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January 23, 2003

Faculty, students view Pitt’s global service learning program as win-win

History professor Christopher Kopper taught a Pitt international service-learning course, “Holocaust Studies in Germany and Poland,” last summer.

During the first week, Kopper lectured, led discussions and took his students — eight undergraduates and one grad student — on tours of historic sites in Berlin. Then the Pitt group spent a week at the former Auschwitz concentration camp, now a museum. Students gardened and cleaned storage rooms, lodging at a youth center with German high school students. One evening, an Auschwitz survivor met with the Pitt group.

Most of Kopper’s students had never been abroad before. For them, the 16-day course was awesome, moving, life-changing…the usual study-abroad adjectives. But what did Kopper gain?

“Oh, for me the experience was wonderful, too. Extremely interesting,” replied Kopper, an exchange faculty member from Germany. “I myself had never seen a lot of these sites before. Also, I got to work with a group of great, highly motivated students who were willing to do volunteer work.”

“One of the wonderful things about teaching these service-learning courses is that the students are absolutely incredible,” English professor David Brumble concurred.

Brumble has taught travel journal writing courses in Bolivia (summer 2001) and Brazil (summer 2000), and plans to teach a similar course in Ghana this summer. In Bolivia, he and his students lived in the Andean highlands, where they helped build an orphanage for Quechua children. In Brazil, the Pitt group immersed itself in the Amazon River culture and helped to construct a community health clinic.

Brumble chairs Pitt’s study abroad advisory committee and previously had taught through the Pitt in London program and Semester at Sea. “In those and most other study-abroad programs, you’re going to get a lot of great students,” he said, “but there’s always that 5-10 percent who are jerks looking for interesting places to do their drinking.”

But according to Brumble, service-learning programs screen out the jerks, largely through honest advertising. “When you tell students upfront that they can look forward to weeks of reading, writing and doing volunteer work like building clinics and orphanages, the trouble-makers lose interest,” he explained.

International service learning has grown exponentially here since 1999, when Pitt’s Student Volunteer Outreach department established a Global Service Center. That summer, the University offered just one such program: a one-week, 3-credit School of Education course in the Bolivian Andes. Fifteen undergraduates studied Bolivian culture and cumulatively volunteered 525 hours of community service, helping to build an adult education building.

Last summer, Pitt offered six 2-4-week programs in Latin America, North America and Europe, during which 57 undergraduate and graduate students volunteered 7,000 hours of community service and earned 3-6 credits.

At least a dozen programs are scheduled for this year. “Within the next couple of years, it’s going to expand to a year-round series of programs varying in length from three weeks to a full semester,” said Michael Sandy, executive director of what is now called the University of Pittsburgh Amizade Global Service-Learning Center (AGSLC).

However unwieldy, the name reflects a partnership that has smoothed the way for Pitt to create and maintain international service-learning programs. It teamed Pitt’s Global Service Center with Amizade, an international nonprofit organization that promotes volunteerism and intercultural awareness. Last fall, Amizade (named after the Portuguese word for “friendship”) began granting the University $156,000 annually to expand its program, with the aim of making Pitt the country’s premier global service-learning center.

AGSLC is having trouble keeping up with student interest in international service learning, according to Sandy.

“Students just keep coming at us, faster than we can create the courses,” he said. “It speaks a lot to their idealism and altruism because there are easier ways for students to get study-abroad experience. These courses are probably more rigorous than most courses here on the Oakland campus. Students are doing academic work for credit plus all of this volunteer service for which they don’t get credit or get paid.”

(Maria Wrzosek, an undergraduate who studied “Travel Journal Writing in Bolivia” last summer, sounded taken aback when asked what she got out of the experience. “What didn’t I get out of it?” she replied. “I got to visit the Bolivian Andes, which is a place you wouldn’t normally visit through a study-abroad program.

“I learned a lot about writing, and I learned to look at the world, at America and at myself differently,” Wrzosek said. “I worked on building an orphanage in a poverty-stricken area, and got to meet and work with so many wonderful people. Five months later, I think every single day about the kids there.”)

As for faculty, Sandy said: “They get to travel, do first-hand research and share their findings with their students. These courses are run like any other study-abroad program. The program fee, or tuition, that students pay covers the faculty members’ expenses — travel, in-country expenses and their course salary.”

Sandy’s office creates each program’s budget and looks after transportation, lodging, health and safety issues, visas, etc. “It alleviates all of that extra stress from the faculty member, so he or she can just go and teach while we take care of everything that needs to be done behind the scenes,” Sandy said.

Pitt AGSLC courses are open to all Pitt undergraduates and graduate students, as well as non-Pitt students. The next information session on Pitt AGSLC opportunities is Jan. 29, noon-1 p.m., in 527 William Pitt Union. Course applications are available at:

— Bruce Steele

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