The Importance of Cultural Humility in Service Learning

Ellie Crymes is a student at the Rhodes College and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is studying abroad with ISA Service Learning in Salamanca, Spain.

Yes, of course, in my ideal life I hope to achieve some sort of enlightenment or understanding of the purpose of my life and of my relationships with others – and best to do it in a straight line, beginning with understanding nothing, then learning, and making our way steadily to this place of said knowledge, purpose, and fulfillment. I think we all hope for that – some means to comprehend something that we seem unable to, especially while abroad, whether it be because of cultural or socioeconomic boundaries or, more likely: our own fears and shame, which are undeniably a part of the human experience and ironically serve as our common ground.

Nonetheless, cultural humility, opposed to competence or knowledge, enforces the idea that we constantly learn, re-learn, grow, and change. It’s okay to not know, and we forever must be putting in the work to contribute to the world that is constantly morphing around us. The art of not knowing has certainly been the most difficult, and maybe favorite, part of my time as a service-learner in Salamanca, Spain, where I work at a local public library. Indeed, it has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I learned quickly from changing my attitude from “I need to know everything right now to do this” to “Actually, I don’t know right now, and that’s okay. But I am here. Ready to learn and to put in the work.”

At the library, I am treated like a legitimate part-time employee, where I have been able to design and implement my own English workshops with local children. I feel like an equal to my older, more experienced counterparts, who are not only patient with my Spanish, but are just some of the best people I have ever met. Now, even in the end, there are new things I learn every day. I sometimes wish that there was some tangible way to measure exactly what kind of impact I have had there, but that is almost impossible and would mean little to me or to the significance of this experience, which cannot be explained with numbers or statistics. The impact stretches far beyond just these multiple weeks in Salamanca, at least for me and hopefully for the kids too. It is a piece of a lifelong journey – and not even the linear lives we try to lead. The cultural humility that I have learned here has made me able to be so much more forgiving of myself, and thus more empathetic and understanding of others. We can never really know another’s experience, but can admit that we don’t know and still show up. Although I think this is an important idea in a service-learning environment and for those relationships, especially abroad, such is life, and we can all afford to form more mutually beneficial relationships with those who might come from a different place.

The world awaits…discover it.

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