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El Salvador: Students from school with UM student.

Alternative Reading Week service learning in El Salvador: Students from school with UM student.

Expanding horizons, awakening possibility: Alternative Reading Week

April 11, 2014 — 

Service learning programs offer students the opportunity to integrate service in a community with directed learning activities designed to encourage critical thinking. At the U of M students have the opportunity to participate in the Alternative Reading Week service learning program, which takes place during the spring reading week.

Offered through the student life office, international destinations for Alternative Reading Week include El Salvador (since 2007), and in Belize and Nicaragua, both added in 2014. The programs vary, depending on the needs of the community — from physical labour to in-classroom activities. Student participants in all three programs are instructed to “Come prepared to get your hands dirty!” There is also a Winnipeg-based program.

The programs emphasize reciprocal benefits for all partners, and on collaboration between agencies to define needs, to deliver programming, and to evaluate outcomes.

There are both curricular (classroom-based) and co-curricular (not classroom-based) service learning opportunities at the U of M. All co-curricular programs are recognized on the co-curricular record (CCR), and students have access to bursaries and funding support to cover large portions of their costs.

UM Today spoke with participants from each of the international Alternative Reading Week programs about their experience.

>>Scroll down for their responses and for slide shows of each of the Alternative Reading Week international locations.




El Salvador: This program offers participants the opportunity to travel to rural El Salvador for ten days to work side-by-side with the local community on a development project. The project varies yearly depending on the needs identified by the community and our partner, Lutheran World Federation. Past projects have included land-terracing, preparing land for a farmer field school, and building a playground for the local elementary school.



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Jennifer Temmer, El Salvador
What is service-learning and why is it important? Service learning is experience; it is learning by doing and it is learning by interacting. It is important because it focuses our ability to connect our emotions about an event or an experience with a lasting memory that teaches important life lessons and helps us to define who we are.

What specific encounter or experience had the most impact on you? Time spent with the OIKOS and LWF staff had the greatest impact on me. The people who hosted us were honest, humble and passionate about what they do despite the obstacles they have encountered over the years. Speaking with staff about the civil war and seeing that they are still fighting to improve the day to day lives of communities was inspiring.

Is there one thing you took away from your experience? Would you recommend it to other students? I think that being able to connect my experiences with what I had been learning in university was very beneficial. I could see too that this was not the case with just me. I think many people in the group were able to make these connections be it through small business development, education, politics, agriculture, nutrition or environmental issues. An experience like this allows you to take what you’ve learned in class and see it play out in real life, right in front of you.

Jennifer is in her 2nd year of a two-year diploma in Agriculture.



Belize: During this 10-day Reading Week placement, students worked in the community of San Ignacio with local non-profit agencies, learning about community development, indigenous perspectives, and environmental issues. They also had the opportunity to explore some of Belize’s stunning attractions, including its beaches and an enchanting butterfly garden.



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Aujah Fowler-Thomas, Belize

What is service-learning and why is it important? Service learning incorporates academia with participatory community programs. It is experiential learning while contributing to the community, so it involves a personal journey of action and reflection.

What specific encounter or experience had the most impact on you? While interacting with the children and elders I became aware of a close-knit community with a rich culture that placed more emphasis on the well-being of a person than on materialism. I embraced a feeling, perhaps best described as ‘the power of the present moment.’ It was energetic and really quite amazing; spiritual, actually!

What’s one thing you took away from your experience? Would you recommend it to other students, and why? Our world is culturally diverse and rich with history. To read this information is essential of course, but to experience the knowledge is divine. It truly expands your horizons and awakens something within you. I would not just recommend participating, I would encourage the experience!

Aujah Fowler-Thomas is a student in the Faculty of Social Work.



Nicaragua: This 10-day placement is focused on human rights, disaster risk management, and agriculture. Students worked alongside community members in the rural town of Somotillo on a project facilitated by our trusted partner, Lutheran World Federation — and explored the sights of Nicaragua, from the colonial town of Granada to Masaya Volcano.


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Susan Taylor, Service-Learning Coordinator

What is service learning and why is it important? Service learning is an innovative approach to education and social justice work.  It combines community service with educational activities designed to develop civic awareness, critical thinking, and intercultural communication skills. It’s a great way for students to learn about community development issues, connect with one another, and develop the skills and knowledge necessary to work for change.

What specific encounter or experience had the most impact on you? Our nightly debriefs were incredible. They gave us the opportunity to talk about what we learned during the day, think through the questions we had about international development work, and discuss the feelings that came up when we were confronted with poverty and human rights violations. Our group was made up of very different people, but we became very close through these debriefs.

What’s one thing you took away from your experience? Would you recommend it to other students? I think the thing that I took away was the way that students’ expectations shift during the program. Students often come to these programs wanting to save the world, and that’s a good impulse – but  we’re trying to encourage people to learn from the world first, to get a deep understanding of the complexity of international development, so that they can be more effective when they try to work in solidarity with people from developing countries.


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