Reciprocidad: A Rural Costa Rican Community’s Evaluation Of An International Service-Learning Program

Troy Donald Henri, School for International Training


International service-learning programs place students in foreign communities to work on service projects that address important community needs and provide experiential learning linked to academic coursework. Without the key ingredient of reciprocity, service-learning partnerships cannot achieve their highest potential for service or learning, and may become counterproductive. Too often, practitioners and scholars focus only on student outcomes in evaluating service-learning program, neglecting community outcomes and perspectives. Without using comprehensive feedback mechanisms that include community partners’ input, the potential for improving programs may give way to power imbalances and service projects that do not meet actual community needs. This qualitative inquiry uses participatory action research methods to evaluate one such international service-learning program from the perspectives of rural Costa Rican community members being served by US American undergraduate students through a field internship program of the US-based Community Agroecology Network (CAN) and the Costa Rican Coopepueblos agricultural cooperative. The central question of this inquiry is: How has the community of Agua Buena, Costa Rica, perceived the degree of reciprocity in the servicelearning partnership of the CAN-Coopepueblos internship program? The results of 28 semistructured interviews revealed eight major themes and four minor themes of feedback about the impacts, processes, and dynamics of the program. Overall, the findings revealed ways that the internship program achieved reciprocity and also ways that it worked against reciprocal servicelearning. Improvements suggested by the interview participants and the researcher can help bring this program into greater harmony with the best practices and espoused theory of reciprocity in service-learning.