Diversity and Democracy

Global Service Learning: Addressing the Big Challenges

In the State of Hidalgo, Mexico, and in Indianapolis, Indiana, students from Indiana University Purdue University–Indianapolis (IUPUI) are working with university and community partners to investigate the shared global challenge of health care access. Drawing on knowledge developed in their home contexts and abroad, these students have gained an enhanced ability to think about ways of improving health care access in both Hidalgo and Indiana. Like many of the world’s big challenges—including those related to education, clean water, communicable disease, governance, international and rural-urban migration, population growth, and environmental sustainability—this challenge can only be addressed by individuals working across disciplinary lines and considering multiple perspectives. Integrative liberal learning prepares students to examine and analyze global problems using such interdisciplinary skills and strategies.

Global learning and service leaning are two potential components of integrative liberal learning that prepare students to address twenty-first-century global challenges. Both types of learning experiences have been recognized as “high-impact educational practices” that benefit all students, particularly those from historically underserved groups, by increasing student engagement and persistence (Kuh 2008). Global learning and service learning both demonstrate the ability to empower students and prepare them for their future professions and life in our global community, at home and abroad. Most institutions recognize the power of these practices by mentioning global engagement, service learning, or both in their mission statements as experiences that students should have, although opportunities for all students to participate in these high-impact practices are not yet available.

Drawing on elements of global learning and international service learning, global service learning is an emerging, holistic practice that encompasses service experiences both in the local community and abroad. Global service-learning experiences are guided by a global learning framework, designed to support global learning outcomes, and involve direct engagement with difference. By providing an anchor for active involvement with diverse communities engaged in real-world challenges, global service-learning experiences can support the achievement of such learning outcomes as civic knowledge and intercultural knowledge and competence—outcomes that the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has deemed “essential” in the twenty-first century (Hovland 2014).

Global Learning: Not Just Study Abroad

Naturally, the concept of global service learning depends in part on the concept of global learning. While there are many definitions of global learning in use across higher education, a definition created through a collaborative, deliberative process with faculty from AAC&U member institutions offers one useful framework. This definition, which frames the global learning rubric developed through AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project, describes global learning as involving “a critical analysis of and an engagement with complex, interdependent global systems and legacies (such as natural, physical, social, cultural, economic, and political) and their implications for people’s lives and the earth’s sustainability” (AAC&U n.d.). Ensuring an exploration of interconnectedness, power, and privilege, this definition situates global learning at the center of all learning—not just learning in areas that are explicitly global in focus—as students explore big questions, whether abroad or on their home campuses.

Historically, some educators have associated global learning exclusively with study abroad. But the VALUE rubric definition does not imply that study abroad is essential for global learning—a good thing, since the vast majority of students do not participate in study abroad. While study abroad participation has grown dramatically over the past fifteen years (with the number of undergraduate students studying abroad more than doubling between 1999 and 2014), only 9 percent of American undergraduates studied abroad as of 2014 (Farrugia and Bhandari 2014). A well-structured study abroad program is one of many ways to engage in global leaning, but it is not the only global learning experience available to students. In fact, global learning can occur in a wide range of activities, including international interactive videoconferences; engagement with international students and scholars; projects that are inclusive of global perspectives and approaches; and globally focused integrative courses, capstones, and internships.

Regardless of the global learning activity, it is essential for faculty to connect that activity to student learning outcomes and competences. By using a global framework to interpret what students are able to do, faculty can measure the global learning outcomes of any educational experience (Hovland 2014). The global learning VALUE rubric suggests that global learners should be able to “become informed, open-minded, and responsible people who are attentive to diversity across the spectrum of differences, seek to understand how their actions affect both local and global communities, and address the world’s most pressing and enduring issues collaboratively and equitably” (AAC&U n.d.). In other words, the framework focuses on what students are able to do in the local community and abroad, and it puts student learning at the center of real-world challenges facing our nation and the world. Furthermore, it encourages an emphasis on the local and global connections that are found in almost all communities. Students can achieve the outcomes that the VALUE rubric suggests by engaging locally to explore global challenges, making connections to the larger world, and engaging with difference. Service learning is one specific practice that situates students to achieve these outcomes. (Editor’s note: The global learning VALUE rubric is available at www.aacu.org/value-rubrics.)

From International to Global Service Learning

Like participation in study abroad, participation in fieldwork, internships, and service learning in international host communities has increased in recent years (Forum 2013). Historically, international service learning has been defined based on the location of service: for example, Bringle and Hatcher define international service learning as

a structured academic experience in another country in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that addressees identified community needs; (b) learn from direct interaction and cross-cultural dialogue with others; [and] (c) reflect on the experiences in such a way to gain further understanding of course content, a deep understanding of global and intercultural issues, a broader appreciation of the host country and the discipline, and an enhanced sense of their own responsibilities as citizens locally and globally. (2011, 19)

This definition includes the essential elements of a well-designed service experience—that it is driven by community need, involves direct interaction with others, requires critical reflection based on course learning outcomes, and results in a deeper understanding of global and intercultural issues—while emphasizing the importance of the international location.

