Two weekends ago, I had the privilege of going to Casa Canadiense headquarters in Managua to attend a presentation given by Michael O'Sullivan, a professor of education at Brock University, and his two research assistants (one of whom is Ashely Rerrie, the other Casa Canadiense intern in Nicaragua this summer). His presentation was about the research he and Harry Smaller are conducting, research governed by the primary research question, "In what ways, both positive and negative, are host communities in the Global South impacted by International Service Learning initiatives?" I was only slightly surprised to learn that the majority of research that addressed international service learning trips in the Global South centred around their effects on Northern students. In effect then, this research is meant to fill, what seems to me to be, a dangerous gap in academic research.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to learn about their research for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that it directly relates to me. Although I would not classify my trip as an International Service Learning experience, it is undoubtedly similar. When I was planning my summer "service" placement, I struggled with a number of concerns and questions. Some were directly related to my anxiety about the language barrier and other practicalities but a lot had to do with my privilege and the impact of my trip and trips like mine on host communities. I did not want to, inadvertently or advertently, plan a trip similar to some of the rather harmful trips that can arise from the "Voluntourism trend" (or trends similar to it). By harmful I mean trips that are generally insensitive to the needs, desires and culture of the host community and that encourage a misguided belief on the part of the students from the Northern World that they should and are best equipped to solve problems in the lives of the people they are visiting. By harmful I am basically referring to tríps that solely focus on charity and the desires of the visiting students to the exclusion of the principle of solidarity. (In the end, I pursued this internship with Casa, precisely because of Casa's belief in the importance of solidarity).
The presentation addressed some of these concerns while simultaneously forcing me to recognize the complexity of the impacts of ISL and other similar trips. ISL trips offer students from the Global North the opportunity to learn about, through an immersive, service-centered experience, what life is like in a particular country in the Global South. It is almost impossible to argue that that is not an incredible opportunity for students. Hopefully, ISL trips also generally help students become more aware, active and compassionate citizens in their own countries, citizens who will support and advocate for policies that seek to combat the unequal relationship between the Global North and the Global South. On the other side, ISL trips offer communities the opportunity to interact with, teach and in some ways, learn from, students from countries in the Global North. They also may, and may assert they do, help communities fulfill a specific material or other kind of need, be that need for an English teacher or a new playground.
To study the impact of ISL trips on host communities the researchers will need to determine if ISL participants, when they claim to, full an actual community defined need. They will also need to measure the social, cultural and emotional impacts of ISL trips on communities and their constituents. They will need to try to entangle how Nicaraguan and Canadian culture, and the specific regional and community culture and dynamics, affect how community members view, interact with and then process their interactions with visiting students. Not to mention the fact that researchers will have to take into consideration that ISL trips will affect even people in the same family differently.
I returned home to La Granadilla thinking about all of this and decided to get my family's opinion. I believed that they would be pretty honest with me because, not only have I formed pretty close relationships with most of my family members here, but because Donya Reina is a rather frank woman. When I asked her for her opinion about ISL trips and about her experiences with visiting students I received a response that was long and interesting. She told me she likes having visiting students live with her because she likes interacting with people from all over the world, the variety of different experiences she has with them, the opportunity it gives her share her life with them and the different things she learns from them. She told me she enjoys forming relationships with the students and likes when the spend less time travelling (although she wants visitors to see and experience Nicaragua) and more time in the community. She shared that, on the practical side, she enjoys having visiting students because the extra money they supply her family with enables her to buy things they wouldn't normally buy, like enough watermelon for breakfast every morning or a piglet. On a side note, piglets act as a kind of investment for people here as they can be sold when fully grown for more money that they were bought for if ever a significant sum of money is needed for an emergency or for a large purchase. She shared a variety of anecdotes with me about her experiences with visiting students, anecdotes which ranged from touching to funny to troubling. Some, like her story about a sleepwalking professor, made me laugh, but some, like her story about rather presumptuous students who expected to be provided with food and clean clothes with minimal interactions with her family, made me sad.
My conversation with Donya Reina, and other conversations with people from my community and elsewhere, coupled with my experiences here have convinced me of the positive impacts ISL trips can have on communities and visitors if both sides respect, talk openly and try to form positive relationships with one other. I also believe, undoubtedly, ISL trips can just as easily have negative impacts, sometimes probably even when the good intentions of both parties are obvious. As for myself, I can say gratefully that I have benefited enormously and learned so much during my internship here. And that will be all for today ladies and gents, join me later in August for more of an on-the-ground update about me and my community!