The New Normal: Unique Perspectives on Remote Service Learning

by Melissa Nix

Amizade's Semester Abroad Opportunities

Hannah Soltani studies Psychology and Global Health Studies at Northwestern University. This fall, she participated in the first virtual Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) program with Amizade and FSD-Bolivia. Hannah shares her takeaways from a semester-long virtual service learning experience. What was it like to spend several months virtually engaging with Amizade, FSD-Bolivia, and an NGO in Cochabamba? Keep reading to find out! 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it may seem as if global service learning is on the back burner and perhaps not even possible. Yet, if anything, experiences like these are especially important for both students and non-profits, as they help us stay connected and present, even remotely. 

As a part of the first cohort to have experienced Amizade’s virtual service learning program, I can confidently say that this experience has given me a fresh perspective on both my future career goals and what it means to learn from other communities, all from the convenience of my own home. 

That’s not to say that virtual learning doesn’t have its own drawbacks: there’s nothing that could compare to actually eating salteñas for breakfast in Cochabamba or seeing the elaborate altars on Día de los Muertos in-person rather than through a screen. Yet, throughout my 10 weeks here, I have come to realize that you don’t need to be there physically to learn about and make meaningful connections with members of your host organization and community. In fact, my favorite parts of the virtual experience were the collaborative activities we did as a group, learning about cultural humility, ethical storytelling, and stereotypes, as well as listening to guest speakers talk about all aspects of our host countries: the economy, traditions, history, foods, and environment. These sessions helped me and other participants stay connected to our organizations and work, and gave the support needed for an experience like this. We would even have “consulting” sessions, where we could bounce ideas off of other students for our own projects; although I may have overlooked certain aspects of my work, suggestions from other students provided me with the outside perspective needed to move forward. 

Most valuably, Amizade’s program helped me recognize how to learn from but also contribute to other communities in the future. Oftentimes, people may think of global service-learning and daily life as mutually exclusive: leaving behind your home for a period of time and immersing yourself in a new community with different people, history, and culture, with the goal of bringing this new understanding and acceptance into your own community. But Amizade’s virtual program made this connection effortless: in a way, I felt as if I was in my own community and my host organization’s community at once, and I was able to better integrate what I learned into my daily life, perhaps even more than an in-person session. After every activity and session, I would find myself reflecting on its applications to my work at my host organization, as well as towards my own community. I remember one specific session where we discussed ethical storytelling particularly on social media. After the session, I spent time reflecting on how I portray the story of other places and people, and recognizing how this may have impacted the perceptions other people may hold.

These sessions and the Amizade program overall grew to become a comfortable consistency in the unpredictability of 2020. I looked forward to each meeting and each session and was never left feeling unsatisfied or unsupported. Any questions or concerns I had were met with an abundance of resources and suggestions, and I felt as if I was truly with my cohort in Bolivia.

Hannah presenting her work during a virtual session

As we find new ways to collaborate and communicate during these times, we are constantly reminded that connection and innovation persist, and frankly, keep our world “normal” during the most uncertain times. 

Amizade’s first virtual session surpassed my expectations of what could be done remotely, and left me wanting more. I am both excited and curious for what the future holds, but the one thing I can say with certainty is that I will be visiting my host organization in Bolivia as soon as it is safe to do so. 

Thank you, Hannah, for sharing your story!