While Bringle and Hatcher focus on international service learning as taking place in another country, I believe that service learning with global frameworks and outcomes can take place at home or abroad. Building on the work of Longo and Saltmarsh (2011), I therefore advocate for an evolution of terminology—from international service learning to global service learning. Such a reframing involves shifting the focus from the location of the service to the content of the service. As Longo and Saltmarsh argue, service learning in an increasingly internationally connected domestic environment has the potential to connect the local to the global, and a global framing for this type of local experience, along with service learning outside the home country, “generates learning that is global” (71). Therefore, global service learning can take place in the local community, in an international setting, or in both settings as a connected learning experience. By conceiving of global service learning in this way, educators can expand the range of possibilities for engaging students in meaningful global learning experiences—while still being guided by the other elements of Bringle and Hatcher’s definition.

Wherever it takes place, global service learning requires deep, grounded knowledge of community cultures along with respect for the knowledge and experiences of community members. Attention to cultural, economic, historical, political, and social issues affecting the community, as well as to those issues’ local and international contexts, is essential (Longo and Saltmarsh 2011). Global service learning affords students opportunities to understand the larger structural forces underlying social problems, provides transformational learning experiences, and helps students see the world in a profoundly different way (Kiely 2004).

Facilitating Global Service Learning

Faculty members who facilitate global service-learning experiences must take extra time to ensure that their students are fully prepared for the “big challenges” they will encounter in the field. They must also situate students’ experiences within the global context and prepare students to analyze aspects of those experiences using global perspectives.

Several models for global service-learning experiences already exist, with elements that transcend all models. For example, global framing and reciprocity with community partners are two guiding principles on which global service learning depends for its transformative potential, and without which it could have harmful effects. Global service-learning experiences also must involve strong preengagement preparation, clear articulation of roles for all involved, transparent connections to course learning outcomes, and evaluation of the experience by community partners, faculty, and students. Furthermore, students must engage in critical reflection throughout the experience, making connections between the service and the course content. Crabtree (2013) provides excellent recommendations for avoiding unintended consequences of global service learning, along with a useful framework for facilitating global service-learning projects both in the United States and abroad.

One model of global service learning involves a stand-alone experience where significant service at a local site is situated within a course on the home campus. In this model, which is guided by global learning outcomes, service in the local community complements formal academic content and provides students with practical experience, exposure to community partner perspectives, and engagement with community members and their knowledge. This type of experience allows the 91 percent of undergraduate students who do not study abroad to participate in a meaningful way in both service learning and global learning. A second model involves a stand-alone experience where international service is situated in relation to a course offered on campus. Prior to traveling to the international location, in addition to undertaking the preparation required by all models, students must prepare for cultural and logistical challenges specific to immersion in another country. Upon return to the home campus, students should participate in a series of post-travel sessions where they discuss and reflect critically on their experiences and make connections to the course content and learning objectives. A third model is a “sandwich model” where a formal academic component occurs before and after the international service experience. In this model, service in a local community with connections to the international project could be incorporated into the academic component in order to prepare students for their international service.

The benefits of service-learning experiences with a global focus are well documented. Students who participate in these experiences gain intercultural competence and global awareness (Bringle, Hatcher, and Jones 2011; Hartman and Kiely 2014; Kiely 2004; Plater et al. 2009), as well as understanding of world issues (Kiely 2004; Riner, Bai, and Larimer 2015); experience personal growth (Hartman and Kiely 2014; Kiely 2004; Riner, Bai, and Larimer 2015); develop international perspectives (Riner, Bai, and Larimer 2015); learn to interrogate local and global interconnectedness (Hartman and Kiely 2014); and examine their own value and belief systems (Riner, Bai, and Larimer 2015). But the interdisciplinary potential of global service learning is a benefit that is an often undermentioned in the literature. Global service learning has the potential to bring together students from diverse disciplines to examine challenges facing society. With these interdisciplinary perspectives, students are more likely to develop innovative ideas that advance the problem-solving process.

Example: Global Service Learning and Professional Preparation

In the field of health care, the growth of interprofessional education—where educators and learners from at least two health professions collaborate in a single learning environment—has contributed to the development of global service-learning programs. Since 2008, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, the American Dental Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Association of Schools of Public Health have all added language supporting team-based education to their list of expected competencies for graduates in their disciplines (Interprofessional Education Collaborative Expert Panel 2011). Participation in team-based education increases students’ confidence in their professional identities, encourages students to value other health professions, and better prepares students for patient care activities (Dacey et al. 2010). Global service learning can provide students with this type of preparation.

