• Character Clearinghouse Logo

Making a World of Difference: Faculty Involvement in International Service, The University of Louisville International Service Learning Program

With Pam Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor

International Service Learning Program, University of Louisville


Price Foster, Professor, Justice Administration
Tom Clark, Clinical Professor, Dentistry
Joy Hart, Professor, Communication
Kandi Walker, Associate Professor, Communication
Pamela Curtis, Director, Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership, and Service

The Botswana trip in May 2011 brought students from the academic programs: communication, justice administration, psychology, sport administration, and dentistry. How is the service learning experience specifically connected to each one of the courses and course topics?

Price Foster, Professor, Justice Administration:

Louisville staff and faculty in Botswana

It is important to understand one of the philosophical tenets of the International Service Learning Program at the University of Louisville is that it is interdisciplinary. While each participating discipline certainly has its own project, all students are involved in the projects of each discipline and, to the extent possible, the disciplines select programs that lend themselves to interdisciplinary implementation.

Each year we do have some variation in participating disciplines, depending upon interest at the university and needs in the host country. However, the disciplines that have been most involved over the years are communication, justice administration and dentistry. The selection of program activity comes as a result of faculty consultation and additional on-site consultation with key persons in the host country. This typically means the faculty travels to the host country and confers with the hosts several months before the semester in which the course is offered. Taking the philosophy of service learning into consideration, the program is then developed. This means selection of programs that lend themselves to helping students make an intellectual and experiential contribution while helping the host country address problems or issues faced.

The communication program typically involves working in the schools with health education programs while in recent years justice administration has focused on school respect projects, and dentistry has a dental clinic where residents are invited to come for treatment. Under the leadership of faculty from each discipline, the students spend time preparing for the experience through workshops and orientation several weeks before departure. While in the host country, every student participates in the work of all disciplines as well as his/her home discipline. Simultaneously the students are learning from the local residents about their culture while helping to address their needs. Hence, the objectives of each discipline, the interdisciplinary priority, and the objectives of service learning are met.

You note that you draw from mainly Yamazaki’s philosophy of self-discovery and development as a theoretical foundation. Please provide a short summary of this philosophy.

Price Foster, Professor, Justice Administration:

Japanese scholar and philosopher Yamazaki Ansai (1619-1682) believed that the same principles that move the universe also guide human ethics and shape our actions. From his perspective, fulfillment of potential, achieved by conforming to moral duty, is the means through which humans achieve an ideal state. Further, in Ansai’s view, individual actions influence the whole universe, extending outwardly from the self—toward one’s family, the community, larger society, as well as the cosmos. Five key behaviors may improve relationships: thoughtful studying, systematic questioning, cautious deliberating, clear analyzing, and responsibly acting. One gains awareness of his/her full potential by acquiring knowledge and begins to achieve that potential by responsible action.

All ISLP Faculty:

With Ansai’s philosophy in mind, ISLP strives to create programs and educational materials that promote self-discovery, critical thinking, and engaging reflection. For example, the Communication team once created a self-discovery workbook designed to enhance self-understanding, development, and positive action. The workbook, divided into three sections (Who Am I?, Goal Setting, Reflection), included educational exercises designed to help students explore, appreciate, and communicate who they are, who they want to be, and how to achieve the goals necessary to become who they want to be. Another example of Ansai’s philosophy in ISLP is the program designed by the Psychology team. Led by Dr. Barbara Burns, the Psychology team created a workshop emphasizing the concept of resiliency and overcoming adversity. The resiliency workshop was designed to nurture a positive view of self and enhance self-esteem through a variety of educational activities.

How does participation in the program help students to gain leadership and problem solving experience they may not be able to cultivate in a traditional classroom experience?

Tom Clark, Clinical Professor, Dentistry:

Students and faculty interacting during service learning

Students are removed from the exercise in abstraction that is the classroom experience. For example, as it is in real life, the situations that students encounter in the ISLP dental clinic settings are not contrived, and the individuals that we interact with are not actors. The patient’s circumstances are actual, acute, emergency, and sometimes life-threatening. It is the real deal; students find themselves in situations where they become leaders in a team and must assume responsibility for the care given and necessarily engage in problem solving of the highest order alongside faculty. As this work is successfully accomplished, lives are changed—those of the patients, and especially our students. The realization that the skills that they have acquired back at school can be put to use in an extraordinary and gratifying way in a place where this treatment really does make a difference, changes their perspective forever. It is no longer in the realm of the abstract, and there is no greater satisfaction than to be able to do something for someone else that the person cannot do for him or herself. The concept of service is very difficult to grasp in the classroom, but when it is an integral part of what we do in the field, it becomes integrated into our vision and interactions with our fellow humans. This type of learning just can’t be accomplished in the classroom.

How does participating in the program aid in teaching students to accept personal and social responsibility as future citizens in their local communities and expanded communities?

