By Karen McBride, EdD, and Melissa Whatley, PhD

“Learning is community based, applied, reflective, connected, visceral, integrated and engaged; it is locally contextualized, historically informed and theoretically grounded” (Hartman et al. 2018, 4).

Community-engaged learning. Transformative learning. Global learning. Civically engaged learning. Ethically engaged learning. Fair trade learning. These terms are often used interchangeably in education abroad to describe how learners and program developers engage with an overseas community for the purpose of knowledge creation, advancement of community goals, and optimal inclusion of community members. While considerable research has documented the impact of interactions with communities abroad on student learning (e.g., Freed 1995; Twombly et al. 2012; Tarrant, Rubin, and Stoner 2015), much less work has documented the reciprocal impact of education abroad programming on these communities.

Troublingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that impact on host communities is not always positive (e.g., Evert, Todd, and Zitek 2015). Stories collected by The Working Group on Global Activities by Students at Pre-Health Levels in 2014 illustrate instances of undergraduate pre-health students performing procedures such as lumbar punctures, scrubbing and suturing veins during open-heart bypass surgery, and delivering breech babies, as well as filling prescriptions in languages they did not understand and providing diagnoses on how to treat Malaria in regions such as Africa and the Caribbean. These stories represent examples wherein local community members were likely not included in education abroad program decisionmaking and call attention to how aspects of cultural power and privilege are often leveraged to the detriment of local communities abroad. Such events serve as reminders to international educators that local host communities must have a voice in education abroad programming. Work acknowledging that education abroad’s influence goes both ways is sorely needed in the field.

The Ethics of Engagement with Communities Abroad

Buckner and Stein (2019) point out that widely used definitions of internationalization minimize the possible ethical concerns of international education activities and lack attention to unequal power relations and historical colonial structures. As outlined in the Forum on Education Abroad’s 2017 State of the Field report, 23 percent of professionals in the field indicated that they did not actively take into account the social impacts of education abroad programming when approving, designing, or managing programs. Thirty-five percent of respondents did not take into account economic consequences, and over half (59 percent) indicated that environmental consequences were not a consideration in study abroad program design and execution. Such numbers are startling in light of recent calls from leading thinkers in the field for a new era of international education that serves all of humanity (e.g., de Wit and Jones 2017). Prior research has highlighted the extensive planning, group facilitation, and debriefing of both students and host community members that must happen for ethical community-engaged learning in education abroad (Schroeder et al. 2009). Unfortunately, although education abroad program leaders may be open to considering the negative impact that their programs might have on host communities, many of these leaders do not actively take steps to mitigate these consequences when considering program design or implementation (Wood et al. 2012).

In contrast to this failure to consider outcomes for local communities when designing education abroad programs, the field of education abroad has begun to embrace and implement various research-based methods to assess student learning outcomes of individual education abroad programs. Given the variety of education abroad programming available, including study, research, service-learning, internship, and volunteer opportunities, scholars and practitioners have explored a wide variety of outcomes related to student engagement, often ignoring outcomes for other individuals involved in education abroad. Some of the more popular methods of assessing student learning outcomes center on the development of intercultural competency, which has resulted in the design of various measurement instruments such as the Intercultural Development Inventory, the Intercultural Effectiveness Scale, the Global Perspectives Inventory, and even in-house designed instruments at different institutions. Similar instruments that focus on the outcomes of host community members are sorely lacking in the field.

The delivery of adequate predeparture information, the process by which students reenter U.S. college life after an experience abroad, and the decision to actively engage students while they are abroad (and the extent of this potential engagement) are also paramount concerns for scholar-practitioners who manage education abroad programs. Similar attention is not often afforded to host communities, as evidenced in the research cited previously. As a result, the creation and delivery of education abroad programs at colleges and universities run the risk of adopting a myopic lens—one that is mostly, if not solely, dedicated to a singular objective: the development of the student participant.

Other pressures—such as how to acquire much-needed resources from the college or university and from external sources, as well as the need to demonstrate the value of study abroad to students and families—contribute to this primary focus. This focus is not necessarily surprising given that most people today would characterize the purpose of higher education as relaying broad, fundamental knowledge, preparing students for career-ready futures, and preserving higher education as a critical piece to achieving greater social mobility (Farrugia and Sanger 2017; Loveland and Morris 2018). Under this paradigm, issues such as community-partner organization solvency, community health impact data, and shared governance of programming can be bypassed in favor of the student experience. That is, attention to quality of community engagement takes a back seat when the quality of student outcomes is perceived to be at risk. As one former colleague stated when questioning overhead costs on a partner invoice, “We are not in the business of funding or providing charity to other organizations.”

