Book Review: Service-Learning Across Cultures: Promise and Achievement, A Report to the Ford Foundation

Reviewed by Dr. Gary Daynes Associate Director of Freshman Academy
Brigham Young University

Book Review:  Service-Learning Across Cultures: Promise and Achievement, A Report to the Ford Foundation

By Humphrey Tonkin, et al. (NY: International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership, 2004). 418pp.

Read one way, this book is a report to a grant funder. Read another, it is an investigation into some of the key questions in service learning practice. Read either way, the book is a reminder both of service learning’s potential to cause change and the difficulty of measuring it.

Service-Learning Across Cultures is a study of international service learning programs sponsored by the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership ( The partnership was born in 1981 with a project sponsored by Rockland Community College. That original project set out to help African-American students discover their heritage by having them participate in service in Africa. By 1986 the project had grown to include a wide variety of international service placements and had given birth to its own directing organization, the IPSL.

Since 1986 over 2000 students have participated in international service learning placements. The vast majority of those students have been women, eighty percent of them have been white, and most have embarked on their service learning experience during their third year of college. Students come from both private and public institutions across the United States, and go to service learning sites around the globe – England, Jamaica, India, Ecuador, and the Lakota Nation in South Dakota are just a sample of the locations of IPSL service learning.

IPSL programs are well-designed, both by the standards of study abroad and service learning. Students spend a semester abroad, taking academic classes and serving for 15-20 hours a week in a community-based organization that is committed to the process of long-term change in the community. Students live with a host family; their classes are taught by in-country faculty. They reflect regularly on their learning and on the experience of serving in a culture other than their own. Most return to their home institution transformed, with richer insights into themselves, their future plans, and their place in the world.

The Ford Foundation has funded IPSL projects since the 1980s. Several years ago Ford asked IPSL leadership to assess the impact of international service learning on students, their colleges and universities, and the communities and organizations where they served. This book is a result of that study. As such, it will be of interest to readers who have to assess their own long-term projects.Service-Learning Across the Cultures includes a full description of the methodology, research questions, theoretical context, and analysis used by the IPSL researchers. It also highlights the difficulties of assessing education projects. When IPSL began it had a set of purposes but no assessment regime in place. As a result they have access to limited data on the pre-service attitudes of their students. And because the number of students participating is relatively small (fewer than 200 in any given year), it has been difficult for researchers to gather meaningful quantitative data.

That said the research team has done an outstanding job at discovering the impact of international service learning done well on students and the communities they served. A series of interviews and focus groups showed that students who participated in IPSL were changed by the experience. They report having developed a sense of ‘interconnectedness with the world’ (188), a more ‘pluralistic world view’ (186), and a richer understanding of the culture of he United States. They also grew morally and intellectually, and many also gained insights into their future careers. Finally, the experience of living abroad, and connecting meaningfully to other humans, enriched their own relationships and shifted their focus from tasks to people.

The community-based organizations where the students served also reported positive results. Having IPSL students in their agencies helped staff and clients develop meaningful relationships with students and a better understanding of the culture of the United States. Further, the regular, predictable presence of IPSL students strengthened the organizations where they served. Even when individual students leave the agencies to return home, the agency retains strong connections with IPSL and commitments to on-going participation in the effort.

Finally, participation in IPSL has generally been beneficial to the home colleges and universities of IPSL students. Those institutions report that participation with IPSL has strengthened on-campus service learning efforts, especially where there is support for service learning or civic engagement from institutional leaders. The benefits here, though, have been less marked than for individual students or host service agencies, perhaps because IPSL students represent a very small proportion of their campus’ student bodies.

Beyond being a report on a generally successful service learning effort,Service-Learning Across Cultures raises a set of questions that all service learning practitioners would do well to consider. Perhaps the most significant is the question posed by IPSL’s overlaying service learning and study abroad. Both pedagogies have been shown to have a positive impact on students. IPSL has argued that combining them has an even more powerful effect on students, as the cultural dislocations caused by study abroad are made more meaningful through service learning. If this is the case, it is very good news, both for service learning and for educational reform. Service learning in many places has become an established but minor reform effort which competes with others (technology, problem-based learning, internships, etc.) for resources and prestige. At the same time the institution marches along, changed a bit, to be sure, but not transformed. IPSL’s combination of two reforms tells us that reform efforts need not compete, and, in fact, when combined by skillful practitioners, efforts at change can have a multiplier effect. Supporters of service learning must continue to seek common cause with other reformers if they are to hope to change higher education.

Running counter to this good news is a note of caution hidden in Service-Learning Across Cultures. IPSL’s findings suggest that international service learning is most effective for students who need it the least – that is, those students who already tend to have a pluralistic world view and seek to build relationships and work for change around the globe. While these students certainly grow in IPSL programs, one wonders how effective the program would be for students who do not desire the sort of outcomes that IPSL seeks. This is a live issue because colleges and universities are ever more frequently called on to help all students achieve certain learning outcomes, not just those students who really want to achieve them. Service learning in general has been successful for students who really want to participate, and less so for students who are ‘forced’ to take part. What can we say, then, about service learning? Is it only for some students? If so, can we really expect it to make a difference across campus and throughout society? Service-Learning Across Cultures explicitly raises one particularly troubling sub-question in this area. Women are more likely than men to participate in service learning. In IPSL programs the ratio is about 80/20. Yet some community agencies reported that male volunteers were particularly desirable, because they could serve as role-models ‘both for staff and service-users’ (235). The question, then, is how service learning efforts can attract male students who, for a range of reasons, are less likely to be engaged on campus or in the community. More broadly, it asks us to consider how to shape service learning programs to meet the actual needs of actual students.

Finally, Service-Learning Across Cultures reminds us how important data collection and assessment are in documenting and improving educational work. At key points in the study, researchers had to limit the scope of their conclusions because they lacked the pre-experience data that would allow them to make arguments about the scope and direction of change in students and agencies. Service-Learning Across Cultures, then, is both an encouraging report on the influence of international service learning and a reminder that documenting our work from the outset is a key aspect of making it better.

About the Reviewer:

Gary Daynes is the Associate Director of Freshman Academy, Brigham Young University’s learning communities initiative. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Delaware. Before joining the Freshman Academy, Gary worked as Director of Service Learning for Washington Campus Compact, Executive Director of Utah Campus Compact, and Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Gary’s civic engagement work falls at the intersection of history, service, and the public life of local communities. He is the editor of Fulfilling the Founding: A Reader in American Heritage (Boston, 2000) and the author of Making Villains, Making Heroes: Joseph R. McCarthy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Politics of American Memory (NY, 1997), and recent articles on service learning as a pathway to civic engagement and the use of history in the movement for the civic engagement of higher education. He recently completed a documentary on the influence of orchard farming on community life called The Best Crop and is beginning two new service learning projects, one on the influence of the Provo River on community life and the other using storytelling to build connections across ethnic and economic barriers in Provo.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.