The ISA JournalThree Tips for Starting Service-Learning

Studying abroad is a great experience that a lot of students have during college. For my month abroad, I’ve been doing something a little different: I chose to join a service-learning program and am so glad I did!  

Service-learning differs from regular study abroad because you volunteer with local organizations instead of taking classes. I have been living and working in the south of Spain, in Granada, working with two organizations: one that runs environmental education programs for local schools and another that provides after-school care for children with autism.  As a Spanish and Child & Family Studies major, these placements have fit my interests and education really well, and I’ve been having a lot of fun! 

Undeniably, though, working in a new place with locals in a culture and language different from my own has come with some challenges.  Here are a few tips that helped me transition in the first couple of weeks!

Be Bold and Introduce Yourself

If you’re like me, entering a group setting and meeting people for the first time can be a little overwhelming.  Add in the fact I was introducing myself and conversing completely in Spanish for the first time, and you can imagine my anxiety was running a little high. On my first days of service learning, I waited for others to introduce themselves and invite me into their conversations.  But, not many people introduced themselves, so I spent more time standing on my own than collaborating with others. Not only did this make me feel a little awkward and uncomfortable, but I also realized this was not going to help me reach my language goals.

I learned that in Spain, being bold and introducing yourself is more typical. So, I decided to give it a try! I found that once I started a conversation, even as simple as telling someone my name, people were friendly, wanted to know more about me, and invited me into more conversations later on. (Be ready for the double cheek kisses, too—they caught me off guard the first couple of times.) 

From there, I have actually been able to have some great relationships with my coworkers. It is one of the best parts of service learning because it is a unique opportunity to talk with locals from different generations, backgrounds, etc., and it is a perfect way to learn a language!

If initiating conversations yourself still makes you a little nervous, something that helped me was reminding myself of why I wanted to come to Spain in the first place. My biggest goal while being here is to practice conversing in the language with native speakers.  And, what better chance to do this than with the Spanish speakers I work with every day! I really didn’t want to miss out on the opportunities to practice Spanish, and that helped me get out of my comfort zone. 

One of my favorite parts of service-learning has been building relationships with my coworkers! These girls always help me know what I’m supposed to be doing at work, and I adore hearing a little of their immigration story and about their lives as students in Granada. 

Write a Reflection After Each Service-Learning Session

This one is a great habit to get into, not just during your time abroad but anytime you are volunteering, working with people, or starting in a new environment. A lot can happen in just one service-learning session! Especially during your first days, there is so much information to take in, and you might experience a variety of emotions. I know for me, I felt proud of myself for trying something new and practicing Spanish, but also tired and sometimes discouraged with my language skills. Doing a little reflection helped me process it all!

To get started, here is a basic outline that I typically use: 

What happened today? I like to start with a little summary of what I did. This also gets my thoughts flowing about how I felt during my shift.

What went well today? This is a great question to notice your specific strengths. Especially when working in another country where culture and language can add challenges to your work, it is really important to celebrate the wins you have! They don’t have to be anything monumental—for example, one of the things I was proud of this week was starting a conversation with a coworker, and we talked for about 5 minutes in Spanish.

Things I learnedYou learn something every day! I used this section to write down any helpful phrases I learned, people’s names I learned, and things I learned about the culture.

Feelings about my workIn service-learning, there were always things that made me excited and things that made me discouraged. I use this section to get more in touch with my emotions and especially to process any more challenging parts.

Goals for next time. Especially since I am only service learning for a short time, I wanted to grow and improve every day. Setting a couple of goals helps me be intentional with every shift. It also feels good to look back and see how I have grown over the weeks. Be careful to set realistic goals and only a couple at a time. When we set too many, we can become overwhelmed and discouraged. 

Be Patient and Have Grace

This tip is probably the most important one—and the one I tend to forget the most!

My first couple of days of service-learning certainly brought challenges. When receiving directions, I didn’t always understand. I frequently had to ask people to repeat, and I didn’t always know what I was supposed to be doing at each moment. By the time I returned home, I was so tired! And, I felt discouraged and unsure that I would ever meet my service-learning goals.  

But, then I realized that it had only been one day! I was putting so much pressure on myself to do everything perfectly right away that I forgot to give myself room to grow. After all, starting a new job anywhere can be challenging, and getting used to the way things go takes time. Add in a new language and a new culture, and I realized, of course I was feeling a bit tired and overwhelmed.

I reframed the situation to see all the successes I did have. For example, I learned how to use public transportation for the first time, made it through a day talking in Spanish, and met several new people. After deciding to be more patient with myself, the next few days of service learning changed a lot for the better! I felt more confident in myself and trusted that every day, I would learn more and get more accustomed to the rhythms of the job. And since that first day, I can tell I am getting better and better at Spanish, more confident interacting with Spanish kids, and more able to jump in and get involved.

Remember that adjusting takes time and be patient! You are doing hard work, and you don’t have to fit in perfectly right away—as long as you are growing and learning along the way!

Overall, I have loved service-learning in Spain! I know I am learning so much that will directly relate back to my studies in the U.S.  It has also been really cool to see everyday life in Spain and spend time with Spanish locals. 

If you have plans to do service-learning abroad, I hope these tips help you feel comfortable and confident and meet your goals abroad! And if you’re still thinking about service-learning, I encourage you to try it! It is a fun experience that will expand your world and help you grow in many ways. 

Braxton Brown is a student at Edgewood College and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is doing a service-learning program with ISA in Granada, Spain.

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