The Weight of International Service

By Danya Firestone, ISA Service-Learning participant

Every week for the last two months, I have spent several hours volunteering at Caritas-Comedor Infantil, a Children’s Dining Hall in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Their mission is to provide meals, as well as academic and personal growth support for children and teenagers in poverty.

One of the reasons I chose an ISA program was for the opportunity to engage in international service. I have been committed to service at home and abroad since I was young and was excited to give back to a community during four months of studies and adventure. However, since living abroad, my definition of service has changed. This new perspective on service has enhanced my sensitivity towards being a U.S. citizen serving abroad. Something that has become strikingly evident in my volunteer work is that, as a U.S. citizen, the relationships I am creating with community members at the organization are fragile and need to be handled with empathy and care.

I was encouraged by the host organization manager to consider giving some of the older children charlas, or group discussions/teachings on various life skills and other atypical educational subjects that they would otherwise not be receiving. This suggestion and the consequent search for meaningful teachings fueled the issue I wrestle with now – what is it that I should be providing for these children, and, more generally, what is my lasting impact after I leave?

“I wish I lived in the United States.”

“I wish I spoke English.”

“Can I see your cell phone?”

These comments from the children helped guide me to the answer. Hearing these words reflected back to me the image of how I was being perceived. I was a representative, a symbol, and a metaphor for their preexisting thought that the United States is richer and better than their home country. The weight of my influence overwhelmed me as I searched desperately for ways to change their understanding.

This experience helped me reshape my understanding of service-learning as an experience of mutual exchange of knowledge and culture, framed and guided by the mission of the host organization. In this way, the host group feels pride in their culture and wants to share it with the volunteer. This contrasts with the unfortunate dynamic that sometimes occurs in which the host group feels an imposed domination and superiority of the English language and American culture from the volunteer, though this is usually unintentional.

I began to structure my charlas with the goal of meeting the kids exactly where they were and empowering them within the context of their own economic circumstances, language, and culture – to be the best versions of themselves possible. In this way, the kids felt supported in identity search, confidence building, and pursuit of dreams without regard to the power dynamic that I inevitably brought to the table because of the stereotypes of an English-speaking American.

And thus, I beg to participants serving abroad – especially now as international relationships, empathy, and conversations that help us understand each other are of the utmost importance – take seriously the immense amount of power you have in your actions, words, and comportment to influence. We must all do the difficult work necessary to combat perceived American superiority abroad. The most powerful thing you can give another person is belief in their own self-worth.


Learn more about ISA Service-Learning programs.


Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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