By Ruby Maddox
Through study-abroad, Peace Corps, and global-service learning projects many students and professionals are taking advantage of expanding their horizons and increasing their skills through global-oriented opportunities. Their experiences are rich in cultural exchange, self-reflection, and renewed perspectives.
So what does this have to do with CBOs?
Since many of these opportunities often involve working with a foreign NGO/CBO, many of these participants look for ways in which their global experience might apply to working or volunteering at a local nonprofit. While the experience of going abroad is often fascinating in itself with little else to compare it to, there are ways in which skills and competencies gained abroad can be applied to working/volunteering in a community-based organization.
Says Kirk Lange, Director of International Experiential Learning for the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives at Mount Holyoke College, “Perhaps even more important than skills and knowledge sets might be the insights students gain. Understanding their positionality (often their power and privilege) and understanding communities as communities (by being a member of them and their collective efforts for a while) brings cultural humility and the understanding that each context is unique.”
Having navigated themselves in an entirely new environment participants gain a new understanding of their sense of place in the world as a result.
Brandon Blache-Cohen, Executive Director at Amizade Global Service-Learning notes, “The most important skills that a person learns while serving abroad usually involve flexibility and cross-cultural communication. We find that many of our alums honor nuance and better understand that community challenges are not “fixed” easily”.
As Kirk adds, “Another insight that can be gained is that there are rarely phenomena/challenges/solutions that are just international (and only “out there”) but rather these things are in unique contexts everywhere…and that the international and the national/local together comprise the global. These insights are critical in being effective in community based work (in successfully entering communities that may not be your own, in asking the right questions and together finding appropriate approaches).”
Gabriella della Croce spent some time in Nicaragua both as an intern for The Working World and later as a communications coordinator of Sostenica. Currently Gabriella serves as the outreach and communications coordinator for Gardening the Community a local CBO. When I asked Gabriella what skills she felt transferred from her international experience to her local experience she emphasized her intangible skills.
“The main thing is that it muted me. I think I’m someone who can talk a lot, and it taught me to be quiet and listen hard. Because everything was new I had to learn how to observe and absorb. I had to re-frame and shift my perspective on what defines “development”. It was a humbling experience and involved fighting a lot of assumptions I held as a young college-educated person coming from a background with a lot of resources. Being in a new context, you recognize things in yourself.”