An Interview with Service Learning Expert Erin Barnhart
Erin L. Barnhart is a leading expert in the field of experiential education and in particular service learning. The Founder & President of Effective Altruism LLC, Barnhart is also the Director of Operations for the American Gap Association. We picked her brain about her thoughts regarding how to effectively go about service learning, the reasons behind her passions for alternative education, and the benefits of service learning as an educational tool.
1. Where does your personal passion for service learning come from?
I have been passionate about civic engagement and volunteerism for many years. I volunteered regularly as a young person growing up in rural Oregon and joined AmeriCorps (a national service program in the United States) following college graduation. Professionally, I’ve spent much of my career working with nonprofit and government organizations to identify ways to engage volunteers in effective, meaningful roles. I’ve also studied civic engagement extensively in higher education, including earning my Ph.D. studying international service in particular, as well as on a Fulbright Scholarship to Canada.
My passion specifically for service-learning really began when I started to teach university classes. My first “official” role in service-learning was as the Graduate Program Director with IPSL, an international service-learning organization. To me, service-learning is a best of all worlds environment: education + service + awareness and reflection. The end result is a well-rounded experiential education where students learn from teachers, community members, and even themselves!
2. When it comes to education what is your personal philosophy?
My personal philosophy is that education should be ongoing and lifelong. Even if one isn’t enrolled in a formal education program, learning and self-education should fuel one’s day to day existence. We can and should never stop learning new things!
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I’m also passionate about engaging the many types of learning styles people possess, ranging from reading and writing to trying and doing. Service-learning is a great model for engaging many different styles of learning so it’s a terrific fit for many different educational philosophies and practices.
Further Reading: Four Important Reasons for Educators to Choose Service Learning
3. What elements do you find are the most crucial for a service learning course to be successful?
While there are several elements critical to the success of a service-learning course, three in particular come to mind.
- First, there should be mutual respect between instructor and students. Service-learning involves personal reflection and thus there needs to be real trust and respect between everyone involved.
- Second, there should be a spirit of partnership. Students, as both learners and volunteers, should seek to partner with instructors and community organization staff to learn as much, if not more than, they contribute. Similarly, class instructors and community members should work closely together to create an integrated, comprehensive experiential learning experience for students.
- Lastly, the learning of the student should never come at the expense of the needs of the community. It’s vital that service opportunities identified for students be roles and tasks truly needed or wanted by the community. Again, it comes back to the idea of partnership: in a perfect model, students learn and contribute, faculty teach and learn, organizations host and grow, and, overall, communities are served effectively.
4. On the other side of things, what common mistakes do you see service learning organizations making?
Sometimes, unfortunately, reflection doesn’t get the respect it deserves. In my opinion, it is as equally important a component as the formal education and community service aspects of a service-learning program. Without reflection, students miss the opportunity to fully explore what their service means, how it connects to their learning, and what the cultural, political, social, and environmental contexts for their engagement might be. They may still have a great experience overall but they won’t gain the personal and professional insights that they might have had with an engaging reflection process.
Further Reading: How to Implement Effective Reflection
5. What do you see as the benefits of international service learning?
International service-learning is an outstanding way to learn about a new culture, develop language skills, gain personal and professional abilities like patience, flexibility, cultural competency, global awareness…the list goes on. Service offers an opportunity to contribute to a global community, all while learning from community members and nonprofit/NGO staff. Learning provides the chance to gain global context for issues that affect not only the host community but also other communities around the world (including, potentially, one’s home community!) And reflection ties it all together, leading the student through an exploration of what they have learned, what they have experienced, and what it all means, both for their current experience as well as their personal and professional futures.
6. Do you believe that everyone can benefit from participating in a service learning program?
Absolutely! Service-learning is an incredibly accessible pedagogy that meets people where they are and simultaneously engages and challenges their intellect, skills, talents, and personal awareness. Regardless of where you are in your career or education, international service-learning can introduce new experiences, amplify your existing skills and knowledge, and provide you with a new, potentially future-shifting adventure.
Interested in partaking in your own service learning experience? GVI is a multi-award winning Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international service learning programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.
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