“Service Learning”

Part 1 of Spring Break in Haiti

My first experience with a service learning trip abroad occurred when I was seventeen. As part of a broader leadership program, my high school shepherded us in groups to various southeast Asian countries that were poorer than us. I ended up in one of the mountainous barangays in the Philippines, spearheading the documentary portion of the trip. While there, I split my time between encouraging the local children to participate in our arts activities and filming these events. Every night, our group would gather to write brief reflections on the day’s challenges and successes.

At the time, I felt very attached to this community. But looking back, my biggest regret was promising these children the world and never delivering on it. It turns out that when you return to your idea of a normal life, it is so easy to forget your initial sense of altruism amidst your own wants and stresses.

It makes me queasy now to speak of this. My memories of the trip tend to linger on the moments I might have intentionally ignored then – the sullen faces of young kids who befriended the cohort that went before us only to realize they would not be going back; some of the older kids asking why they could never come see how we lived since we were so preoccupied with their poverty; and images of the locals posing in their own homes that we filmed with abandon, the footage itself left unedited after our final reflections on the program concluded. My school, and by extension myself, had prioritized our learning experience over the needs of the community we were supposed to be serving.

I approached Dr. Ashley Karlin’s program with a lot of uncertainty. Called “Writing Global Health in Haiti”, it is a 2-unit course that partners with Work, a nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate the roots of global poverty in the communities of Menelas and Molea in Port-au-Prince. The work includes a good amount of writing combined with medical shadowing and health research in collaboration with Work. Not only do I have little experience in global health, but I was also initially skeptical both of the impact of writing and the depth of insight we could gain in only a week.

I was somewhat surprised to find that Dr. Karlin and I shared very similar concerns when it came to the idea of “service learning”. The course would include three months’ worth of research efforts about Haiti before we even got there and the curriculum was intense. We would be equal partners with Work, with our main writing project in Haiti focusing on a community health report that Work would be able to use productively. Most importantly, our primary relationship with Work and their understanding of the course structure would ensure a sustainable partnership contrary to the savior narrative that I’d assumed to be inevitable.

In joining the course, I hope to learn about Haiti instead of trying to fix it. While I intend to contribute what I do know, to me this program is ultimately a question of what service means and can look like. I don’t think it’s about promises. Perhaps it’s most helpful to be aware of all the pitfalls of altruism. In this regard, I hope the course forces me to second-guess myself about what is good and right. I hope that I ask many more questions than there are answers. And I hope that while our time in Haiti might be short, this program and its effects will not be.

Click here for more information on the course

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