fulfilled my university’s internship requirement for my major. Students have two options: they can either obtain credit from their university or they get credit through Carroll College (ISA’s service-learning program partner). Throughout the duration of the program, students will complete a portfolio, which involves writing reflective essays and weekly journals, as well as attending group discussions.
What looks better on a resume, a service-learning program or an Internship? To answer honestly, both are fantastic opportunities! It really depends on how the experience is marketed during an interview. ISA has a great alumni network that helps students use their abroad experience as an advantage in job interviews or networking. There is nothing better than having this resource right at your fingertips when looking to create a path for post-grad life.
Myth: My experience won’t be as life-changing as a traditional study abroad program.
Having previously participated in a study abroad program, my ISA Service-Learning program in Costa Rica was different, however just as rewarding (if not more). The experience I had with the Rahab Foundation provided me with tangible skills that I use on a daily basis. This program was everything I wanted it to be, because I recognized that my experience would be largely dependent on the effort that I put into it. I chose to build relationships with the women and the children I taught, which helped me grow closer to them and create stronger bonds that enriched my experience more than simply going through the daily motions at my host organization. Stepping out of my comfort zone improved my Spanish skills immensely and allowed me meet people who have a very special place in my heart, and always will.
With all that said, there are many misconceptions about everything you do in life. However, I hope students look past these false impressions and keep following their dreams no matter what obstacles there may be. My service-learning program helped shape who I am today and helped me gain the position I now have in International Education. I highly suggest service-learning programs for students looking to immerse themselves into another culture, while having an experience that will positively impact a local organization and lead to personal and professional growth that will continue even after the service-learning program ends. PURA VIDA!