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International Service Learning: What It Is and How It Benefits You

Robin Van Auken | Hands-on Heritage
Written By
By Robin Van Auken
Volunteer Forever - International Service Learning

Looking for a travel experience where you can work hands-on with a global issue? One that enhances your cultural awareness, both personally and professionally? If so, consider an international service-learning (ISL) project!

An international service-learning project is a structured academic opportunity that lets you combine study abroad with experiential education and community development. According to Global Vision International, a trusted international volunteer organization with numerous service-learning programs, there are three characteristics of each of these opportunities:

  1. You participate in an organized service activity that addresses a community’s needs;
  2. Your placement offers you practical experiences, interactions, and intercultural conversations; and
  3. It requires that you reflect upon your experience for a broad understanding and appreciation of your host country, your area of study, and relevant current issues, which all lead to you becoming a global citizen.

An international service-learning program differs from volunteering, internships, or even many gap-year placements because it’s specific to your unique academic needs. A service-learning experience places “intentional emphasis on critical reflection that connects the service to specific learning objectives.” Often this means that you take volunteer reflection time to consider the impact of your experiences. You can also earn college credit, as either an undergraduate or graduate student, and seek programs that are tailored to you. Some programs even offer study abroad scholarships. You also can use this opportunity to decide if you are pursuing the best major. Are you sure you want to teach? Or work in environmental sciences? Or, would you rather focus on gender equality or sports education? Students faced with declaring a major may be undecided, so if you want to be sure about your academic inclination, consider a service-learning program abroad that puts you in the fray.

Marine Biology student Samia, who sought placement with Global Vision International, said, “I joined for the internship mainly because I wanted some first-hand experience on my path of becoming a marine biologist. What I gained most was the passion and love I have for the ocean and the absolute certainty that I’m on the right career path.”

A service-learning placement emphasizes mutuality. That means all participants – students, instructors, community members of the host country, and even the placement organization, should benefit, learn, and grow from the experience.

Volunteering and Internships vs. Service-Learning

There’s a difference between volunteer community service and service-learning. Take a beach clean-up program as an example. With a community service effort, volunteers can participate in a beach clean-up in Costa Rica, and the community appreciates the assistance with litter removal and temporary beautification of the area.

With service-learning, volunteer students with an academic background or interest in environmental sciences can study waste collection and recycling as practiced by the host city, and then participate in clean-up project to learn about accessibility and use of these services in different neighborhoods. The community still receives assistance with litter removal and beautification, and they also are informed about recommendations on sustainable waste management. The student receives academic credit for their research and recommendations, and the community receives immediate assistance and responsible guidelines on how to better maintain their environments.

Service-learning also differs from internships in a similar way. An internship often provides an individual with professional skills and career experience in a supervised setting. Internships might not include academic credit, and interns usually spend a substantial amount of time at the site, working.

International service-learning experience also allows the student to acquire professional skills, and it can lead to a career, however, its goal is to translate academic subjects through real-world activities that have a positive impact on all participants. The time commitment often is less than an internship as well.

Service-Learning Gives You a Professional Edge

Need another reason to consider an international service-learning placement? It will reap rewards for years to come.

Earning your college degree isn’t enough to guarantee you a great job in the 21st century. There are literally millions of college students graduating each year, competing with you and having a comparable education.

That number is increasing each year. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports that in 2017, there were 20 million students attending American colleges and universities – an increase of about 5 million since 2000.

How can you gain an edge over a similarly educated new graduate and land that coveted job? There are two major ways to accomplish this: volunteering and service-learning.

Volunteering allows you to give your time and service, and you promote goodwill and improve the quality of life for people, animals, and the environment. You can spend your college breaks or other free time volunteering.

Service-learning differs because it’s an amalgamation of studying and volunteering, each activity complementing the other. With service-learning, your altruistic and your academic efforts go hand-in-hand, benefiting you as well as the recipient, and allowing you the opportunity to reflect on the experiences of both.

You also have the ability to share your experiences – successes, and failures – in a classroom discussion, helping others with their own education.

