We recommend browsing from our website to ensure the most relevant information Go to site
Continue browsing here
Volunteer and Intern Abroad since 1997
Call us 01727 250 250   Contact Us

Interview With GVI CEO Steve Gwenin on ‘Strengthening Communities: The Positive Impact of Experiential Education’

By Jenny Clark 3 months ago

For this week’s service-learning blog, I was able to sit down with GVI’s CEO, Steve Gwenin, to get a better idea of how GVI strives to enhance the quality of experiential education abroad through meaningful service work that strengthens communities. Below is a transcript of our Q and A session. Enjoy!

Further reading: What is International Service Learning?

What does community mean to you, in terms of both a “learning community” and a “local community?”

First off I don’t think we should differentiate between the two types of community; the learning community has to include the local community as well.  Often I hear the term “community partner”, which is a bit simplistic as there are many stakeholders in an experiential education program. This community includes the students, the faculty, the third-party operator, and the local community, so there are many stakeholders. In order for a program to work, all of them need to be very clear about their needs and objectives. I think often there’s this sense that you can look at one individual “community partner” be it an individual person or an organization, whereas community members in reality have a variety of different needs and voices.

The acknowledgement that there are many different stakeholders with different needs makes building this community quite complex. Instead of identifying one stakeholder, there’s going to be different perspectives to incorporate. What does everyone wish to learn? What does everyone wish to achieve? We have to try very hard to map it efficiently as a learning community that involves itself in an open, collaborative process, which is a very different way of learning. Every piece of the community is a teacher; we’re all learning together and teaching each other.

Instead of identifying one stakeholder, there’s going to be different perspectives to incorporate. What does everyone wish to learn? What does everyone wish to achieve? We have to try very hard to map it efficiently as a learning community that involves itself in an open, collaborative process, which is a very different way of learning

Further reading: The One Philosophy Every Volunteer Should Subscribe To

How do you think experiential education abroad programs can positively influence community partners in ethical ways?

I think the positive impact a program can have is highly dependent on how well all stakeholders’ needs are identified and then met. This begins with getting clear expectations from all parties, so they all know what to expect and how we are planning to answer their objectives. This means predeparture training around culture and community strengths is so important. Sometimes there is too much of a focus on community needs, or weaknesses, when we could be talking more about their strengths, and making sure the local community is seen as a leader and a teacher. So really it’s about trying to reinforce collaborative teaching and collaborative learning.

In general you’ve got to be clear about program objectives. What are we trying to achieve? How are we going to have a positive influence? Depending on the type of program and what you’re trying to achieve, you can devise best practices from there, in order to minimize negative and maximize positive impact. Community members should be central to this discussion as well. Quite often I think community members love the idea of interacting with our students, to see what they can learn from and teach them. One example I can think of is our program in Fiji. The Fijian community members have found that having students there to teach their traditions to has actually reinforced the importance of those traditions in the community. The Fijian youth are more engaged in their traditions because of their interactions with international volunteers and programs.

Sometimes there is too much of a focus on community needs, or weaknesses, when we could be talking more about their strengths, and making sure the local community is seen as a leader and a teacher

pexels-photo-110252

In terms of community development, I think there are levels of engaging: in the planning stages, engaging stakeholders collaboratively, running the program collaboratively – if there’s learning to be done, we want to get community members involved in the process as learners and as teachers, to make sure there is a horizontal, mutual relationship. We want to work together for empowerment, not just provide cash at the end of the day. It’s also about the evaluation after the fact as well, not just the program itself. That has to be inherently part of process.

I think too there’s got to be really strong management on the ground. Oftentimes there can be good planning but the actual plan doesn’t really survive first contact on the ground! There has to be flexibility and there has to be strong support present with any successful program. If that support and reactionary management isn’t there, then there will be issues throughout the duration of the program.

What are the different responsibilities and stakeholders involved with planning an experiential education abroad program?

Quality experiential education programs want to give students the ability to make a difference; it’s not just getting people passionate about the world’s problems, it’s about teaching them how to make a difference, showing them some skills and solutions so that they are in a better position to act and have an impact. We want to serve both the students and the community. It’s important to fully be aware of and understand the undertaking, expectations, and responsibilities of this task, and to decide as an organization if you are equipped to meet these within the time scale to you.

This means the responsibilities are somewhat plentiful. After identifying stakeholders, there is the actual program to organize. There is communication (internally and externally), planning, program execution, education and preparation (pre, post, and during), safety, resources and course curriculum, and travel logistics. It’s quite a large responsibility. There are so many stakeholders, and so many different needs, so an organization really needs a collaborative and integrated response. The entire process is very dynamic, and challenging, but there are resources out there that can aid third party organizers in producing a really quality program, for all parties involved.

Quality experiential education programs want to give students the ability to make a difference; it’s not just getting people passionate about the world’s problems, it’s about teaching them how to make a difference, showing them some skills and solutions so that they are in a better position to act and have an impact.

pexels-photo-195506

Looking ahead, what do you see as the future of experiential education and community engagement? What are the challenges?

First of all, as a sector, we’re all learning at the moment. I think we’re all learning and becoming more refined. We’re highlighting issues that we weren’t aware of before. Some of the sector is responding quite well to that. The challenges will mostly come from those who aren’t responding well to those changes, and who aren’t constantly trying to improve. How we improve is the key question. Personally, I feel as a global community, the issues we face are going to get more pronounced. All of the key UN SGDs are the biggest issues that we face. They’re all interconnected and we are all interconnected. Unless we find ways to answer those challenges, I think there’s real questions about how well we’ll do as a human race. Using the UN SDGs is a great framework for learning about the problems we face, and how we can solve them.

We’ve got to be innovative if we’re to overcome some of these challenges. Moving forward I think we will all have to learn to adapt to the challenges that will face us, and together think of some quality solutions.

I think in terms of experiential education, we’ve also got problems in higher education, in trying to teach people inside the classroom, in an institution. I think the world is interconnected; it’s changing fast, and we need to be teaching people in the workplace. I think in many ways higher education needs to develop some fundamental changes.  Online learning is definitely part of it: how do we reach more people, how do we teach everyone skills that meet the demand for a modern workplace, and also find teachers enough to support those initiatives.

We’ve got to be innovative if we’re to overcome some of these challenges. Moving forward I think we will all have to learn to adapt to the challenges that will face us, and together think of some quality solutions.

Further reading: One Skill Every 21st Century Student Should Have and How to Get It

Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.

Price Update!

Book future programs at 2017 prices!

Updated prices for programs commencing in 2018 & 2019 will come into effect on 1 August.

To book any future start date at our currently advertised prices, you need to apply before the end of July - so don’t miss out!

Book Today!