Student Stories

Virtual immersions make for real solidarity as International Summer Service Learning Program adapts to coronavirus

By: JP Shortall

August 24, 2020

Midway through the spring 2020 semester the coronavirus was rapidly developing into a global pandemic, so the University suspended all outbound international education programs for the summer. At the time, the Center for Social Concerns International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) had completed its rigorous application and selection process, selecting 73 participants from among more than 230 applicants. During the previous five years ISSLP had increased the number of participants by 26% and added sites in South America and Africa. In 2017 the program’s staff grew with the addition of an assistant director for Africa, and in 2020 the program added sites in Eswatini, Kenya, and The Gambia.

With international programming cancelled late in the spring semester the ISSLP team worked quickly to develop a plan that would allow students to stay connected with site partners around the world. Students, staff, and site partners were concerned, though, that virtual immersions would be significantly less engaging and effective for all those involved. Rachel Tomas Morgan, director, International summer service learning program, explained that “for 20 years students and site partners have come to expect in-person immersions from the ISSLP. Those immersions build strong, trusting relationships that power deep educational and collaborative work, so we were all concerned that virtual immersions might pale in comparison.” What followed during the summer surprised everyone.

The ISSLP staff in collaboration with site partners developed virtual immersion projects for 23 students in five different countries: Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Senegal. Five students worked with Fundación Natividad de los Andes to teach remote English classes to 168 school teachers from Catholic Schools in the towns of Chimbo, Guaranda, and Loja, Ecuador during June and July. 

One student worked at Fundación Salvadoreña para la Salud y el Desarrollo Humano (FUSAL) in La Libertad, El Salvador, updating the contact information of all the ISSLP participants who have worked with FUSAL. With the information updated, the student will work along with our site partners to organize a virtual meeting that will reconnect the FUSAL-ISSLP community and create a space for FUSAL to share updates, changes, and new areas of work of the organization. 

Fourteen students participated in the virtual program that the ISSLP site partner Social Entrepreneur Corps (SEC) offered this summer, with five of those receiving Pulte Institute for Global Development Student Fellowships. Students worked as consultants for social enterprises, education organizations, artisan associations, and community tourism organizations in both Guatemala and Ecuador. The program included training in culture, language, and on the foundational components of practical social entrepreneurship.

The ISSLP partner organization, Finca del Niño in Trujillo, Honduras had two immediate needs when the coronavirus pandemic began. One was to move all the courses offered at the school online and create a virtual version of their annual fundraiser that the organization hosts every summer. Two students researched and created a set of virtual resources to support the English classes at the school. One of the students took on the responsibility of supporting virtual fundraising by creating a very strong social media campaign and creating videos and organizing Zoom calls to gather key stakeholders and supporters of the organization.

One student participated in the virtual internship provided by the Global Research and Advocacy Group (GRAG) in Dakar, Senegal. The internship included media monitoring and writing media summaries on core thematic areas of interest to the organization such as gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, maternal, newborn and child health; drafting social media posts to increase organization visibility and highlight the work of partner organizations; and resource mobilization and grant writing that consists of desk review research and drafting concept notes and grant proposals. 

Many students who had been planning on international immersions were disappointed they were cancelled, but they soon learned that the relationships across borders they had hoped to build were also possible in virtual settings. As sophomore anthropology major Denise Shaffer put it about her work at Fundación Natividad de los Andes in Ecuador, “the news that the ISSLPs were canceled was a great disappointment. I may be more than 2,500 miles away from my students, but it doesn’t feel that way when we are laughing at each other's drawings for an activity or dancing together to a One Direction song during bell work. Teaching this course has taught me so much about the CST principle of solidarity.”

Eliza Wall is sophomore applied and computational mathematics and statistics supplementary major with a concentration in biological sciences who also worked with Fundación Natividad de los Andes in Ecuador. She was most surprised to find how useful technology could be for building relationships. “The takeaway that is both most surprising and meaningful to me is the depth of relationships I was able to build through computer screens. Before now, I did not understand this power of technology, as I thought of it as impersonal, not recognizing the ways in which it could be used to bring people together.” Her experience also led her to reflect on the importance of Catholic social tradition principles such as solidarity and the common good during an international crisis. “The coronavirus does not isolate us from our immediate, national, or international communities but simply calls us to become more innovative in the way we pursue the common good. Standing in solidarity with my students during this time allowed us to form meaningful connections as they shared their perspectives, experiences, and current realities.” 

Many of the 23 students who did virtual immersions reflected on the value of Catholic social tradition during the pandemic. Patrick Aimone is now a junior political science major in the Glynn Family Honors Program and the Hesburgh Program for Public Service who worked with the Social Entrepreneur Corps in Guatemala. “My experience with the Virtual SEC program profoundly impacted the way in which I conceive of the purpose of social entrepreneurship, and how it relates to solidarity. To me, the principle of solidarity involves walking with and forming relationships with others, rather than seeing them as people to be served.” 

Site partners have shared similar insights about how the coronavirus has deepened their appreciation for the value of Catholic social tradition. Allison Zilka is a program administrator at Finca del Nino and explained that “as I reflect on the involvement with our ISSLP students, I can see that both the Cross and the Grace are helping us establish deeper bonds of solidarity and the common good.” 

The application for ISSLP 2021 will open during the second week of September. It will offer both in-person and virtual options this year, with some sites accommodating either. If international travel is not possible, ISSLP will be able to offer expanded virtual options. 


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