June, 2009 Reflections on Service Learning at Kimara Peer Educators

4894_120807630648_502090648_2763536_2526232_sSince I’ve been back I’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer to my own satisfaction two questions that have been put to me:

“Was this trip effective service learning? ”
“What, other than an exotic trip, was accomplished?”

Let me address the service learning question first because prior to leaving for Africa I was struggling to understand what service learning is. Service learning outcomes are soon to be incorporated into every program at the NSCC. Throughout the spring of 2008 I did a fair amount of research into what service learning is and what it looks like because I could not see having outcomes in my program that I didn’t understand. (It’s hard enough teaching the things I do understand.)
When we had our pre-departure orientation in April, Nancy O’Regan did a short presentation on service learning as it pertains to Community College faculty, students and alumni. I don’t remember the entire presentation, but I took from it two pieces of information that clarified what service learning needs to be in the context of our academic program.
The first point I remember from the presentation was the explanation that service learning happens along a scale which goes from volunteering on the one hand to learning on the other. Pure volunteering, without an advancement of knowledge, is not service learning. Neither is a situation where the individual derives knowledge and learns but makes no contribution. Somewhere in between is the situation where the individual gives and at the same time as he gives, he learns and grows.
The second thing I took from Nancy’s presentation was a wonderful definition of what a citizen was. A citizen belongs (to a team, to a school, to a community, or to a global community). In order to be a true citizen that relationship needs to be a two-way street. As a citizen, you must feel that some group or some entity is doing something for you and you, therefore, feel the responsibility to give back. This is the goal of service learning within NSCC Programs: to make us responsible citizens and have us acknowledge that things are being done for us, and recognize where we might give back.

“Was this trip effective service learning?” My answer is personal, but I would have to say, “Not yet.” The NSCC group did organize the children’s session and Ed’s session on grief counseling was very much appreciated. But, there was definitely more learning than service involved for our group during the time we were with Kimara.
-We gained background on the HIV/AIDs epidemic in Africa.
-We were shown how stigma can thwart efforts to address a problem and how it can be best overcome.
-We saw the effectiveness of micro-financing.
-We learned how a community organization with limited resources can make an impact.
-We got to see peer education and community action at its most effective.
-We were challenged and we gained first-hand knowledge of a county very different from our own.
-And we each learned things about ourselves.

Reflecting on the comments made at the end of our two weeks with Kirama, I know I’m not the only one who feels that the service/learning balance still needs to be addressed. At the end of the final session, we all acknowledged that we were given so much; we couldn’t “just walk away and forget”; we committed to doing something. So, while a trip like this is an amazing learning experience, it is still up to us to make it a true service learning experience.

“What has been accomplished?” For thirteen people, the groundwork is now complete. The orientation is over and it is up to us to take what we learned and act on it. For some that will involve returning to Tanzania to work with our partners there. Jolene and MaryJane did some preliminary work on setting up industry placements in Africa next year. In both cases these students identified what it was they could contribute and I’m confident they can add “significant service” to the “significant learning” they experienced this year. I hope their plans work out.
Other participants plan to work for Kimara from Canada. Jane will be a second-year graphic arts student this year and she hopes to work with Kimara designing and developing media.
Realizing what Kimara needs most is financial support for the wonderful work they do, several of us will fundraise and “spread the word” that this is an organization that uses resources more effectively than we could imagine. They can make a small donation go a long way.
Finally, something we all learned that we can apply as citizens here in Canada is the power of the an individual to effect change. Mama Kiwia started Kimara to address the stigma that was hampering efforts to do anything about HIV/AIDs in her community. Look around. What kind of stigmas are people facing in our communities?