Are you ready to learn more about international service-learning opportunities in your academic field? Here are a few suggestions from organizations around the world!

Featured International Service-Learning Programs

International Volunteer HQ


International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is a trusted volunteer travel organization focused on providing affordable and responsible experiences that are safe and high quality. Founded in 2007, IVHQ operates in 40 countries worldwide and places more than 10,000 people on meaningful projects each year. With more than 200 programs with sustainable objectives, IVHQ is a values-led organization that works to heighten global awareness and cultural understanding.

Spanish Service Learning Course

Broaden your global perspective and identity while you earn academic credit through IVHQ’s Spanish Service Learning Course in Latin America. The Spanish Service Learning course helps you foster a sense of civic responsibility and community while exposing you to a unique culture and language.

You’ll join a volunteer project within a community in Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Peru, assisting each day with its long-term goals, and then spend the rest of your day reflecting upon the experience and learning more about the local culture and society. You’ll be guided through workshops that allow for group discussions, as well as journaling and reading.

This is an excellent opportunity for students who want to fulfill a language course requirement, as it allows you to combine volunteering with hands-on service learning, reflecting this global experience on your resume and through academic credit.

The course is accredited by California State University, Monterey Bay, and requires you to commit to a minimum of four weeks on an IVHQ program. Apply online and select your volunteer program location, choosing from topics including teaching English, childcare, construction and renovation, medical or healthcare, special needs care, and animal care.

While on your placement, you’ll attend five guided reflection workshops, write a daily journal, and complete a reflection essay. You also may enroll in language classes to improve your Spanish speaking skills. The cost for the Spanish Service Learning Course is $880 and is separate from your volunteer program fee. More information about this service-learning opportunity is available here.

Global Vision International

Volunteer Forever - International Service Learning

Global Vision International (GVI) is a family-operated organization that works with passionate partners and expert teams of people across the world, committed to providing volunteers and interns with unforgettable experiences. Each year, more than 2,000 people join GVI’s award-winning projects, and since 1997, it’s earned an outstanding approval rate from more than 28,000 participants. GVI offers high-impact opportunities for short-term volunteers, as well as interns looking for career development opportunities that last up to six months. GVI offers over 150 volunteer abroad projects in 13 countries worldwide. A respected and prominent international organization, it’s been featured in publications including The Times, The Guardian, the BBC, and more. Its sustainable, responsible projects contribute towards key global issues as outlined in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. GVI measures its progress through impact and achievement reports, which are shared with all stakeholders.

Ready for an organized service activity that addresses a vulnerable community’s needs, while providing you with practical experience, interactions, and cross-cultural conversations? GVI works with colleges and universities across the United States and around the world and has a field staff of over 150 permanent employees. Check out GVI service-learning programs in the areas of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Education, Global Health, Marine Biology, Social Enterprise, Sports Education Management, Sustainable Agriculture, and Women and Gender Studies.

Biological and Environmental Sciences

If you’re biology, conservation, or environmental science major at the undergraduate or graduate-level, take a look at a GVI service-learning project that has you contributing sustainable solutions to some of the environment’s more serious problems. Join experts in the field on a curriculum that’s geared towards developing teamwork, leadership, and intercultural competency. Work alongside community members and NGO staff on a responsible endeavor that serves long-term needs. Example projects include:

  1. Learning about rainforest ecosystems in Costa Rica while assisting with turtle, jaguar, bird, or forest conservation initiatives
  2. Conducting biological surveys on fish and coral species in Mexico
  3. Researching reefs in Fiji and contributing to conservation efforts to protect marine ecosystems
  4. Working in South Africa with wildlife conservation researchers on the lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino populations

Sustainable Agriculture

Partner with a community to promote sustainable agriculture and farming with GVI. If you’re a student of environmental or agricultural studies, join GVI and staff abroad to research and discuss critical issues that work towards sustainable solutions for the well-being of citizens. Projects that are suitable for students interested in sustainable agriculture include:

