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Developing Relationships through Service-Learning in Belize


Last fall a rather unusual partnership between a church and my public university developed, and the collaboration resulted in a cross-generational study abroad program to Belize over spring break. The course that emerged, EDFN 492/592: Educational Leadership in Service-Learning: Belize, initiated a new opportunity for university students to travel and work in a PreK-12 parochial school/church community setting. Within the shared leadership structure of our service-learning partnership, our ability to successfully complete project goals directly depended on the extent to which we could develop productive relationships among us. This was especially true regarding the several group leaders whose roles could not be precisely pre-determined. Instead, we needed to negotiate and work out our relationships, roles and responsibilities as we prepared for the trip.  Key personal qualities that allowed this to happen included the willingness to take risks, to assume an attitude of respect, and to communicate carefully while recognizing the expertise and power of others.

The story really begins with Annie, a teacher candidate in my Human Relations course. On the first day of class, I introduced myself by talking about the importance of stretching ourselves as teachers, being open to try out new ideas, being eager to meet new people and develop relationships. I briefly mentioned that I was considering travelling with a church group to Belize because my daughter and her husband had gone on that mission trip the year before. I also mentioned my hesitancy—the scary bugs I might see and the creature comforts I would miss.

Immediately after class, Annie came up with an encouraging, confident smile and this piece of advice: “Of course you must go!” Her enthusiasm started me thinking about inviting students along -- and about developing a course to globalize my department’s curriculum. When I asked Annie about her perceptions of a study abroad course offering – would it be of interest to other teacher candidates? -- she was optimistic. In fact, she immediately began thinking about how the program might fit into her spring break plans and those of her family. Annie did not yet know me or the church; however, she was open to relationship and the risks that come along with making connections to others. After recognizing a need and an opportunity to serve, her personal values propelled her forward to seek out relationship with me and our as-yet-undetermined travel companions.  Annie invited her father along, and both joined our group, bringing their willingness to serve in any capacity.

As a teacher candidate, Annie demonstrated the qualities that are essential for instructors to succeed in today’s diverse classrooms. She took a risk and embraced a relationship with relative strangers of undocumented abilities. She moved beyond simply “showing up” for my class on that first day; Annie sparked a relationship with me and an opportunity through her encouraging words, and more than that, her willingness to join forces in service.

Launching the service-learning course also required the strong support and flexibility of the university’s study abroad office, as well as the pastor from our local church who had initiated the effort. Even though this type of relationship between public and religious institutions was unprecedented at our university, the administrators did not hesitate to endorse the course and begin publicizing the opportunity. They, too, were risk takers, willing to try fresh approaches to service. As program leaders, we began recruiting participants, organizing fund raising efforts and communicating with our partner in Belize, Pastor Eduardo.


Developing Relationships Among Program Leaders
Since this course was also offered for graduate credit, a Master’s candidate in my department signed up for the course and joined our leadership team. With extensive experience in a variety of school settings as a science teacher, Sally was curious about what science education was like in Belize schools.  After researching online to get an overall sense of the country’s education system, Sally determined to develop a relationship with the principal and science teacher in the school we would be serving. She chose this as her learning goal, which satisfied a course requirement to identify a personal academic goal in addition to the service-learning goals already determined. Sally’s initial efforts to communicate directly with the principal and the pastor in Belize met resistance from our church leader. In an effort to safeguard our fledgling relationship with the church in Belize, she was advised was to proceed slowly and carefully and with cultural sensitivity. As an adult learner, Sally felt patronized; in addition, she saw the communication filter as frustratingly inefficient.

Although I wondered how this situation would resolve, I respected the maturity of both parties and took a hands-off approach. I could understand both the need for caution and respect in building relationships with our partners in Belize, as expressed by our local pastor, and the need for trust and expediency, which was Sally’s concern, in communicating. I tried to listen carefully and without commentary. Adult learners have had experience in navigating the boundaries of relationships. I knew our leaders were passionate about the projects and service opportunities they were developing. I trusted that sharing these mutual goals would lead to a positive resolution on their respective roles. 

Relationship building, both within our service team and with our service partners here and Belize, takes time. Since Sally was eager to fundraise, plan and even order supplies as identified by the teacher and principal before our spring trip, she persisted in requesting email access and sent her questions directly to the school principal and the science teacher. Her proactive style of relationship building laid the groundwork for projects with the high school before we arrived. Knowing more precisely what the school’s needs were in terms of laboratory equipment helped us feel productive and opened the doors for service and partnership in entirely new directions.

By the time we were ready to travel to Belize, our group of 17, including 3 undergraduates, had fundraised over $8,000 to support sewing projects for school girls and church women, laboratory equipment for the science lab, and construction materials for a fence and ceiling fans at the church.  

Our Projects and Goals
Once in Belize, Sally continued to focus on understanding the educational system and philosophy of the school. Through face-to-face conversations, we began to recognize the deeply spiritual nature of the school principal as she shared her dreams for creating an agricultural high school. My husband, a retired professor of agricultural education, joined in the discussions. He, Sally and the principal consulted with the science teacher to consider the possibilities for raised bed vegetable gardens at the school. Shortly after we left the country, funding for cement block foundations and garden soil was raised and sent to the principal; soon the garden beds were constructed and planted. We were so excited to receive the pictures of students and teacher working in the gardens a few months later.

Relationship Building in Belize
Jeff, an undergraduate in construction management major, chose a personal learning goal of identifying “different construction methods and how to apply them as a construction manager; how to be more effective with the tools we have.”  However, he ended up learning about relationship building as well. In his post-trip reflection, Jeff wrote about digging a trench for a fence: “It was a great experience though to watch those two guys work through a problem with a language barrier.  It makes me realize that sometimes, I get too impatient when I don't understand someone's idea even without a language barrier.  So I need to be more patient and ask more questions when I don't get something so I can be a better team mate.”  His observation came only one day after he had walked away from the job in order to relieve his frustration at the slow pace of progress.

Later, Jeff also wrote, “In the past few months before the trip, I had come to realize how important relationships are.  I try not to give up opportunities in which I will be building relationships with others.  I might not be the best at initiating conversations with others especially if I don't know them well but that is something I have been working on.  While on the trip, I really enjoyed being in a culture in which relationship building is more important than in the US.” As the instructor, I have come to realize the value of these unplanned learning opportunities. By asking the students to journal in an open-ended fashion about the daily events, new understandings about self and others can emerge. 

Spring Break 2014
Now, as we prepare for the spring break 2014 service-learning program to Belize, we have new relationships to develop with eight undergraduates (from a variety of content areas including early childhood, pre-nursing, human development, health sciences, family consumer science, agricultural education) enrolled for credit. Eight more university students are coming along without taking the credit. In addition, thirteen adults and three school age students will travel with us for a total of thirty-two. 
Sally and both of our spouses are again providing leadership for developing more agri-science projects – including the possibility of a mobile chicken coop. To support the projects, local church women are leading fundraising efforts to support more sewing and construction projects. Parents and grandparents of the students have contributed time, food and crafts for the bazaars and booths we have manned this fall. Partnerships and collaborations have a wonderful way of developing momentum to energize our service.

Shared interests, values and purposes brought together our cross-generational group of travellers for service and learning. We developed relationships as leaders and as students because we were willing to take risks, to venture something new. We worked through challenges by communicating carefully. We listened in a respectful way to each other’s needs and frustrations.  

And Annie? My student who convinced me to commit to the opportunity? She ended up bringing her father along to Belize last spring where he and Lon worked together to wire ceiling fans. This spring Annie recruited a friend to join her in Belize, and, no doubt, she would encourage us all with, “Of course you should go!”

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