For nursing students and others in the health professions, global service learning provides enriching experiences in culturally different environments, both within and outside of the United States. In their research on global service learning for health science students, Jones and colleagues found that students benefit from experiences with unfamiliar health care systems (at home or abroad) and are better prepared to work with diverse cultures in the United States when they enter their professional placements after having such experiences (Jones et al. 2010). Key to these experiences’ effectiveness is the practice of identifying, before the experience, the specific tasks students should be able to do based on their course knowledge and competencies. Students should not engage in more advanced work in the local or international placement than they would under direct supervision of their faculty in any other course (Jones et al. 2010).

Since 1998, the Indiana University (IU) Schools of Dentistry, Medicine, and Nursing at IUPUI have worked with university and community partners in the State of Hidalgo, Mexico, and the Indianapolis community to develop global service-learning experiences for students. Over the course of the partnership, interdisciplinary teams have provided primary care, dental care, and health education in partnership with hospitals in Pachuca, Hidalgo; the Autonomous University of the State of Hidalgo (UAEH); community leaders in the town of Calnali, Hidalgo; and Friends of Hidalgo, a community organization in Indiana established by a Calnali native. Students from the medical, dental, and nursing schools have worked together with their Mexican counterparts on these projects. Through collaboration with municipal governments, these interdisciplinary teams have produced work, including a health care needs assessment, that has informed health care practice and policy in and around Calnali. UAEH also has created opportunities for medical and dental residents as a result of this collaboration.

Over time, participating scholars and researchers established IUPUI’s Binational/Cross Cultural Health Enhancement Center, which conducts translational research projects to improve health and well-being for the Latino population in Indiana. As a result of these research projects, IUPUI students have opportunities to engage in global service learning in the Indianapolis community and in partnership activities in Mexico.


As institutions prepare students for the global challenges of today and tomorrow, they must provide opportunities for students to collaborate with people from different backgrounds, engage with diverse opinions, and solve problems by incorporating multiple perspectives. Encompassing such opportunities in both local and international settings, global service learning is a powerful, transformative practice that all students should have an opportunity to experience.


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). N.d. “Global Learning VALUE Rubric.” Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Alonso García, Nuria, and Nicholas V. Longo. 2013. “Going Global: Re-Framing Service-Learning in an Interconnected World.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 17 (2): 31–55.

Bringle, Robert G., and Julie A. Hatcher. 2011. “International Service Learning.” In Bringle, Hatcher, and Jones, 1–28.

Bringle, Robert G., Julie A. Hatcher, and Steven G. Jones, eds. 2011. International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Crabtree, Robbin D. 2013. “The Intended and Unintended Consequences of International Service-Learning.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach 17 (2): 43–66.

Dacey, Marie, Judy I. Murphy, Delia Castro Anderson, and William W. McCloskey. 2010. “An Interprofessional Service-Learning Course: Uniting Students across Educational Levels and Promoting Patient-Centered Care.” Journal of Nursing Education 49 (12): 696–99.

Farrugia, Christine A., and Rajika Bhandari. 2014. Open Doors 2014 Report on International Educational Exchange. New York: Institute of International Education.

Forum on Education Abroad. 2013. “Guidelines for Credit and Non-Credit Volunteer, Internship Experience and Work (VIEW) Programs Abroad.” http://www.forumea.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ForumEA-VIEW-Guidelines-Dec-2013_001.pdf.

Hartman, Eric, and Richard Kiely. 2014. “A Critical Global Citizenship.” In Crossing Boundaries: Tension and Transformation in International Service-Learning, edited by Patrick Green and Matthew Johnson, 215–42. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Hovland, Kevin. 2014. Global Learning: Defining, Designing, Demonstrating. Washington, DC: NAFSA—Association of International Educators and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Interprofessional Education Collaborative Expert Panel. 2011. “Core Competencies for Interprofessional Collaborative Practice: Report of an Expert Panel.” Washington, DC: Interprofessional Education Collaborative.

Jones, Ellen D., Luba L. Ivanov, Debra Wallace, and Lois VonCannon. 2010. “Global Service Learning Project Influences Culturally Sensitive Care.” Home Health Care Management & Practice 22 (7): 464–69.

Kiely, Richard. 2004. “A Chameleon with a Complex: Search for Transformation in International Service-Learning.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 10 (2): 5–20.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Longo, Nicholas V., and John Saltmarsh. 2011. “New Lines of Inquiry in Reframing International Service Learning Into Global Service Learning.” In Bringle, Hatcher, and Jones, 69–85.

Plater, William, Steven G. Jones, Robert G. Bringle, and Patti H. Clayton. 2009. “Educating Globally Competent Citizens through International Service Learning.” In The Handbook of Practice and Research in Study Abroad: Higher Education and the Quest for Global Citizenship, edited by Ross Lewin, 485–505. New York: Routledge.

Riner, Mary E., Jieru Bai, and Susan Larimer. 2015. “Intercultural Global Health Assessment and Reflection Framework for Teaching Study Abroad Courses.” Journal of Nursing Education and Practice 5 (5): 65–71.

Dawn Michele Whitehead is senior director of global learning and curricular change at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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