Tom Clark, Clinical Professor, Dentistry:

It is the multi-disciplinary approach to training that sets the stage for personal and social responsibility as future citizens. As in the real world, few people are specialists and keep only to themselves. Thus, this program prepares our students to participate in their communities and the world at large by not only bringing to the table their own unique “specialist” skills, but an experientially-based education that can be used for the edification of their fellow citizens. The multi-focal experience gained by interaction with their fellow students from other disciplines in executing mutually derived projects fits them for community action-type projects in their respective communities.

What has most prepared each of you for your roles as faculty leaders in the program?

Joy Hart, Professor, Communication and Kandi Walker, Associate Professor, Communication:

In our faculty meetings as well as outside them, we frequently comment that ISLP is one of the best parts of working at the University of Louisville. ISLP leaders are dedicated to students’ educations and want each student to explore the world for his/her own self-discovery and to help others. As with most educational endeavors, faculty members do not get involved with ISLP because of a financial or other gains. They are involved because they have a sincere interest in seeing the light bulb of knowledge and exploration turn on for students. What prepared us as faculty leaders is that inherent drive and yearning to see a student take a task to completion, see a student succeed in a global setting, and see the excitement of students exploring a world outside their own zip code for the first time. ISLP faculty leaders believe in students. We want our students to be global citizens and leaders.

Students posing for a picture in Botswana

What do you each like best about your role in the program?

Thomas Clark, Clinical Professor, Dentistry:

I enjoy being a facilitator, along with my fellow colleagues.

Price Foster, Professor, Justice Administration:

I have been with the program at the University of Louisville since its inception. My role has evolved over the years and at every stage I have enjoyed the work and the trip. I have always enjoyed and treasured the relationship with the students and the faculty.


Pamela Curtis, Director, Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership, and Service:

My role with the ISLP program has been evolving from observer to faculty to trip supervisor. I feel fortunate to see the program from all angles and have a depth of knowledge both personally and professionally about how to make a program like this tick. I’m a learner so my hunger for knowledge and experience gets fully fed with my ISLP experience.

Kandi Walker, Associate Professor, Communication, and Joy Hart, Professor, Communication:

We are faculty coordinators for ISLP and we enjoy this role immensely. We enjoy working with new faculty members as they learn how ISLP works. We believe the interdisciplinary model of ISLP is one of the reasons this program is successful. It allows faculty and students to work closely on social problems. It also allows students to get to know their peers in other disciplines well and to discover connections and ways of working together they hadn’t previously considered.

We also have been deeply enriched by our hosts in each country where we work. We have been inspired by their hard work, generous hospitality, and the time and attention they devote to helping us and our students. Along with our students, we have learned much from them and are grateful to know and have the opportunity to work with them.

We also like working with faculty who value student learning. We enjoy collaborating with other faculty who believe the application of theories and classroom knowledge is a necessity for student learning. Further, we both greatly enjoy working with students. We enjoy seeing our students thrive in the classroom and internationally. This unique way of working with students, seeing them conceptualize a project and carry it to implementation as well as grow personally and academically, is perhaps the greatest highlight for us.

What is your favorite service learning trip story?

Thomas Clark, Clinical Professor, Dentistry:

I will write a book someday containing the many favorite stories, but one of my favorite things is to demonstrate the acoustics of the site at Xunatunich, by being able to speak in normal conversational tones and levels from the base of one pyramid to another. An absolutely astounding phenomenon!

Price Foster, Professor, Justice Administration:

There are some other fun stories such as the trip to Cebu in December when the kids thought I was Santa Claus and watching our students learn much more than they teach.

Pamela Curtis, Director, Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership, and Service:

My favorite service learning trip experience was being in a secondary school in Botswana and saying good bye to the students we had been working with for the past three days. Pictures, hugs, tears, and laughter lasted for over an hour. Our students were touched in a way they never expected and now are forever connected to people on the other side of the world they would have never have met were it not for ISLP.

Kandi Walker, Associate Professor, Communication, and Joy Hart, Professor, Communication:

We have many favorite stories. Historically, one of our favorite stories was a trip to Belize in the early 2000s when the heat index was well over 115 degrees. We were providing a multi-disciplinary health clinic (i.e., health education sessions and free medical and dental clinics) in a concrete building with little to no air circulation. Yet, our students were not concerned with how hot they were getting. They were worried about the people from the community who were there. Numerous times, we both witnessed our students giving away the water supplied to them or directing the very few fans in the building away from them and circulating air toward the patients in the clinic. Our students showed how selfless and generous they were, even in extreme heat conditions.

Another one of our favorite stories is being able to visit the Cebu prison in 2010. We had several justice administration students on this trip and seeing the workings of an international prison was a highlight of their trip. The added bonus to this prison visit was getting to dance with the famous Cebu prisoners.

