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International SL Exchange:

What Students Learned, What We Learned

International Service-Learning (SL) is coming under the spotlight in higher education. This pedagogy takes a step further from domestic SL projects by combining organised service activities, study abroad, and international education. The Service-Learning and Leadership Office (SLLO) has dedicated a research seminar on 31 May 2021 to sharing their recent experience in organising the Global Leadership and Civic Engagement (GLCE) programme – a SL exchange between PolyU and three partner universities in the U. S. .


Facilitated by SLLO Head Dr Grace Ngai, the seminar speakers were Dr Rina Camus, Postdoctoral Fellow, and Ms Cindy Lam, Senior Service-Learning Officer. They first gave the audience an idea of the GLCE programme’s basic structure: 12 outstanding students were awarded for an advanced SL experience in one of the three world-class institutions, namely, Brown University (Brown), University of Maryland at College Park (UMD), and University of Southern California (USC).


The facilitators Dr Rina Camus (left), Ms Cindy Lam (middle), and Dr Grace Ngai (right),

Head of SLLO were interacting with audience in the Q&A session.


The partner universities offered different types of SL programmes to the PolyU students. Two students joined Brown’s 10-week fellowship programme as interns in an NGO for Haitian immigrants. Four students attended UMD’s customised community immersion programme to volunteer in an NGO serving low-income families and explore social issues like poverty, gentrification, and racism. Six students joined USC’s 4-week programme which focused on “homelessness”, together with three USC students. Upon completing the exchange, the PolyU participants were required to initiate service projects in Hong Kong.


The research data included students’ reflective assignments and three rounds of pre/post-programme interviews. These artifacts were analysed qualitatively to measure the learning outcomes. Findings showed that the exchange did contribute to student understanding of social issues as intended. Interestingly, students related these social issues to home realities through comparisons between the U. S. cities they visited and Hong Kong. The speakers explained this as a promising pattern indicating that civic learning during the exchange was transferrable to home setting. Students gained ideas for community work inspired by persons and organizations they encountered during the exchange. On the other hand, there were evidence from reflective artifacts that students experienced powerful dissonances which were unresolved or stereotypical in some cases. Dr Camus thus remarked that staff facilitation is necessary in such programmes, to help students process striking experiences rationally and maximise their learning gains.


In addition, Ms Cindy Lam explained that the Social Change Model* was used to evaluate participants’ leadership development after the programme. The data suggested that all participants demonstrated leadership values at the individual level, which included being aware of their own assumptions, congruence with and commitment to serve the community. However, leadership development at group level –which encompasses valuing collaboration, working with others towards a common purpose, and handling controversy with civility – was not as manifest. Ms Lam observed from this that culture orientation should be taken into account when applying the Model as an instrument. For instance, Asian students tend to avoid controversy and be more reserved and rather than openly air their point of views.


As programme coordinator, Ms Lam also shared suggestions to enhance student learning in international SL exchanges like the GLCE programme. To highlight some tips:

  • Before the exchange: do intended team-building activities and strategic grouping to promote peer learning, and assign the host university based on participants’ developmental needs.
  • During the exchange: do not hand over students’ learning to the host universities, and invite students to relate their experiences overseas to their home setting.
  • After the exchange: present frameworks for students’ self-initiated projects without limiting their creativity.


The presentation was followed by an open discussion. Participants shared their appreciation for the programme’s novelty in leveraging SL resources from a developed country like the U. S. They also brought forward their genuine concerns over sustaining international service initiatives under the pandemic.


Overall, the seminar was positively reviewed with 100% of the participants rating it 4 or above (rating scale: 5 = excellent; 1 = poor). The video recording and slides can be viewed at


*Astin, H. S., & Astin, A. W. (1996). A social change model of leadership development: Guidebook. Version III. Los Angeles: UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.


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