The Many Similarities of AmeriCorps and Study Abroad
Today’s guest blog comes from Erin Barnhart, Ph.D. (AmeriCorps NCCC Central Region alum, 1997-1998) who currently serves as the Graduate Program Director for IPSL, an international education and service-learning organization. This blog is the fifth in our International Careers Series sponsored by IPSL that profiles leading alumni of AmeriCorps working in international and intercultural careers.
It may not seem obvious, but there are actually quite a few similarities between AmeriCorps service and international education. I’m an AmeriCorps alum (NCCC Central Region, 1997-1998) who now works in the field of international education and service as Graduate Program Director for IPSL, an international service-learning organization. As I’ve interacted with and taught graduate students who are AmeriCorps and other national service alumni, I’ve increasingly recognized that there are many outcomes, impacts, and goals that domestic service and international learning have in common.
Let’s explore some of them, shall we?
First, for many AmeriCorps Alums, service with AmeriCorps presents a unique opportunity to learn about diverse, often multicultural communities – places where people have different lived experiences, practice different cultural norms, and often even speak different languages from their own. My service in AmeriCorps NCCC allowed me to partner with and learn from individuals and communities around the United States, the lives of whom, in many cases, were dramatically different from my own. As a young woman from rural Oregon, serving with community organizations and engaged citizens in inner-city Detroit, rural Texas, and small town North Dakota was a fascinating, illuminating experience. I came away from my 10 months of service with a much more nuanced appreciation for the strengths and abilities of communities. And my eye-opening acknowledgement of the sheer diversity of opinions, experiences, and ways of life in my country meant that many things were, for me, no longer black and white but rather many shades of technicolor gray.
International education facilitates many of these same experiences through opportunities to live, study, and interact with diverse cultures abroad. Students who study abroad immerse themselves in new communities, learning new languages, cultural practices, and intercultural communications skills. They gain greater cultural competency and regularly challenge and adapt their own norms, behaviors, and opinions. Participants in study abroad often come away saying that their worldview has significantly shifted, that their sense of what “normal” is has been dramatically altered to make room for the reality that multiple normals can, and do, co-exist. Study abroad alumni often feel that they have added a layer to their identity that is connected to the place where they studied. They joined, even for just a little while, the social fabric of a place different from their home, and they came away from the experience richer in knowledge, understanding, and appreciation.
Another way these two unique paths intertwine is related to citizenship. Both study abroad and AmeriCorps inspire a strong, renewed sense of citizenship. Not necessarily in a nationalistic way (though this can certainly happen as well) but more in the sense that AmeriCorps members and study abroad participants often feel even more engaged, immersed in, and activated by their citizenship. They are eager to participate in communities, learn more about them, and contribute.
This is especially true for those study abroad programs that incorporate a service-learning component. Serving alongside local members of a new community, both AmeriCorps members and students studying abroad identify in themselves a desire to do good, a renewed sense of value in civic participation, and, often, an inspired path forward from post-service or study experiences to continue serving and engaging with communities throughout their lives. Citizenship – whether it is local, national, or global – is stoked by meaningful service and intercultural exchange. Whether that happens in the United States or in a country abroad, the end result is often the same.
Last, but most certainly not least, both AmeriCorps and study abroad are often cited by participants as being significantly life-changing experiences. Seventeen (!) years after I completed my service with AmeriCorps, I can still identify a multitude of decisions I have made and behaviors I have adopted that were rooted in my national service. I have built my career around the study of and employment of effective practices for meaningful civic engagement. Many AmeriCorps alums similarly go on to pursue careers in the charitable and public sectors, seeking to give back through their employment, often in addition to continued volunteer service. Similarly, study abroad alumni often cite, even years after their experiences abroad, how their international learning had a significant impact on their understanding of the world and their role within it. Many international service-learning participants also seek to explore career paths related to international and domestic education, community development, and social and environmental good. Once again, these two paths share so many signposts along the way.
So having said all of this, an AmeriCorps alum who might be considering study abroad might wonder whether they should bother doing it at all. If these experiences are so similar, why might it be worth it? The answer to this question is related to the differences between these two opportunities. Spending time abroad offers an entirely new environment in which to learn, grow, serve, and engage. You can take the many things you learned and the skills you honed during your AmeriCorps experience and potentially apply them on a global stage. You can sharpen your intercultural communication skills and strengthen your cultural competency by placing yourself even more out of your cultural element. You can take the sense of citizenship that you likely sharpened during your AmeriCorps term and expand it even further, adopting an even more global perspective. You can add global experience – and the patience, flexibility, and ability to adapt to new cultures and environments that you gain along with it – to your professional skill set, an invaluable asset in an increasingly competitive and globalized workforce.
And should you choose an international education program that has a service or service-learning component, you can practice your service skills in a new environment, learning more about how people volunteer in other countries (indeed, it’s not the same everywhere. In many places, volunteering looks very different than it does in the United States . . . and may not even be called volunteering!). In short, it can be the next great leg of your journey. An opportunity to take what you have achieved and learned and experienced domestically and do it again, only differently, internationally.
At IPSL, we talk to and engage many AmeriCorps alums who say that they started to think about global service during their national service. For them, serving and learning abroad is the next phase of what will likely be a lifetime of civic engagement, immersive learning, and a desire to partner with and contribute to diverse communities.
Imagine what it could potentially do for you…