One last favorite story was working in the schools in Botswana in 2011. The teachers were on strike during our visit yet the students of Botswana were still attending school. One of the principals (administrators were still at the school during the strike) told the UofL faculty and students that she tried to motivate her students to attend school because the future of Botswana was in their hands. She said she told the students each day that each student should take his/her education seriously and succeed despite the current teacher strike. Each student was responsible for his/her own learning. Hearing these words motivated the UofL students even more. We were so proud of our UofL students going from classroom to classroom talking and interacting with the Botswana students. Even when the UofL programs were finished, our students wanted to stay to help Botswana students with their homework and interact with them more (often it was because the studets wanted to practice speaking English, and our students engaged in impromptu English lessons). We were extremely proud of the dedication of our students and the Botswana students—to learn, to work and to serve because it was the right thing to do and not because they were asked to do it or a grade was tied to it. It does a teacher’s heart good to see such educational dedication from students.

In college life today students are encouraged to join many activities and options at a time of considerable personal freedom. Do you think that a college can encourage students too much to be involved in co-curricular activities? Why or why not? Do you think there should be more efforts in connecting student activities to their academic experiences? Why or why not?

Pamela Curtis, Director, Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership, and Service:

At our institution and I am certain at many across the country, the mantra to the new student is get involved in something on campus. “If you want to be successful in college, get involved outside the classroom” is repeated from New Student Orientation through Welcome Week and beyond. The reality seems to be that involved students are more connected to the institution, are retained, and graduate.

“You have to be three times more excited about what you are doing to get people excited about it at all.” I remembers giving that advice to resident assistants to help them get good attendance at their programs. The same I think holds true when we talk to students about involvement. Those students who are already excited hear the message with glee, those who never intend to get involved block us out, and the middle group decides when they are ready to hear the message. Sometimes it takes a while to cut through all the distractions vying for their attention to realize what their true passions are.

The unified and consistent encouragement to get involved is necessary. Will some of our students get over involved? Of course. But might they have whether we encouraged them or not? Shouldn’t they learn how to juggle their obligations, say no and prioritize now before they get in over their heads in their careers? The more important message is to challenge students to think critically about the decisions they are making. Universities should teach students to ask good questions and encourage them to begin asking them on their own.

Finally, where we can be intentional in connecting student activities to academic experiences, we should try. However, there are many valuable lessons to be learned that are not directly connected to coursework. Student Affairs does this kind of education best and should be supported to offer varied and diverse experiences from which students can choose. These lessons also can be taken back to the classroom and complement that work, especially practicing critical thinking.

College peer culture can have both positive and negative influences on students’ personal, social, and academic life. How do you think your program brings out the positive influences of peer culture on students’ academic success and well-being?

Pamela Curtis, Director, Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership, and Service:

The interdisciplinary nature of the International Service Learning Program is what drives the success of this program in many ways. One of those ways is engaging students not only in the project they develop as a discipline but additionally as students connect to students in other disciplines while learning their projects. Students from across classifications (first year to senior as well as graduate and professional students) support each other more than happens in the average classroom setting. Ultimately the strengths of each participant can be utilized to the benefit of the entire group as grades are not simply based on individual participation but team work as well.

Some critics think that students should stick to work that relates only to their academic education. In other words, it is the not the business of higher education, at least public universities, to teach students to be virtuous citizens. How would you respond to these comments?

Pamela Curtis, Director, Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership, and Service:

In these challenging economic times, it is understandable why some might question activities that they do not perceive as directly related to one’s academic education. However, our experiences with ISLP lead us to believe that students would miss something very important in their educations if they spent four or more years absorbed by a single discipline viewing the world from only one perspective. In part, such a rationale is why universities require general education beyond one’s major. Further in today’s job market, employers are looking for more than a person talented in a particular field. They are looking for employees who can work effectively in teams, have strong verbal skills, understand how to work with different types of people, are emotionally intelligent, and possess a wide view of the world. A program like ISLP stretches students to learn about themselves in unfamiliar places under uncertain conditions. Those who emerge on the other side of such an experience are forever better at their work and their lives.

Please add any other information that you might think would be helpful for those who would like to implement a program similar to yours.

Price Foster, Professor, Justice Administration:

Select students carefully, be sure you have dedicated faculty who want to serve rather than get credit, find excellent administrative and faculty leadership, and make sure the university makes it a sufficient priority to provide adequate support. If at all possible, keep the cost as low as you can for the student who participates and provide logistical as well as financial support for faculty expenses.

Kandi Walker, Associate Professor, Communication, and Joy Hart, Professor, Communication:

We would add two additional considerations. First, before starting be aware that developing and running this type of program takes considerable time. Even after you’ve been doing it for years, the time and energy demands are extensive. Second, despite the time involved, the rewards are well worth it. Devoting one’s spring break and fall break to work and juggling responsibilities at the end of every semester (often grading final projects on airplanes) are always made worthwhile by the warm welcomes in our work locations and the overwhelming success of our students. The travel and work are exhausting but they are simultaneously rejuvenating—continually reinforcing for us how students can make a difference in the world.

Mailing Information

International Service Learning Program

Vice President for Student Affairs
University of Louisville
302W Student Activities Center
Louisville, KY 40292

Contact Person Information

Kandi L. Walker, Ph.D.
Associate Professor