Unearth the World loves welcoming former travelers to write guest blog posts about their experiences. The post this week is written by Stefana Soitos – Assistant Director with the Cornell Commitment Program. For the second year in a row, Stefana lead this annual group global service-learning trip to Nicaragua. In her post, Stefana reflects on changes she made to her program this year, and how that affected the group dynamic. She offers some great tips on how to best engage students in the learning process.

This was my second year facilitating and leading a service-learning trip to Unearth the World’s sustainable tourism partner in Nicaragua. Over the past year, I thought about group dynamics, engaged pedagogy and the importance of building sustainable relationships with community partners. A driving force behind the changes I made in the pre-departure meetings and the trip itself was a commitment to involving students in the process of building community. As bell hooks – an American author, feminist, and social activist – writes, “When students see themselves as mutually responsible for the development of a learning community, they offer constructive input.”

I feel strongly that students should feel empowered and see themselves as equal participants in creating a productive and engaging community. To that point, here are few suggestions for building successful student groups:

Be mindful of students’ reasons for participating in service-learning opportunities. Adding a space, through an application and interview, where students could express their professional interests (going into the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or something along those lines) or a strong desire to improve their Spanish speaking skills, and study in a Spanish speaking country, demonstrated how seriously they would take the service-learning experience.

Develop a pre-departure meeting focused on facilitation skills and techniques. By incorporating student facilitation into the organizational structure of the trip—each student works in pairs to co-facilitate a nightly discussion while in Nicaragua—I started to create the space of student ownership. When students have agency in creating a successful learning community, they are more engaged.

Refine the role of the student leaders. This year, I asked the student leaders to assist with group communications, as well as setting up a pizza get-together and other gatherings. The student leaders were also generally supportive when there was a need for an extra hand throughout the week. Being transparent and clear about their role allowed them to step into their responsibilities and be creative.

Build a culture of shared participation and respect. bell hooks states, “In many ways, I continue to teach them, even as they become more capable of teaching me. The important lesson that we learn together, the lesson that allows us to move together within and beyond the classroom, is one of mutual engagement.” She highlights the importance of learning together, where the facilitator is engaged in the learning just as much as the students. The reality that students have important insight and perspective to offer their facilitators, supervisors, or teachers is a guiding principle in my work. When students feel engaged and active in their own learning, and know their participation and opinions are shaping an experience and program, there is more investment in the experience.

Each year, Unearth the World staff and I take intentional steps to improve the structure and programming offered to our students. A well-developed program, which values the voice of student learners, embraces error as a learning opportunity, and empowers their whole selves, can bring out the best in one’s personality, leading to a chemistry between group members that enhances their learning, while increasing cross-cultural exchange.