How to Make the Most of Service Learning Projects

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Service learning is a 2-for-1 special wherein giving back and gaining knowledge are two sides of the same coin. Gone are the days of sitting at a desk drowning in a pile of textbooks while a monotonous voice drones on about Aristotle and arithmetic. Gone are the days of blind charity devoid of understanding or compassion. (Okay, not quite gone, but a girl can hope, amirite?)

Various silhouettes of different shapes and sizes in front of sunset

Everyone’s different. An open mind is your most valuable tool during service learning projects. 

Service learning takes learners out into the great wide world to volunteer in service to others while studying the context they are engaged in. It challenges learners to connect what they are learning directly to the world around them and pressing problems facing humanity. At the same time, it challenges do-gooders to look beyond the surface of causes they aim to alleviate. Gain important practical knowledge + develop empathy + help those less fortunate? Sign. Me. Up. Service learning = education at its best.

What is service learning?

Service learning (n.) - A form of experiential education that centers around ethical labor in support of others, paired with academic reflection on the surrounding context. Often, but not always, students participate in service learning among populations whose economic circumstances are less fortunate than theirs. 

Service learning aims to develop civic responsibility and compassion in participants and establish connections between systemic conditions and individuals’ lives. You may not have known what service learning was back then, but if you’ve ever volunteered and gained valuable perspective from the experience, that’s a less structured version of exactly what we’re talking about here.

“Okay, but what about that time my politics class volunteered at the local council office?” you ask. “Does it count even if I didn’t get academic credit?” Yes, it counts! Service learning is a wide umbrella that covers everything from an animal sciences study abroad program where you volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary to a beach clean-up paired with research about pollution.

That’s not to say, however, that everything is service learning. Let’s not get carried away. While it may feel like you’re doing your classmates a favor by showing up in class, just being present for roll call doesn’t make the cut. By the same token, volunteering at an orphanage is not – in an of itself – service learning; it’s missing the critical component of structured reflection on the wider systems that created and maintain these conditions. It’s this thoughtful combo that makes service learning so unique and valuable to modern educational environments.

Neon sign that says do something great

No better way to build the best version of yourself than to do something great👍

Can I find service learning projects abroad?

Yes! That’s an affirmative. Service learning projects are everywhere! If you’re looking for service learning ideas in your own backyard, there are many opportunities. When you cast a wider geographical net (think: the world!), the sky’s the limit. 

Finding service learning opportunities abroad starts with some soul searching. What inspires you about service learning? What skills do you have to offer the world, or what skills would you like to develop in order to offer them to the world in the future? How much time do you have to dedicate to a service learning, and are you willing/able to travel? (Psst, if financial resources are holding you back, consider these great scholarship opportunities.) Where do your academic and geographical interests, skills, and the world’s needs align?

Once you know what you’re looking for, you’re ready to put your fingers to the keyboard and dig through Google search results for service learning project ideas. The internet is a big place, so check out the spiffy service learning opportunities below to get started. Eager for more service learning ideas? Browse GoAbroad’s extensive list of service learning programs and service learning degree programs or be inspired by these seven top destinations to study abroad AND make a difference.

How to maximize YOUR learning potential during service learning programs

You’ve figured out “what is service learning?”, and it sounds awesome. You’re sifting through service learning project ideas for college students and ready to swipe right on the service learning program of your dreams. But wait, before you go! Let’s talk about how you can make the most of your time as a service learner.

Focus on service, and the learnin’ will come.

One of the most important prereqs of service learning opportunities is a willingness to serve. Throw yourself into this head first, and you’ll come away with invaluable perspective and probably a few new tangible skills as a bonus. If, on the other hand, you go into service learning programs thinking “How will this look on my resume?”, “What’s in this for me?”, “How will this improve my SAT scores and get me into Harvard?” or any variation thereof, you’re likely to miss the whole point and leave your follow participants hanging in a big way. 

Person carrying journal in front of ocean

Document your journey, write down your goals, and remind yourself of all the great moments you’re experiencing first hand!

Do your homework.

Just because you’re not in a classroom doesn’t mean this is the time to slack off. Quite the contrary. Service learning is one of the few times in school (sorry, teachers) when doing your homework will have tangible positive impacts not just on your GPA and internal encyclopedia, but for other people as well. Don’t go into a new community offering to “help” unprepared or misinformed. Read up on the place and industry you’re serving in to give your experiences context and nuance, and you’ll end up with an A+ in service and an A+ in learning.

Approach everyone you interact with as a teacher.

It can be tempting to think of the people you are “serving” as beneficiaries of your generosity. LESSON #1 (a freebie): This is wrong. Especially when you participate in service learning projects in a new country or community, you have a lot to learn about the local context. Ask thoughtful questions and listen to responses with openness. Offer a hand when you can, but make space to follow a different way of doing things. Experiential learning can be difficult to put into a textbook or bullet-pointed takeaways, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable knowledge.

Be willing to share!

Yes, you’re here to learn and to serve, but the best way to do that is to engage with everyone you meet as if you are teammates in the great game of life. As a visitor to a new community, your hosts are often sharing the intimate details of how they live and what they struggle with with you. Listening is your first priority, but don’t be afraid to open up and share bits of your life too. 

African child and woman smiling

Service with a smile can go a long way. Shine those pearly whites. 😁

BONUS! Best practices for service learning projects abroad

While you’re here thinking about what it all means and how to find the right service learning program for you, here are a few points on how to make the most out of your experience from beginning to end and reap all the benefits of service learning projects.

  • Look for community service learning projects somewhere you’ve already been before. You’ll gain a whole new perspective on a familiar place, and learn to integrate classroom learning with the world around you on the daily.
  • Tie it all together. Choose a program with learning and reflection components centered around your service experience. R-E-F-L-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me! In other words: make time to digest and determine the benefits of service learning projects and everything you learned.
  • Community service learning projects come in all shapes and sizes. Make sure you find a good fit!
  • Service learning is a great way to build new skills. Think about what you want to give back to the world, and let that lead you to your community service learning project soulmate.
  • Service learning is a different experience when you go with the buddy system and when you go solo. Try both volunteering with a friend and on your own!
  • An open mind is the most valuable tool in your service learning toolkit.
  • Take your reflection to the next level with a journal. Writing things out is a great way to process new experiences, and will be a treasured memory long into the future. Bonus: It will make that final paper at the end of the semester sooooo much easier to write.
  • Service with a smile: Don’t forget to have fun!
  • Go back to previous service learning sites for lifelong learning, friendship, and exchange. 
Man staring at water and mountains

Reflect. Respect. Enjoy! 🙌🏼 💕

Still wondering “What is service learning?” There’s only one way to find out!

Reading about service learning is like reading about any hands-on experience: not as good as the real thing. The best way to learn is to get out there and do it! Watch out, community service, here comes your next nerd.

Are you currently abroad? Review your service learning program now!

Topic:  While Abroad