What would be your ideal vision for how the Talloires Network should move forward in engaging students around the world in the network and global civic engagement movement?
Civic engagement programs needs to be more “responsible”.
Some programs focus so much on student learning that they forget about the people who these programs are supposed to help. When a program fails, students can learn from their mistake, but communities cannot always recover easily, and their limited resources would have been wasted.
Some service trips to developing countries could demonstrate how communities are compromised for student learning. Each year, many students are sent to teach English and build houses/restrooms in East Asia in typical trips that usually last less than one month. These initiatives often fail to tailor to the needs of the service targets. For example, English bears no real relevance to the jobs village children are looking for. On the other hand, schools are built in excess, while teachers remain underpaid and children too poor to go to school. However, despite these problems, schools continue to send their students abroad on similar trips.
The crust of the problem is that the impact of civic engagement programs is rarely evaluated seriously by schools or grant committees. The primary assessment criteria continue to be “how much students have learnt from the experience.” Why should the community bear the risk and suffer just for students to learn?
In the conference, I had the privileged to talk to Mr. Roger Nozaki from Brown University and was deeply impressed by the measures they have taken to reduce the potential negative impacts done to communities by their students. Only after going through a series of compulsory training, were students eligible for project funding. For example, students were required to conduct an intensive research to the unfulfilled needs of its proposed targets, taking into account initiatives already taken by the government and NGOs. Furthermore, students were given comprehensive project management training to ensure their actions bring good but not harm.
Being responsible to the community and holding students accountable to their actions not only serve to benefit the community, but also serve to enhance students’ learning experience. Thus, I hope the Talloires Network can work to promote “responsible” civic engagement programs and set benchmarks for its member universities to follow.