MDP student Vanessa Voller fieldwork experience in Costa Rica

MDP student Vanessa Voller spent her 2017 summer in Costa Rica working with 2 non profit organizations. She monitored and evaluated work grounded in participatory action research methodologies.

The following is Vanessa's experience told by her:

This summer I had the unique opportunity to work with two partner organizations Amigos de las Amigos (Amigos) and Casa de la Juventud (Casa) in Peréz Zeledón, Costa Rica. The field experience was aimed at (1) ascertaining the impacts of a short term international service learning (ISL) program on local participating youth and (2) developing a monitoring tool for the organizations to assist them is assessing their programming on local participating youth. Simply put, the summer was transformative. I learned an incredible amount about participatory action research methods, cross-cultural interviewing norms, the complexity of inter-organizational relationships, the dynamics that play at between "researchers" and "participants" in international settings, and my own positionality as not only a US American but also Humphrey student.

When I was not working on my field experience project, I was overseeing Amigos' eight week summer program in the region. The program was comprised of over 80 students from all across the Americas and an additional 100+ students from Costa Rica who together lived and worked alongside each other in rural and per-urban communities throughout Peréz Zeledón and in three different national parks throughout the country. The theme of our program was environmental stewardship, conservation, and civic engagement and while we were working in national parks I and my bicultural and bilingual leadership team facilitated activities pertaining to climate change and youth leadership in addition to overseeing over 500 hours of service work in the national parks, including trail construction and restoration.

The preliminary results from this field experience project suggest that local participating youth's motivations for participating in the ISL program include: (1) to develop cross-cultural professional and personal skills, (2) have a cross-cultural experience (not only meet youth from other regions of the Americas but also learn and/or improve their English), and (3) learn about the ecosystems and conservation efforts within their own country. Perceived positive impacts on local participating youth included: (1) the development of tangible leadership skills, such as public speaking and facilitation of activities, (2) improved self confidence and self efficacy, (3) the deconstruction of stereotypes and myths about the United States and US Americans, and (4) an increased 'capacity to aspire' or the 'navigational capacity' to set and map norms and behaviors that can lead to future success. Major recommendations for the organizations include to consider ways in which they can fairly and equitably (1) recognize participating local youth for their participation and (2) compensate participating local youth who serve as part of the leadership team for the program. In addition, this project recommends that the organizations include ongoing, longitudinal data collection about the mid- and long-term impacts of the ISL programming on local youth in addition to supporting participating local youth in translating their experience into other professional and academic opportunities.

I am very grateful for the financial contributions both the Stassen and Lucas grants made for this project. Their contributions not only afforded me an opportunity to develop my own research skills and build upon my Humphrey experience but also afforded a space for local participating youth to voice their needs and desires with regards to the future of an ISL program in their local communities.
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