  1. Planting and maintaining a vegetable garden that contributes to community member and participant food consumption
  2. Urban farming, micro-farming, and small-scale gardening projects
  3. Landscaping a sensory garden along with training and advocacy on agriculture and environmental care
  4. Rainwater harvesting for irrigation in tandem with environmental sustainability workshops for the community

Women and Gender Studies

For students interested in a career in leadership, gender equality, community building, or nonprofit administration, this GVI program can deliver a three-credit course to complement the theoretical framework learned in the classroom. GVI provides for undergraduate and graduate-level internships. Example projects include:

  1. Engaging in women’s leadership, education, and empowerment workshops in South Africa
  2. Training local community members on reproductive health, sanitation, and hygiene in Nepal
  3. Providing one-on-one tutoring sessions tailored to sports or arts activities in India
  4. Developing and implementing literacy workshops, English teaching, or basic infrastructure projects in Laos


Help to bridge economic and social divides in vulnerable communities where there’s little to no access to a high-quality education when you join GVI on an education service-learning project abroad. Perfect for education majors, or anyone interested in a career in teaching, education administration, or nonprofit management, GVI’s programs enable students to work with partner organizations on projects such as:

  1. Implementing livelihood strategies and environmental workshops in traditional Fijian villages
  2. Assisting with infrastructure construction projects in Fiji, Costa Rica, South Africa, Nepal, or India
  3. Creating income-generation initiatives for women’s empowerment in India or Laos
  4. Contributing to childcare and school activities in Nepal, South Africa, India, Mexico, or Costa Rica

Marine Biology

Join GVI and its partners as they search for answers to some of the most difficult problems facing ocean conservation and environmental sustainability. Join an international team of experts and concerned community members in the field and find out if you have a true passion for marine biology. Gain first-hand experience working underwater as a trained scuba diver, monitoring the health of the ocean. If you’re a student with an interest in marine biology, consider a GVI project that has you doing the following:

  1. Getting PADI Advanced and PADI Coral Reef Research Diver qualifications while working on marine species research in Seychelles
  2. Contributing towards the conservation of endangered sea turtles in Greece, Costa Rica, or Mexico
  3. Receiving a PADI Divemaster certification while working on tropical coral reefs and fish species research in Fiji

Maximo Nivel

Volunteer Forever - International Service Learning

Maximo Nivel is a family-owned organization that operates educational institutes and places volunteers and interns in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru. A leader in international education, Spanish language immersion stays, study abroad, gap years, and adventure travel throughout Latin America, Maximo Nivel’s mission is to empower people to travel and experience the world through its high-quality, safe, and adventurous programs. Founded in 2003, Maximo Nivel has placed more than 25,000 people on educational and cultural travel programs.

Maximo Nivel offers Service Learning courses on a year-round, open-enrollment basis. Students can choose to enroll in a Service Learning course for academic credit or do an independent study, earning 3 to 12 credits while on the placement. Maximo Nivel offers service-learning specializations in the following areas:

  1. Animal Care
  2. Construction
  3. Environment and Conservation
  4. Medical & Healthcare
  5. Teaching English
  6. Working with Kids

Community Medicine & Service Learning

Join Maximo Nivel in Lima, Peru as an international service-learning student and expand your understanding of primary health care in low-income communities. This program is designed to educate and sensitize students about the efficient management of limited resources and the importance of disease and injury prevention. Community Medicine is designed to boost your knowledge and the skills you need to diagnose and prevent diseases, recognize environmental and occupational hazards and promote overall good health. You’ll learn about comprehensive health services that range from prevention to cure to rehabilitation as you do volunteer work in small groups alongside physicians in clinics and health centers.

This hands-on placement also immerses you in both the Spanish language and culture when you attend medical Spanish classes. You should have an intermediate level of Spanish to participate in the community service and medical Spanish program.

As a participant, you’ll have access to the virtual campus where you can work on the course syllabus, learning materials, links for extra practice, and homework. Program fees for this placement start at $5,100 and last for four weeks. Spanish lessons are an additional fee, as are volunteer fees. You can earn three credits for Community Medicine, and three credits for Medical Spanish lessons. Learn more about this invaluable placement here!

