journal banner journal mainsubscribecontact medium articles about institutes
service learning summer institute

learn more l premium early bird + team rates l register online


Lessons of Reciprocity and Relationships


Dr. Ashley Farmer-Hanson serves as the Director of Civic Engagement for Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, IA. Ashley has served in this role for 5 years. As an active volunteer she has led and been a part of over 30 service based trips and often speaks at conferences and training sessions to develop universities and schools commitment to service.

As service learning coordinators and educators we are all proponents of experiential learning. We want our students to experience all five senses at the service site and we want them to leave the experience being able to apply the knowledge they learned in the classroom and visa versa. Every year I take students on service trips around the world and the site becomes my classroom. I have always struggled with helping them understand the difference between serving, and helping as a partner—along with what real relationships can mean. How do we make sure our students understand this?

Service-learning involves teaching students not only to help the people who are hungry with a food drive, but also analyzing why they are hungry in the first place. This can be connected to the parable, “you can give a man a fish and feed them for a day or you can teach a man to fish and feed them for a lifetime.” Ideally, serving is not “drive by service” which is a phrase I would use to describe very short-term service projects. These are projects were you go in and clean a park or stop by an elementary school and read to children for an hour and that is it. These are not sustainable projects and they are not designed to solve the initial problem of why the parks are dirty and why children need people to read to them in the first place, and most importantly, “what can we do together about it”. Service-learning promotes trying to understand and analyze the deeper problem and perhaps solve it.

While on service trips, I try to teach students to think more deeply about the issues they encounter. To the outside world when we go on alternative spring break trips they may look at our trips and see a “drive by service” event taking place. In actuality, my students spend months researching the initial issues, volunteering in the local community trying to understand the issue prior to going and upon their return from the trip—conducting advocacy work and service work in our own local community. I spent the first three years of my career as an educator trying to articulate this to students, but they were not grasping it at all. In their eyes, just like many others service-learning and helping (community service) were the same thing.

Helping usually provides the receiving party temporary benefits. Their immediate issue of hunger may have gone away for a time, but a lasting deep connection with them has often not been developed. While at times the short term solution can be the best thing to do, but as an individual volunteer you are doing it by yourself, or perhaps with a group of volunteers, but likely without working on a deeper level to solve the issue WITH the population you are working with. Service-learning becomes everything opposite this approach. It is making sure that both the volunteer and the population they are working with feel the real benefits of their relationship. The activity or issue at hand is purposeful and empowers all those involved.

In four years, I try to take students through a mindset of volunteering to help, to volunteering to serve in deeper lasting ways that promote real partnerships. There is a significance in the words, since one can continue to oppress, while the other has the potential to empower and liberate all participants from old ways of thinking. This didn’t really connect for my students until we were on an alternative spring break trip in the Dominican Republic with Outreach 360. The staff did such a great job articulating that we were there to teach and empower the Dominicans. At the end of the day, the Dominicans were not helpless and that in all reality they could survive quite well if we were there or not. Our role then was to empower them to hopefully learn additional English and build on their existing skills. Once they have new confidence built up, they could also be empowered to find another job, or even find a way to learn additional skills to learn how to provide for their families.

How real, honest, and brave is it for an organization to say that before we even volunteered? “We really don’t NEED you, at the end of the day the people can survive without you?” Not many organizations are brave enough or as in touch with the local community as this organization. Most organizations are perhaps scared to say no to your used stuff animals and clothing donations during a disaster, since they are worried that if they do that they will damage the relationship that leads to other needs being filled. They would rather deal with the issue of having thousands of stuffed animals instead of speaking the truth. In this case, the truth may hurt, but it was exactly what helped my students move from helpers to partners. They soon realized that by working alongside the Dominicans that service was really about empowerment. It was about teaching them a skill from knowledge we had to share and in turn, hoping that they would teach us about their values, cultures and skills.


Ever since this service trip my students have begun to apply theory and in many cases started to analyze clothing drives and shoe drives more closely and to talk about the real issue at hand. I will not lie, we have our fair share of drives for “stuff” on campus and we do our fair share of “drive by service”, but we are also accompanying it with more discussion and dialogue about taking the issue further and perhaps solving it. I recently lead a trip to Haiti with a group of students and because I had a constant group of leaders on campus describing the difference between serving and partnerships our service trip transformed without a lot of dialogue or discussion driven by myself or the other advisor. The students were leading the discussion about how we can create lasting change and that we were actually gaining more from the service then the people we were serving. We eventually became one and we were serving each other and the Haitian community.

On this trip we spent time with kids who lived in an orphanage, but were not necessarily orphans. We spent time in clinics and hospitals analyzing how they care for the ill. The most impactful piece of the trip was working alongside Haitian’s building a new orphanage for the children we played with on the first day. The Haitian community invited us in and taught us how to dig holes without a posthole digger, mix and pour cement without a truck and challenged us to learn Créole. Additionally, we were faced with the challenge of not knowing American sign language and most of the crew was deaf. While we learned these hard skills we also learned teamwork, compassion, communication skills, and how to be the follower. At the end of the day we were building much more than an orphanage and school, we were building a community with people we had never met before.

Our students reflected about this at night, how hard it must have been for the Haitians to open up to us and to trust us. They reflected on how bad they felt that they didn’t know the language because they wanted to communicate with them on a deeper level. My students left feeling empty and in some ways and I was ok with this. I was ok with them looking deeper inside themselves and realizing that some of the workers get up at 4am to work while they are still in bed and complaining about too much homework. The students had cold showers, limited electricity, and no cell phones and surprisingly they didn’t miss those things from home. They ended up missing their families and wanted to deepen their connection with Haiti. They wanted to develop relationships with local non-profits and see how they could solve these issues in our community, but also how they could change their own attitude and perspective.

I knew they had changed during the trip, but I didn’t see it fully until we were in the airport on the way home and met a group very similar to ours. The group we met talked about how dirty it was and how they felt taken advantage of. How could two groups go to the same country and have the same mission, but come out of it with two different perspectives? As I reflect on this I think it is because of our commitment to service and not helping. We realized the Haitians didn’t NEED us. Yes, it was great that we were there, but we were not there to feed ourselves or to brag that we went to Haiti to do service work. We were there to serve alongside Haitians, to learn, grown, and develop as people with them. We were there for their community and for ours through service.

I challenge you as an educator to think about how we can change our mindset from helping focused projects to creating real service partnerships. How can we make advances in service and development within our own community by taking a few projects further? My advice is to keep your “drive by service” because it exposes students to service and new situations, but consider how you can take one of those services sites and work to develop a much deeper and lasting relationships that serves everyone involved?

© copyright 1995-2019, Community Works Institute (CWI)
All rights reserved. CWI is a non-profit educational organization dedicated
to engaging students and teachers with their local communities through integrated learning projects.

CONTENT USE POLICY No material contained within this web site may be reproduced in print, by electronic or other means, without permission. All materials contained in this web site remain the sole and exclusive property of CWI, or the author if designated by arrangement. contact us

cwj bottombanner
contact subscribe institutes medium articles about journal main
donate now subscribe contact subscribe institutes medium articles about journal main