Reframing Engagement in International Partnerships

As a result of the unequal attention given to home and host communities, colleges and universities must reframe how they engage in ethical international partnerships. It has become more commonplace for institutions to emphasize aspects of global citizenship in their missions, to view themselves as disseminators of knowledge on a global scale, and to aim to produce generations of students who are able to tackle urgent global issues such as climate change and human rights. To achieve these ambitious goals, higher education institutions should deliver fundamental content knowledge in a way that acknowledges new realities within partnership development, taking into consideration the broader, global impact of their programs.

At an Open Meeting at the NAFSA 2019 Annual Conference & Expo, core characteristics of optimal community-engaged education abroad programming was a prominent topic of conversation. Participants at this event shared a multitude of perspectives about their experiences in working with host communities in education abroad programming. Topics discussed included

  • how to differentiate between experiential learning and traditional education abroad;
  • concerns that many education abroad programs focus too much on student learning and not enough on the impact on host communities;
  • how to make intentional connections with host communities rather than opportunistic or circumstantial ones;
  • particular concerns about medical or global health programs abroad and ethical access to people, information, and situations;
  • the importance of letting the partner community abroad design and assess visiting student learning;
  • the need for a community partnership framework in the field;
  • how to educate faculty on ethical engagement abroad and the pitfalls of voluntourism;
  • how to sustain involvement of education abroad partners (U.S. and abroad) past any short-term crises that spark interest in an area abroad (e.g., a humanitarian crisis);
  • how to orient students to think about their own purpose for choosing one education abroad program over another; and
  • the importance of postprogram debrief and reflection.

Participants also discussed strategies for ethical engagement, including

  • diminishing partnerships involving traditional or lopsided power structures (between host community and the visiting student, scholar, or group);
  • building relationships that are not simply transactional;
  • viewing communities and partners from an asset-based perspective rather than a deficit perspective;
  • sharing program design, execution, and decisionmaking power structure with partners, especially those abroad;
  • soliciting feedback from partners using culturally appropriate methods of data collection; and
  • exploring and actively considering the connections and clout that the host organization has within the host community where participants will study and work, since it is acting as a representative for the broader community.

Adding an extra sense of urgency to these concerns is the role universities may play in helping to achieve the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda has produced 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for all nations to actively research and address over the next 15 years. Among those that may be particularly pertinent to higher education generally and education abroad specifically include

  • the promotion of “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development,” the provision of “access to justice for all,” and the building of “effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (that is, promoting inclusion and access—for everyone—as key components of education abroad programming);
  • a commitment to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” (that is, not only U.S. students, but also members of the host communities that they visit); and
  • the promotion of “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” (especially members of the host communities who assist in designing and executing education abroad programs for students).

Recent environmental and social changes have significant impact on the quantity and quality of human life. The effect of these changes varies for different communities all over the world, and, coupled with inequalities in access to critical resources needed to address these changes, methods of engagement must shift. Research, programming, and development around key areas of change present excellent, timely platforms in which to engage community partners (and vice versa). Such engagement can happen within the context of education abroad. The creation and implementation of these global goals underscores how important it is to optimize engagement and shared ownership with communities abroad.

Recent Innovations

The urgency of shifting tactics of host community engagement within education abroad cannot be overstated, especially given the critical pressures of environmental and social changes—such as climate change and mass migration—that are impacting, and will continue to impact, the human experience. International educators cannot ignore the varied impacts these changes are having on different communities all over the world, including unequal access to critical resources needed to address these changes. As previously stated, research, programming, and development in areas highlighted in the United Nations’s SDGs are excellent, timely platforms through which community partners can collaboratively engage with each other.

Indeed, the education abroad community has begun to respond to calls for more ethical community engagement. There have been notable strides taken to better empower community partners and organizations within education abroad with some going so far as to make equitable and community-oriented partnerships a part of overall program design and an appealing quality for participating students and faculty members. Amizade, the DukeEngage Community Partner Conference, Child Family Health International, the University of Minnesota Ethics of Help Symposium, and the Global Service-Learning Summit are examples of organizations and events keen on advancing community partner dialogue, shared governance, and student learning within the framework of community partnership and impact.

In partnership with Haverford College, the University of Dayton recently hosted its first Midwest Summer Institute on Community Partnership for Global Learning and Human Rights, an event centered on cultivating best practices in community-engaged education abroad programming. This institute brought together various representatives from community organizations as well as local universities and colleges to “provide a thought and dialogue provoking space for examining our practices of community/university partnerships, aligning our partnership practice ethics with student learning and community outcomes, intersecting our missions with our work, and generating ideas and steps towards implementation” (Trail and Bohrer 2019). Through presentations, discussions, small group visits to Dayton community partners, and an expert panel, participants gained an awareness of critical issues in developing and maintaining ethical community/university partnerships and shared their resulting action plans for moving forward.