Spanish Service-Learning

Maximo Nivel’s Spanish Service-Learning placement helps you foster a sense of civic responsibility while being immersed in a community’s unique culture and language. This opportunity allows you to broaden your global perspective, and appreciate your sense of identity. When you choose this placement, you’ll help residents by volunteering on local projects, and then partaking in workshops that invite you to reflect on your experience and examine the host culture and society, contrasting it with your own home culture and society as well as the role of service-learning. This takes place in guided reflection workshops that combine observation, writing, reading, and group discussions.

As with Maximo Nivel’s other programs, you can sign up for this opportunity in Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Peru, and stay for four weeks, earning three credits. Choose a volunteer program that has you working with children, teaching English, working in conservation and the environment, volunteering with medical or healthcare, helping with construction, working in animal care, eco-agriculture, or with indigenous communities. There is a separate volunteer program fee and the cost of the international service-learning academic program is $195 per credit hour. Complete a minimum of 100 hours of service on your placement and you’ll earn the United States’ President’s Volunteer Service Award! Read more about this program and apply now.

African Impact

Volunteer Forever - International Service Learning

African Impact operates in 12 countries within East Africa and Southern Africa, offering safe and sustainable programs. With an emphasis on quality both for communities and for participants, the organization evaluates each project to ensure the long-term viability and impact for its stakeholders. Founded in 2004, African Impact has connected more than 13,000 people with humanitarian programs that make a directly improve the lives of people and wildlife of Africa. Its volunteers make life-changing memories while contributing to responsible community and conservation projects.

African Impact strives to transcend the responsible travel industry with its international service-learning programs, working from the grassroots level to partnerships with local governments and NGOs to maximize its participants’ impact and develop a culture of mutual respect and understanding.

Research and Conservation Service Learning Programs

Journey to the Greater Kruger area, one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations and home to the iconic Big Five, and work alongside professional conservation teams on human/wildlife conflict. The reserve is situated near rural farming communities, and there are instances where animals cross the buffer zone to hunt the livestock of farmers.

In addition, the community fears animal attacks on humans, which results in retaliatory killing of predators. Add to this the loss of habitat and isolated predator populations, and the result is interbreeding and prey scarcity, which all affect an animal’s chance at survival. As a member of the team, you’ll help to maintain critical wildlife corridors, research migration, and home ranges, observe patterns of movement, create ID kits, and work to educate the community about the future of these vulnerable ecosystems when an apex predator is killed. You’ll also go on safaris in your spare time. This is a great opportunity for students with an interest in conservation, biology, ecology, and wildlife conservation management, but also other fields such as sociology, anthropology, and various cultural studies. Learn more and register for this service-learning placement here.

Gender Equality Service Learning Programs

Travel to Tanzania and live and work in the village of Mdawi to empower women and help to develop a culture of gender equality. This placement allows you to further African Impact’s research on gender and culture in the areas of education, health, and business. Using a holistic approach to empowerment, you’ll work with a range of groups, including teen girls, vulnerable groups, single mothers, and widows.

As part of your service element, you’ll work on gender programs that could include:

  1. Girls’ Club
  2. Adult English education
  3. Women’s education and income generation
  4. Network Against Female Genital Mutilation

You’ll learn about female empowerment and challenges facing girls and women in Africa, speak conversational Swahili, immerse yourself in the culture and way of life in Tanzania, and work with African Impact’s team and partners to address key issues. Read more about this important program and apply here.

Public Health Service Learning Programs

In the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro sits the town of Moshi, in one of the poorest countries of the world. Tanzania’s healthcare system is underfunded and underdeveloped and needs people like you to contribute to its medical support and health education projects. This public health service-learning project gives you a well-structured and balanced program of practical and theoretical learning, guided by an academic adviser.

A holistic experience, this program is a valuable addition to the curriculum of any student interested in the fields of healthcare, human rights, and a broad spectrum of development studies. Tanzania’s health issues are critical. Its malnourished children, one in eight under the age of five, are susceptible to diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, and measles.

