Torey Siebart is Amizade’s Outreach Assistant, and she’s also an Amizade alum! In this blog, Torey reflects on her experience leading Amizade programs and how the organization’s portfolio of programs can make an impact on the lives of participants.
At first, I was completely biased in thinking that semester programs were the best. Of course, at that point all I had to go off of was my Amizade semester abroad in Bolivia. And that powerful, life-changing experience assured me, at the time, that this was the way to go in terms of study abroad and global engagement. It is undeniable that 3.5 months of immersion into a new community and language, host family stays, and long-term community placement is transformative. But once I started working for Amizade, I soon learned that a semester-length program is far from the only way to transform lives and futures.
The first short-term program I co-lead was in Washington, DC with a group of college students. That trip is really what made me question what I thought I knew about the best approaches to global experiences. I headed home from that trip in almost disbelief at how much a single week-long experience can impact a person and group. Before, I thought that there would be little bonding and discovery in a week-long program. Then I found myself experiencing the rapid group cohesion and development that the intentionally-designed itinerary and the well-timed reflection fostered. When you’re learning so much about something new each day — with the same group — you’re able to string together the common themes and build the bigger picture in ways you can’t in a semester program.
Right when I found the value and importance of Amizade’s bread and butter that is short-term programming, we had to put a stop to it. Because of COVID-19, it suddenly became both unethical and illegal to run these programs that I had just developed a passion for. And it became increasingly clear that we had to pivot. To be honest, I remember really struggling with the idea of even trying to find something of value that would compare to a semester or short-term travel program. Now, in hindsight, I feel extremely proud to be with a team that created our virtual service-learning (VSL) programming.
Our VSL programs take on many different shapes, too. My first virtual program was 12 weeks long, with college students working remotely with four different NGOs in Ghana. Since then I’ve been on an intensive 5-day program with high school students focused on Italy and climate change, a short term program on music in Ghana, a multi-destination program to Pine Ridge, Italy, and Puerto Rico with Jamaican high school students, and plenty more. These programs range from guest speakers series, to intensive one-week immersions, to comprehensive semester-long internships. I’ve found that virtual also connects global to local so well by having students take global themes and social issues they learn about on screen and work to identify and address them in their home communities. VSL presents new opportunities for participants with deeper self and guided reflection, and for community partners, as there can be longer-term, more stackable service projects.
“To be honest, I remember really struggling with the idea of even trying to find something of value that would compare to a semester or short-term travel program. Now, in hindsight, I feel extremely proud to be with a team that created our virtual service learning (VSL) programming.”
Amizade is now preparing to launch hybrid programs, and I’m so excited to experience firsthand the power of our virtual and travel programs combined. We will see deeper pre-immersion phases, including better reflection, and greater community context, and preparation, which can lead to more powerful on the ground work given that they’ve already virtually engaged with certain members. Lastly, with more post-immersion reflection, reports, and plans of action, participants will be more supported during their re-entry phase and better equipped to turn their Amizade experience into social action.
I realized there is no best program, and each is extremely impactful in their own way. Longer term travel is fantastic for language immersion, promoting independence, and developing important life-long skills such as flexibility, problem-solving, and time management. Short-term travel with an Amizade facilitator scrapes the surface of a community, but it gives the students tools to take their learning deeper as they learn from various community partners through guided reflection. Virtual is a more equitable way to engage with more students and multiple sites, and it gives the option to complete service projects our partners don’t usually get volunteers for, or to do service directly in the students’ home communities.
Every single program, however, is inspiring empathy, catalyzing social action, and linking diverse communities. No matter the shape or size of your Amizade program, you will be sure to create joy and friendships and gain new memories, empathy, and inspiration.