Expectations vs. Realities: What is Service-Learning in Valparaíso, Chile, Really Like?

Daniel Sanders is a student at Northwestern University. He is an ISA Featured Blogger, and is currently studying abroad with ISA Service-Learning in Valparaíso, Chile.

Service-learning is not volunteering. It’s not “voluntouring,” God forbid, nor is it charity. It’s not an internship or a job, nor is it a class, and it’s not a vacation. In fact, service-learning isn’t even what this blog post is about (what?!). No, this post is about learning-service and how to give and get the most value from the experience.

First and foremost, allow me to explain why I say learning-service and not service-learning. Some people may expect to begin their service-learning and hit the ground running on day one. Even the more patient and ‘realistic’ ones admit that they’ll need some time to get settled in before they can really start to serve and leave legacies on their host community by the end of their programs. While that’s certainly true, it only addresses at most 50% of the purpose and experience of a service-learning trip and doesn’t hit the more important aspect – learning. Learning will undoubtedly be the first thing participants do, it will more than likely be the main thing that they do, and, to be honest, it could be the only thing that they do during the duration of the program, which is actually all really great!

Participants may feel, to varying extents, that they are expected to make big impacts – that they are there with crucial jobs (not to say that they aren’t important), constantly having to be working, doing something, and making a big difference. I certainly felt a little bit of this when I arrived, but in my first meeting with my supervisor and the other service-learning participants, my supervisor gave me a simple line that helped to put things into perspective. She said: you don’t have to change the world to make a difference. Changing one person’s world is enough to make a difference (or something to that effect). I agreed with the sentiment, but still felt like I had to be working hard to make a difference, and I got frustrated any moment where I wasn’t physically working on a project or “changing someone’s world.” It wasn’t until I watched this Ted Talk by Daniela Papi during my second week at Acción Emprendedora that my mindset and attitude changed and I really started to get the most out of my service-learning program. In it, she speaks about putting more emphasis on learning and letting the service come naturally rather than trying to do too much. In fact, during the course of a service-learning program, it’s totally okay to put 100% of the emphasis on learning. The benefit is two-fold: you can put your learning into service down the road, and in the meantime, your coworkers can also learn from you and you will actually be serving them in the process!

At Acción Emprendedora, I am constantly asking questions and learning more about the organization, my coworkers, the entrepreneurs, incubees, and mentors. I make observations and even contributions when I can. I even interviewed everyone in my office and gave a presentation on what I learned, including my own perspective on the office. I teach English every week and my coworkers don’t even have to try to teach me Spanish – their teaching comes naturally. I love my team and they really enjoy having me. By the end of my third week, my boss pulled me aside to praise me for how I had really established myself as a part of the team after my first few weeks, which was something that he had said in the very beginning of my program was the most important thing to him. With just a week left, I have honestly had such a wonderful experience here and am sad to see it end, but with all of the learning that I have had here, I am excited to continue serving my own communities, wherever they may be, making a difference one person, one world, at a time.

Your Discovery. Our People… The World Awaits.

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