African Impact’s goal is to support and improve healthcare systems and focus on preventative workshops on nutrition and hygiene, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and women’s health. While on placement, you’ll gain insight into Tanzania’s healthcare and engage the community in health education projects. You’ll benefit from the professional support as you work and study towards your professional learning outcomes, and experience an immersive lifestyle among the Tanzanian community. This is a four-week, customized course with 70 service hours required. Read more about this important learning program and apply here.

Global Leadership Adventures

Volunteer Forever - International Service Learning

Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) specializes in high school leadership programs and meaningful volunteer opportunities abroad for teens ages 14 to 18.

Founded in 2004, Global Leadership Adventures sends thousands of teen travelers to Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America every year. Its goal is to enlighten curious and energetic young people to new possibilities and unlock new passions. The organization ensures students’ safety and health and provides parents with peace of mind. With more than 2,000 references to the impact of its programs, Global Leadership Adventures is a trusted international organization, and its co-founder was even recognized by President Barack Obama for making a positive impact in Africa.

GLA’s Service Learning Adventure methodology combines community service with adventure and hands-on learning, immersing young people in topics of social and global issues and teaching them personal leadership. Its summer programs are purposeful, preparing high school students from more than 25 countries around the world for leadership positions. GLA delivers a cross-cultural, integrated experience in a classroom the size of the world. Educational materials, cultural activities, lectures, and weekend excursions are included, and students also receive secondary medical and travel insurance.

Dominican Republic: Caribbean Service Adventure

Join GLA on the Caribbean Service Adventure, get to know the people and the beauty of the Dominican Republic, and help seek an end to its poverty by becoming a part of a sustainable solution. Much of the country is not developed sufficiently, and you’ll help GLA’s partners as they create initiatives for improving life in underserved neighborhoods. Some of the activities you’ll perform and adventures you’ll enjoy while on this placement may include:

  1. Build safer homes and community centers for underserved families
  2. Use sustainable building materials and methods
  3. Provide access to clean water supply and safe cooking methods
  4. Plant trees for reforestation
  5. Hike Mt. Brisón to a remote village and learn about daily life on the mountain
  6. Snorkel in the Caribbean among multi-colored fish
  7. Hike through the island’s lush interior
  8. Swim in the natural caves and cenotes of Lago Dudu

Introducing the concept of sustainable development is critical for a changing world. Through service work and seminars, you’ll earn how communities can take collective action to overcome issues such as poverty, climate change, lack of quality healthcare and education, discrimination, and more. You’ll stay at Home Base, a rustic eco-lodge built in the style of the Taíno people, sharing rooms with roommates. There is a pool for your use, and the beach is a short walk away. Duration is 10 days and tuition is $2,399 and includes 20 service hours. Read more and sign up here.

Peru: Spanish Service Adventure

Improve your Spanish speaking skills through a Spanish Service Adventure in Peru, a breathtaking country where an ancient civilization merges with a vibrant modern culture. While you volunteer on various projects in the community, your Spanish language will improve. Some of the adventures you’ll experience include hiking to famous Machu Picchu, and whitewater rafting through the Andes Mountains. Immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of Peru, and absorb the language while working with other volunteers to improve the lives of indigenous residents of Cusco.

Spend your weekend exploring the Sacred Valley, and on excursions and cultural events. Spanish class will never be the same as you integrate the language into all aspects of your experience. Tasks include community development projects, making infrastructure improvements, interacting with the children and their families, and practicing your conversational Spanish as part of a language immersion curriculum. Learn about the culture, participate in Andean music and dance workshops, listen to talks about cosmology, and meet farmers and artisans in the community. Accommodation is in family-style lodging in a village of the Sacred Valley. Program duration is 21 days and tuition is $5,299, and you’ll contribute 24 community service hours and spend 35 hours practicing the language. Click here to read more and register.

