Imagine a group of college students, under the guidance of a professor, working on a community-driven project where the lived experience of members of that community and the problems they would like to solve are the driving force behind the initiative. The students meet with community members, seek out individuals who seem to hold influence, try to understand the cultural milieu and nuances of the presented task or challenge, work collaboratively with each other and community members to understand and then attempt to solve, or at least address, the stated problem, and, if things fall into place, offer up a viable solution. For many, this description would fit a typical academic service-learning course or project, one that is experienced in the community surrounding the home institution. 

However, what if we add to this scenario an environment where English is no longer the dominant language, one where local customs differ from what students are accustomed, where beliefs and ideas held by the local people are likely new and different to the students, or where the way people live, get around, work, even eat, are all a departure from the norm for the students involved in the experience? What would we call this experience? Usually it’s called international or global service-learning. It includes the pedagogies and hallmarks of traditional, locally-based service-learning, but it adds a study abroad component into the mix, which allows students to immerse themselves in a culture that is not their own.

During my career as a professor, I have taught service-learning projects in several of my courses. These projects allow students to work with members of the community surrounding the university and work on real-world problems and issues. Service-learning courses and projects are excellent ways to give students a more authentic learning experience, but are they truly immersive? As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Merriam-Webster defines immersion in a teaching and learning context as the following:

Instruction based on extensive exposure to surroundings or conditions that are native or pertinent to the object of study; Especially: foreign language instruction in which only the language being taught is used (learned French through immersion).


Given that definition, service-learning projects conducted in areas local to the educational institution could be considered immersive. However, it’s clear to me that the immersion students experience in these types of courses or projects is short-lived and fleeting. Students are immersed in the specifics of the project and the community for as long as they are away from campus; as soon as they return and begin attending to their other obligations and responsibilities, the immersive aspect of the service-learning experience appears to evaporate. Perhaps this is why I’ve never really considered this type of teaching and learning as immersive. I believe that service-learning conducted in a local context involves authentic learning and asks students to function more autonomously than might typically be asked of them in other learning experiences, but I’m not convinced that it’s very immersive.

As a professor at Elon University, I’ve also had the chance to teach service-learning projects in an international context. International, or global service-learning, encapsulates the pedagogical concepts of traditional (read: local) service-learning with study abroad/away (Motley & Sturgill, 2012). In my experience, international service-learning pushes the needle a bit as it adds an immersive component to the qualities that other forms of service-learning already possess. International service-learning prevents students from escaping the learning experience in ways that often occur when service-learning is implemented in the community surrounding the institution. Students remain focused on the objectives of the defined task, and remain engaged with their community partners within the culture and environment that is part and parcel of that community’s lived experiences. As such, students are able to make connections between what they are learning from the academic aspects of their experience andto the practical and/or professional components of the project in a quicker and deeper way.

This, to me, is one of the many reasons that immersive learning experiences like international service-learning provide students with incredible opportunities to learn and grow. International service-learning allows students to encounter dissonant phenomena and then, importantly, prevents them from easily retreating from the experience. While this likely makes many students uncomfortable, challenging moments like these may also be when learners have the most to gain. MIt seems clear to me, and also others, that matching the strengths of service-learning—specific focus on engaging directly with communities—with the strengths of study abroad/away—–developing international and intercultural competence—–leverages the best of both pedagogies and thus maximizes the potential for learning. In addition to noting that global service-learning is usually immersive, Hartman and Kiely (2014) specify many learning affordances of this pedagogy including the development of intercultural competence, engagement with global civic and moral critical thinking, and opportunities for students to reflect on, question, and analyze how life works for people living in other places. The key ingredient in all of this may just be the immersion component. 

Adding a service-learning component to a study abroad experience can introduce students to aspects of the community in which they will live and study that they might not otherwise encounter. It may ask them to perform tasks that they might not otherwise pursue. And, it may ask them to engage with people that they might not otherwise meet. For these reasons, adding a service-learning aspect to study abroad programs appears to be an excellent way to amplify and maximize the immersive learning potential of the existing experience.


  • Motley, Phillip, and Amanda & Sturgill. A (2013). Assessing the Merits of International Service-learning in Developing Professionalism in Mass Communication. Communication Teacher, 27(3), 172 – 189.
  • Hartman, Eric, and Richard & Kiely. R ( 2014). Pushing Boundaries: Introduction to the Global Service-Learning Special Section. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 21(1), 56 – 63.

Phillip Motley, associate professor of communication design, is the 2019-2021 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. His CEL Scholar project focuses on immersive learning.

How to Cite this Post:

Motley, Phillip. 2019, September 17. International Service-Learning. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from