The Ups and Downs of Service Learning

As a proud Pioneer, our motto: “Private University for the Public Good” is something that has resonated with me since my first quarter on campus. I internalized the idea that we are supposed to train and self-educate at school so we can then go into the world and make it a better place. I’ve always been impressed with how many of our students are involved in philanthropy, the way that our Greek community makes it a priority, and all of the opportunities that DU presents to involve ourselves in our surrounding community.

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However, things get a little sticky when you start taking that motto to the international community. What I mean by that is, I want to ‘help’ and I want to make the world ‘better’. How do I do that without stepping on the culture and identities of others? How can I help, internationally, without living out the negative criticisms of ‘voluntourism’

Last Winter Interterm I spent three weeks in Dharamsala, India, teaching English and computer skills to Tibetan refugee women. I signed up through DU’s International Service Learning programs, and went with a group of 15 DU Undergrad and Graduate students. We were a diverse group of students from all across campus, but all came together to study Tibetan Non-Violence, and to volunteer with a Dharamsala Non-Profit for the month of December.

My trepidation before the trip was whether or not my three weeks would actually matter to these women. I was concerned that I was going on this trip to make myself feel good about helping the world, regardless of whether or not I was actually even helping anyone. I bought into the idea that all of us university students are travelling internationally more for selfish reasons than to be selfless. I began to view my trip as just another exercise of privilege.

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I had a lot of inner turmoil about my choice, and suffered from a bit of self-hate as a voluntourist. However, after coming back from my trip, and after interacting with the community, I learned a few very encouraging things:

  1. Teaching IS helping. Regardless of the fact that I felt 3 weeks was not nearly enough to help anyone, it was three more weeks that those women could be in a classroom with a native English speaker. The Tibetan Women’s Association didn’t have any other teachers during December, so I was actually able to provide them with a tangible service they would have gone without, had I not been there.
  2. Good Intentions can create positive results. Many critics of voluntourism bring up the idiom that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I get it. Maybe 18 year old college students with no trade skills aren’t necessarily better at building houses than local trained (but unemployed) carpenters. But… does that mean that we are useless? I don’t think so. I think that the services provided through non-profits often do greatly help communities.
  3. The power of story-sharing. Through interacting with the Tibetan refugee community, so many individuals repeated how cathartic and healing it can be to share their story. In a community facing oppression or expulsion from their home territory, these individuals have felt vindicated by receiving support from the international community. The opportunity to sit and let them tell me their story, no matter how serious or how silly, was enjoyable for me, and seemed immensely valuable to them. They knew that I couldn’t go home and demand political change from President Obama. But we could feel mutually satisfied through connecting with someone across cultures.

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After my experience living in India for 1 short month, I felt rejuvenated that we truly can make a difference, that DU students interacting with the international community can benefit everyone involved, and that I’m still proud as ever to be a Pio that takes my university experience beyond the borders of our campus.

Tiffany Wilk, Study Abroad Assistant

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Day in the Life

Welcome to Caen!
Welcome to Caen!

When I first arrived here in France, I wasn’t sure what my day-to-day life would look like. Every day, it seemed that I would wake up, and have something new to figure out. Where is the Tram stop? What is the nearest bus station to the Université? How do I order my coffee? How much time will it take to do this homework? For the first few weeks, every day looked different, as I adjusted to classes and found my way around the town of Caen. Now, about halfway through the program, I feel like I have finally settled into a routine and figured out how to live abroad. Here’s what a typical day is like:

Morning

My day starts with a nice, small breakfast with my host parents. I don’t normally eat breakfast at home, and I’ll just have a cup of coffee before class. Here, we have toasted baguette, Nutella, and coffee or tea. It’s nice and small, but the perfect way to start out the day! If we have time, we will sit and talk about the plans we have for the day ahead, or discuss politics, art, or music. Try talking about President Obama at 8:00 in the morning… en français.

Tram arriving. It's really similar to Denver's Light Rail system.
Tram arriving. It’s really similar to Denver’s Light Rail system.

I then take the Tram to the Université. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays my first class starts at 10:15, and on Thursdays, my first class is at 8:30. The Tram is always super crowded, but I manage to wedge myself in there! That’s something about France that I can’t quite get used to… the utter lack of personal space. I’m getting more and more used to it, but sometimes I feel like I’m in a sardine can.

The Carré International building at UniCaen.
The Carré International building at UniCaen.

All of my classes are in French, and sometimes starting out early is difficult. I enjoy my classes, and my professors are really funny and incredibly patient with my peculiarities.

Afternoon

The main statue on the Université campus.
The main statue on the Université campus.

We get an hour for lunch every day, and it’s actually used for lunch! Some days, my friends and I eat the Restaurant Universitaire, or the Resto, and sometimes we forgo the Resto in favor of a “pique-nique” of baguette sandwiches. When it’s nice outside, we will find a patch of grass and sit under a tree, but when it’s raining (which happens a few times a week), we sit in the stairwell of the Carré International Building. There are a lot of windows, and it’s fun to people watch and discuss our classes and favorite professors. I like actually taking the time to eat and relax with my friends! No doing last minute homework or returning emails for me!

Yummy lunch at the Resto.
Yummy lunch at the Resto.

I finish my courses at 4:00 pm, and afterwards my friends and I go to a café to relax. We have a favorite café in Caen called Memoranda, which is also a bookstore. I usually get tea and an apple crumble. We have become regulars so the lady who works at the café now knows us (and she knows my order, which is quite funny!).

My tea and favorite crumble at Memoranda, the café and bookstore in Caen that I love.
My tea and favorite crumble at Memoranda, the café and bookstore in Caen that I love.

Evening

My bookcase in my room at my homestay.
My bookcase in my room at my home stay.

I don’t eat dinner with my host parents until 7:30 or 8:00 PM, so when I get back to our apartment I still have some  time before dinner. I try to finish my homework before dinner, and after dinner I might sit with them and watch television, or study, blog, write postcards to my friends, skype my parents, or just read.

We usually drink tea after dinner, and will either watch TV or I will go back to my room. If we have guests for dinner, we’ll stay in the kitchen and talk. After socializing, I will get ready for bed, finish my homework, and read for a little bit before actually going to sleep around 11:30 pm or midnight (only if we talk for a long time).

I thrive on my routine at DU, and having a routine in Caen has made me feel like I’m not only a foreigner intruding on the bubble of this wonderful college town in lower Normandy, but an actual resident who is living and thriving here. For me, it has been one of the greatest challenges, and the greatest successes, to feel at home in Caen, and I think I finally do.

– Zoe Diaz-McLeese, DUSA Blogger
Université de Caen, Basse-Normandie, France