India: Service Through the Lens

Immerse yourself in the vibrant colors of India, from the spice markets to the lush green tea gardens, on a Service through the Lens learning experience with GLA. This community service-learning program puts you behind the camera, gaining hands-on experience as a photojournalist, and enjoying lessons about ethics and technical workshops taught by industry experts. You’ll even have a chance to photograph Tibetan devotees at an ancient Himalayan monastery! While in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, you’ll contribute community service as a volunteer at an underserved kindergarten to advocate for education. You’ll assist with tutoring and providing after-school activities. Hands-on learning takes place when you visit rural and urban areas, capturing a unique view of India. Throughout your stay, you’ll develop your own body of creative and editorial work for a capstone project.

Spend weekends learning how to dance Bollywood-style, and take an Indian cooking class. Practice Hindu lessons to connect with its residents. Trek to Kareri village to meet the semi-nomadic Gaddi people, and view the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Your trip concludes with a visit to the Taj Mahal, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world! You’ll stay in the summer residence of the King of Kangra, sharing same-gender rooms with other volunteers. The tuition begins at $3,699 for 14 days, and you’ll volunteer for 30 community service hours. Learn more and sign up here.

Projects Abroad

Community development volunteering with Projects Abroad

Take a break from the textbooks and learn by doing with Projects Abroad. Make service-learning part of your education and volunteer abroad. On a service-learning trip, you’ll gain valuable experience while seeing more of the world, and you’ll help those in need.

Projects Abroad is one of the largest volunteer placement organizations in the world, offering programs in more than 50 countries. Founded in 1992, it places more than 10,000 people on meaningful service programs and internships overseas each year. To date, more than 100,000 travelers have participated in programs in Africa, Asia, Europe, or Latin America ranging from teaching, care, conservation and environment, medicine and healthcare, journalism, law and human rights, international development, and business. With flexible start dates and full-time staff in-country, the Projects Abroad mission is to encourage people to volunteer for worthwhile work in developing countries.

Choose a service-learning trip with Projects Abroad in one of these categories:

Public Health

Projects Abroad’s public health programs focus on helping people in rural areas where there is a lack of access to medical care. You’ll do basic health checks and raise awareness about illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure, and you talk about the importance of healthy living. Get an introduction to the healthcare challenges that rural communities face while getting practical medical experience. Gain hands-on experience providing healthcare during outreach work in countries like GhanaCambodia, and Sri Lanka.


In many rural areas, children stay home during the day because families can’t afford kindergartens and daycare. This means that they don’t get as much stimulation as they need, and it affects their development and makes it harder to cope when they start school. Projects Abroad’s childcare projects aim to change this by working with kindergartens and daycares that focus on early childhood development and education for disadvantaged children. You help kids learn through play, teach the ABCs and 123s, and get them active outdoors. Give children the education they need in countries like PeruTanzania, and Cambodia.


Climate change is a growing threat. Coral reefs are suffering from bleaching, and miles and miles of rainforests disappear every day. Projects Abroad’s conservation projects strive to reduce the impact of human activities on precious ecosystems around the world. Join and be part of efforts to protect the environment while you learn from professional scientists and conservationists in the field. Protect the planet in countries like PeruBotswana, and Mexico.


A lack of good infrastructure can hold a community back. Children need safe spaces at school to learn, modern toilets that prevent disease and improve hygiene, and shelter that fulfills a basic human need. Each of Projects Abroad’s building projects work toward providing a disadvantaged community with the infrastructure they need. Do a Building Project, learn about the infrastructure challenges people face, and see immediate physical results from your work. Build for brighter futures in Jamaica, the Philippines, and more.

Ready to Start Your Next Adventure?

Students returning from international service-learning placements often refer to the transformative nature of their experiences, and can even develop new careers on these life-changing events.

Some of the skills and abilities you’ll acquire include leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving. Another enduring trait you’ll develop while abroad is respect for your host community, and consideration for their perspective and needs – something that can translate to lifelong skills in communication and cultural awareness.

Whether you’re a high school student ready to embark upon an adventure before college, an undergraduate contemplating how to land a job or whether to pursue a lifelong career path or a graduate student seeking an immersive, academic experience, a service-learning program abroad can help you succeed in your goals. Explore some of the suggestions above, and keep exploring.