Where To Go from Here?

Future education abroad programming may occur in several directions that connect partner needs and student learning. Strategies taken at the national level might include the establishment of a robust community partnership framework, one that specifically addresses the unique aspects of working with communities abroad; the creation of ways to evaluate all types of education abroad programs that incorporate student perspectives as well as community perspectives on learning; and continued research on best practices.

Existing resources also provide helpful guidelines for developing ethical programs. For example, in their book Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad, Eric Hartman, Richard Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, and Jessica Friedrichs (2018) illustrate a community partnership framework within different contexts of learning, including how to define community-based global learning, the role of reflection, power and privilege, and elements of ethical program design. Pathways to better evaluative methods for programs abroad, particularly in service learning, can be found within emerging literature and listed on websites such as Campus Compact’s GlobalSL.

Faculty are also strong resources in expanding these areas of research and practice given the high level of expertise they have within a particular academic area and the connections that they often have within various communities at home and abroad. Colleges and universities should consider incentivizing faculty to engage in this type of scholarship, working collaboratively with administrative support staff to advance both high-impact learning and ethical community engagement. Whether it is via conferencing, the creation of open dialogue sessions, student and faculty research, policies around shared governance of programs and projects, or thinking more critically about how to assess student learning, colleges and universities have a number of methods available at their disposal to address the impact of education abroad on host communities and should seek better coordination of student mobility and global impact. It is the field’s ethical responsibility to integrate these often peripheral considerations more fully into education abroad program design.


Buckner, Elizabeth, and Sharon Stein. 2019. “What Counts as Internationalization? Deconstructing the Internationalization Imperative.” Journal of Studies in International Education 24, 2:151–66.

de Wit, Hans, and Elspeth Jones. 2017. “Improving Access and Equity in International Education.” University World News. December 8, 2017.

Evert, Jessica, Tricia Todd, and Peggy Zitek. 2015. “Do You GASP? How Pre-health Students Delivering Babies in Africa Is Quickly Becoming Consequentially Unacceptable.” The Advisor :61–5.

Farrugia, Christine, and Jodi Sanger. 2017. Gaining an Employment Edge: The Impact of Study Abroad on 21st Century Skills & Career Prospects in the United States. New York, NY: The Institute of International Education.

Forum on Education Abroad. 2017. The State of the Field 2017. Carlisle, PA: The Forum on Education Abroad.

Freed, Barbara F., ed. 1995. Second Language Acquisition in a Study Abroad Context, Volume 9. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Hartman, Eric, Richard Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, and Jessica Friedrichs. 2018. Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Loveland, Elaina, and Catherine Morris. 2018. Study Abroad Matters: Linking Higher Education to the Contemporary Workforce Through International Experience. New York, NY: Institute of International Education.

Schroeder, Kathleen, Cynthia Wood, Shari Galiardi, and Jenny Koehn. 2009. “First, Do No Harm: Ideas for Mitigating Negative Community Impacts of Short-Term Study Abroad.” Journal of Geography 108, 3:141–7.

Tarrant, Michael A., Donald L. Rubin, and Lee Stoner. 2015. “The Effects of Studying Abroad and Studying Sustainability on Students’ Global Perspectives.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 26:68–82.

Trail, Kelly, and Kelly Bohrer. 2019. “University of Dayton Hosts First Midwest Institute on Ethical Community-University Partnerships.” University of Dayton Blogs. June 17, 2019.

Twombly, Susan B., Mark H. Salisbury, Shannon D. Tumanut, and Paul Klute. 2012. Study Abroad in a New Global Century: Renewing the Promise, Refining the Purpose. ASHE Higher Education Report 38, 4. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

United Nations. n.d. “Sustainable Development Goals – Knowledge Platform.” United Nations.

Wood, Cynthia A., Sarah Banks, Shari Galiardi, Jennifer Koehn, and Kathleen Schroeder. 2012. “Community Impacts of International Service-learning and Study Abroad: An Analysis of Focus Groups with Program Leaders.” Partnerships: A Journal of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement 2, 1:1–23.

Karen McBride, EdD, is the former director of education abroad and partnerships at the University of Dayton’s Center for International Programs. She is now the international partnerships manager for the University of Dayton School of Law. McBride has 15 years of experience working in international higher education and is the current past-chair of NAFSA’s Education Abroad Knowledge Community.

Melissa Whatley, PhD, is a postdoctoral research scholar in the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at North Carolina State University, where she conducts research on community college student success. In her work, she explores issues related to underrepresented students in U.S. international education, particularly low-income and community college students.