Service Learning Programs Abroad: A powerful approach that creates changemakers and ignites leadership

Liv Evans reflects on the seven signature “elements” of the 7 Elements service learning program model, and how they work to create a uniquely transformational experience

I first encountered 7 Elements as a participant of the 21-day service learning program in the Dominican Republic, Building a Sustainable World, the summer before my Senior year of high school. I’d always been an avid learner, yet I found myself immersed in concepts I’d never before encountered, asking questions about the ways we can create tangible social impact. As the program came to a close, I had a strong feeling that my life had been altered; I would never again look at the world in the same way. I was hooked, and I became incredibly passionate about development. I knew I wanted to remain involved with 7 Elements, so I stayed in touch with the staff and have been engaged with the organization on projects and other work over several years.

In staying involved with 7 Elements, I have been witness to the transformation of many service-learning program participants, as they make their way through the matrix of global and local issues. Through their experiences in the Dominican Republic, Peru, Belize, and Haiti, students begin to navigate their roles in social impact and evolve into changemakers and leaders. Indeed, many 7 Elements alumni have continued on their paths as global changemakers – they’ve gone on to take gap years, to volunteer abroad, to complete study abroad internships, to enter university programs that focus on social change, and to advocate for worthy causes.

What is it about 7 Elements that fosters this sort of personal development? What makes us different from other service learning programs abroad? The answer, I believe, are these seven signature “elements”:

The 7 Elements program model creates changemakers and leaders by…

  1. Implementing a dual development approach

Integral to the program is the promotion of cultural humility. We believe that bridging divides, breaking down stereotypes, and sharing insights are the first steps to strengthening global human security. This is not to say that cultural values and traditions should not be protected; the idea is to assist volunteers and locals in understanding, accepting, and valuing one another’s culture.

  1. Maximizing the abilities of participants

7 Elements helps participants to clarify their strengths while also valuing the resources and skills that each brings to the table. Through a variety of leadership workshops built into the daily itinerary, participants will be able to share their unique talents and passions as well as expand their knowledge.

  1. Following a community-centered model

We stress the importance of empathy and understanding through our unique, comprehensive development model. 7 Elements uses human security as a metric for needs assessment and evaluation, and teaches students the importance of aligning projects with the community’s areas of need.

  1. Focusing a constructively critical lens on development

7 Elements strives to recognize and reflect upon our intention and our impact, and we teach our participants to do the same. To us, it is important that we and our participants understand the criticisms of development work and how we can improve. In facilitating a student experience that emphasizes continuous reflection and improvement, we stand a greater chance of collectively solving systemic issues.

  1. Delivering cutting-edge curriculum

We recognize that to provide the best possible outcome, we must provide the best possible learning experience. 7 Elements allows students to vastly expand their knowledge on the very latest in human security, international development, public health, sustainability, and leadership. No other service learning program has a curriculum as comprehensive or as targeted as ours.

  1. Fostering a community of changemakers

We connect people who want to use their skills and influence to create positive social change for all. 7 Elements provides an international network of people doing great things, motivating each other to remain globally engaged and aware citizens. 7 Elements alumni maintain connection and collaboration through their shared experience, developing chapters together and organizing future social impact experiences.

  1. Modeling lifelong learning and active participation

The transition to a more sustainable world, with less inequality on a global level, requires all of us working together. At 7 Elements, we emphasize to participants the importance of remaining changemakers throughout our lives. 7 Elements students leave their service learning experiences feeling invigorated to become more involved in their communities on a variety of levels. 7 Elements encourages all participants to find their own ways to impact the world, whether that be through advocacy, social policy innovation, or direct service.
There is a saying which claims that the boldest solutions come from those who “jump off a cliff and build an airplane on the way down.” But that assumes anyone can reach the clifftop, and that we need more airplanes. 7 Elements teaches that society doesn’t need more people building airplanes, nor do we actually need more airplanes. What we really need is more people who are willing to climb down and build ladders that enable those without resources to also reach the clifftop. We need changemakers and global citizens who are willing to build structures most beneficial to humanity. 7 Elements strives to build ladders instead of airplanes, and in the process, ignite a deep desire within participants to do good. Perhaps that seemingly-simple solution is the boldest of them all.

Liv Evans founded the 7 Elements Chapter at Tulane University, where she is completing a double major in international development and public health, with a Spanish minor. Wondering how easy it is to start up a 7 Elements Chapter on your campus? Click here for some words of encouragement from Liv.

Liv Evans is a student at Tulane University, majoring in international development and public health, with a Spanish minor, and is a Changemaker Institute fellow at the Phyllis M. Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University, @taylortulane.