The ups and downs of service learning

Lately, it seems like everywhere I go on campus service learning is there too. On advertisements to work with medicine in Thailand, or help libraries in Burkina Faso-or to teach English in Morocco.

I took up the offer to go to Morocco and teach English to the incredible people of Zawiya Ahansal in the High Atlas Mountains. As a part of a team of ten students, we traveled to the remote region. Zawiya is a place that pilgrims, traders and mountaineers have been attracted to for hundreds of years. It is the burial place of many saints and is holy ground for climbers. While there, the benefits and disadvantages of service learning were constantly on everyone’s minds.

Service learning can be simply defined as a method of teaching that combines classroom instruction with meaningful community service. The community service can be done at home or abroad, in a different community. The intentions behind service learning are almost always good and the benefits for participating can be incredible for students. However, as I was living and working in the village, some important considerations came up for our group.

First, many people have a difficult time either accepting the host culture or continuing to appreciate their own culture. In our group we had some students who felt that we were an inferior people. In some ways it was a hard sentiment to contradict because our hosts live in a breath-taking location and are some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Their intelligence and hard work in the rugged alpine environment distinguishes them.

However, the more I considered this idea, the more I disagreed on the principle of “we” and “them.” It became more apparent to me that the more I separated us into two different categories of human, the more I felt that our group should not have been intruding on their incredible way of life. This drastically changed for me as I became closer friends with the “students” (I mark this with parentheses because I felt like just as much a student because of all I learned.) The men and women we taught had the most incredible sense of humor and were constantly inviting us to take tea in their homes and hang out. The moment I stopped separating people into idealized or specific groups and continued forward with the dignity, respect and interest that I would give to any engaging individual the more fulfilling the experience became for me.

One of our students, Ismael, has his degree in English and speaks four languages fluently. He taught me about Moroccan Islam and illustrated the importance of literacy for the women of his village. His essay on his role in the village made me feel extremely humbled as I read about his life. Other Moroccan students had their degrees in physics or were mountain guides throughout the High Atlas. When they shared their knowledge with me, I truly felt the meaning of service learning.

The question of whether we should have been there or not was extremely pressing. No one wanted to expose anyone in the village to oppressive ideologies or in any way encroach. However, second-timer Logan Moriarty, a sophomore who studies French and Arabic, put all my fears to rest when he described his friendships in the village. “If we shouldn’t have come here and didn’t, then I would never have met my good friends Hassan or Mouhamed, and just the thought of that makes me so sad,” Moriarty said.

The Cultural Atlas Foundation program I was a part of put me in a position to teach and observe another culture, but the villager openness to friendship taught me something invaluable — true understanding is achieved through friendship. When the barriers between “us” and “them” are broken down over a cup of tea, a late-night card game or a joke in everyone’s second language, we learn something truly important, understanding means more than anything I could learn in a classroom and that is the true meaning and importance of service learning.