What is the value of the service portion of Study-Service Term? It’s clear that the students that take part in the program benefit far more from the experience than the people or organization that they might work for; there is no question about this, and Goshen acknowledges it. But do these organizations really benefit from service at all?
I was in Peru this past summer on SST. As part of the curriculum, all of us had to write “research reports” that addressed some aspect of our experience or the society around us. My report covered this topic, and I wish I could print it all here, because it’s a topic that demands nuance. In essence, though, I found that the way Goshen approaches service, especially in the context of SST, can be very problematic—or at the very least, some attitudes surrounding the program, particularly from certain professors or ex-SST-coordinators, can seem this way. Principally, there is a problem with the very language that surrounds SST itself, especially when it comes to “service.” We do not do “service” when we go on SST; we go to learn or to have new experiences, and often our presence is ineffectual, if not directly obstructive, to the work our “service” locations are trying to do. Importantly, Jan Shetler, the incoming SST coordinator, expressed an interest in changing the name of the “service” portion to better reflect the reality of the program; that alone is a good change, and I fully trust that Jan will do an excellent job coordinating SST.
But why is language so important? The language we use directly and significantly interacts with the cultural forces that already exist in many of the countries we visit. In talking to Peruvians about service, I found that many of them expressed a feeling of cultural or societal inferiority to the United States and other wealthy nations—and therefore felt that Peru, as a country, needs people from the US to come and do service, needs people from a more advanced nation to come and change theirs. My fear is that SST, and especially the service portion of it, reinforces this narrative. My fear is that, in sending U.S. students to do work in historically colonized nations, we are directly upholding a colonialist narrative that wealthy nations are better and more advanced than those in the global south, and that such countries need unskilled American students to come and do manual labor for them for some reason. This is not an unfounded fear.
What is important to recognize here is that I am chiefly concerned with the way SST affects and is viewed by the people — the Peruvians, in this case — that the program works with. Even if the name of the program is changed to steer the discussion away from service entirely and more toward the cultural learning that we are truly doing, Goshen still needs to communicate clearly that what we are doing is, indeed, learning—not trying to arrogantly improve the lives of people we don’t know in a society we don’t understand. And I’m concerned about this, because it seems that Goshen hasn’t historically done the best job in communicating with the host families and service locations that we stay with and serve at. I have heard a number of stories from others about host families not really understanding what the program is or what to expect from the American student that suddenly lives in their house, and likewise with service locations. I even experienced this to some extent — although not to any significant detriment — as a number of people I interacted with in my host family or at my workplace seemed surprised by basic information about the program, such as how long I’d be there or what my responsibilities were.
Any program like SST needs to be run thoughtfully and cautiously. While Goshen has done OK at this — certainly better than many other “service” programs — there is much to improve on, and at times it has felt that SST had really only been organized on our end, with little effort being made to effectively integrate the program into the places to which students travel. However, I’m optimistic for the future of the program, and trust in those now leading it to do so better than before.