In Defense of Service Learning Abroad

I’m going to Peru! I’m going to Peru and I’m going to help stand up a women’s health center and I’m going to do my very best with the dismally short amount of time I’ll have there. I’m personally looking to pay specific attention to the tensions between the indigenous Quechua people and the public health authorities. My trip is in June and in the meantime I’ll share what I’m learning about some of the crazy human rights violations that have taken place in Peru regarding reproductive rights. These events are very recent history, too. Jaw droppers, I’m tellin ya.

This kind of no-holds-barred announcement would have been easy to make a few years ago. In fact it was easy to make. Hundreds of hours into an African studies program, a critical look at foreign aid via lots of papers, columns and critical novels, I still knew I could go abroad and that my community would appreciate it. I got such amazing support and my reflection on my 5 weeks in Uganda reinforced my decision to pass up a cultural exchange opportunity with the Peace Corps to stay at Ohio State and get a public health degree instead.

Today, things are more complicated. Or, the public’s perception of service learning abroad makes my excitement more complicated. This pendulum of imposing westernization vs global citizenship had been swinging, violently swinging, in my head for weeks, and then it happened. It happened during my moderately guilty pleasure: GIRLS.

Ray, the ‘all-knowing-via-interwebz, too wise for grad school’ character told Marnie how destructive foreign aid has been for low income countries. Of course, given Marnie’s character, I’m fully behind encouraging her NOT to spend time in Africa (for those who are GIRLS-nescient: She’s the heinously self-centered, “fancy people want to work with me” type).

This discussion accurately represents some high-profile criticisms of international development efforts that have changed the context in which we discuss foreign aid and development. I recognize the validity in these criticisms.


Not everyone who hops on a plane to Sub-Saharan Africa nets positive impacts, but there are effective partnerships out there. Lots of public health projects initiated by high income countries work collaboratively and sustainably to build efficacy in local communities. When interventions have unintended consequences, they recognize and measure them for future improvements. Many projects don’t represent this utopia of development work, but I can confidently say that mindfulness around efficiency, cultural respect, and community integration is there. It’s deeply engrained in the culture of public health. Any work that I will do abroad will consider what is sustainable and culturally appropriate.

My trip to Peru is going to be my first health “project” abroad. I’ll readily acknowledge that I will gain as much from this experience, maybe more than, our hosts will. I don’t think this is improper or problematic. Quechua culture emphasizes reciprocity. My peers and I recognize our own benefits to be realized from working with this population. It’s anything but a “we’re swooping in to save these helpless indigents” approach–our local contacts will teach and empower usIn exchange for this opportunity, my group is working all semester (cleaning up garbage, selling parking tickets in seb-zero temperatures, holding bake sales, you name, it) to bring with us a significant monetary contribution to the projects we’re visiting.

A running joke about public health students is that they’re a collection of pre-med grads who couldn’t make it into grad school. I studied journalism so let’s hope that assumption doesn’t apply here, but this is an opportunity to emulate the physicians’ Do No Harm principle. That’s why we’re supporting initiatives developed by the local women’s organizations in Ancash. We’ll be capacity building; breathing life into the programs they imagined.

Now that I’ve addressed the issue, I’m looking forward to sharing this mini-adventure with you. I’m going to Peru!

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