Global Service Learning Trips and Intercultural Sensitivty: Drawing on Times in the Navajo Nation


Amelia Earhart once said “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.” We all have experiences in our lives that have shaped us into the people we are today. Sometimes these experiences happen locally and sometimes they happen with a little bit of traveling to places that push you to your learning edge. As we experience more and more things we learn more about who we are, and what our place is in the global context.

The world is a big, and diverse place meaning that having a global worldview that promotes intercultural sensitivity is important. In this blog, I will be adapting an assignment done after my time spent in the Navajo Nation as a part of a global service learning trip. I will begin the post by talking about the concepts of Global Service Learning and Intercultural Sensitivity. Then I will move into my personal experiences in the Navajo Nation and how those experiences impacted my development.

To get things started below is a brief video from YouTube that covers the importance of interacting with other cultures, and questions that you should ask yourself about intercultural communication.

Global Service Learning

When you first hear global service learning, what do you think about? What does this term mean? When breaking the term down into three parts one can conclude that Global Service Learning is a service project of some kind that involves a give and take relationship, where volunteers give service and receive knowledge, that can take place anywhere in the world. A more standardized definition of Global Service Learning is “a community-driven service experience that employs structured, critically reflective practice to better understand common human dignity; self; culture; positionality; socioeconomic, political, and environmental issues; power relations; and social responsibility, all in global contexts” (Hartman, E., & Kiely, R., 2014). A key point to the GSL experience is a reflection in regards to what you are experiencing. To really understand this concept though we need to have a better understanding of service itself.


Humans have one unrenewable resource and that is time. Time is our most valuable and precious resource because it is something that we don’t get back. This is part of what makes service so special because service involves you spending your time on either an individual or a community, to help them with something that they needed to be done. The question is though why do people engage in service activities?

Why Serve. The truth is, there really is no one definitive answer to why people engage in service activities. This widely depends on the personal experiences that the person had throughout their lives. Schools no matter what grade level tend to be one of the precursors to people engaging in service projects because teachers will build these project into the curriculum. School, after all, is a tool to socialize individuals into model members of society. In addition, other institutions such as religion, after school programming, and exposure to negative life circumstances can all also be reasons as to why people engage in service. As humans we like to feel good, when we engage in service it gives us this warm tingly feeling. However, it isn’t always that way. The work can be tiring and tedious, so it’s important to engage in service for the right reason which is making a difference in the world. Causing a change that will benefit others in need. That is what it is all about. In order to make a difference though you have to make sure you are effective in the delivery of your service.

How to serve effectively. The golden rule of service is that if you wish to effectively serve an individual, a community, or the world, you need to take into consideration the needs of the people that you are serving. If you don’t do this then there is no point to the service that you completed. That is why scholarship is a big part of service. You should always study the history, culture, and language of the people that you will be working with. Find out what their struggles are, what resources they have access to. This helps you understand what you will be doing, and why you will be doing it in ways that are different than you normally would. The key in all of this is to understand that there is culture involved and while it is different and in some cases less developed than your own it is beautiful and unique. So, you don’t want to force your culture, values, beliefs, and understandings on other individuals. This leads to my next concept of Intercultural sensitivity.

Intercultural Sensitivity

Intercultural sensitivity is a term that “refers to the absence of ethnocentrism and parochialism, which is a critical component for fostering successful global citizenship on both individual and organizational levels” (Adler, 2008). More easily said it is a way of stepping away from a frame of thinking that your culture is the only and best culture and stepping into a new frame that there are other cultures that are amazing and unique, and then respecting those cultures in relation to your own. This is important because the world is a diverse place full of people who are unique from one another. As an American it is easy to forget that, and engage in an ethnocentric vision, to force your culture on others without realizing the impact, altering a people’s way of life without a second thought. We need to be globally aware of other cultures and ways of life that are different from our own, if not for knowledge, then to better ourselves and the world.

Who I am

Going on trips like this one to the Navajo Nation, as a part of a Global Service Learning initiative, it is important to know who you are, and what makes you who you are.  This is because you are going to be in a new environment that will challenge you in ways that push you to your learning edge, helping you to develop. Part of that process though is being familiar with your beliefs, values, strengths, and weaknesses. The best way that I can explain who I am is through the use of a crest that I designed during an activity we did in the Navajo Nation (seen below).


At the core of the shield is the yin yang symbol which is all about the balance of light and dark forces in the universe. Balance is important to who I am because I balance my creative and scholarly energies when interacting with my environments, and the people in them. I also chose the shape of a shield because all of the elements that make it up the shield also protect me from negative experiences that I face in my life. By expressing myself through art and music and using my knowledge and advocacy skills, I am able to block out the negative experiences. Going through the shield is a ribbon with all of the honor organizations that I am in because their core beliefs are in line with mine and I often model those beliefs. an example of this is Phi Sigma Pi’s tripod made up of scholarship, leadership, and fellowship. Those are three of my core values that I take into every experience. The birds represent the freedom or liberation that I gained both in college and on GSL trips such as the one to the Navajo Nation. Finally, the coy is a symbol of my fighter spirit since they are constantly fighting the current to travel upstream until they reach the golden gates where they can transform into a dragon. As an advocate, scholar and a sociologist, I fight not only for myself but for the people who face inequalities as I am strongly driven by matters of social justice. Now that you know a little about me I would like to reflect on my time in the Navajo Nation.

How Navajo Nation Changed Me

All The Small Things

Everything that happens here in Pennsylvania is so fast paced and all about competition, and achieving goals. As students, especially a graduate student you are always working towards something, and it is easy to get consumed in that and forget about all the small things in your life.  During my time in Arizona, there were just so much more relaxed. It was easier to focus and be at the moment. There was beautiful scenery all around you, and you did things every day that helped you develop into a better person.

Artistic Expression

One of the presentations that we had were with two local artists on the reservation. This was by far my favorite presentation because like them I was an artist and I could relate to everything that they were saying. Art is one of those things that is such a bug part of my life, but somewhere along the way, I lost touch with it. Being in the Navajo Nation helped me get back in touch with my artistic, creative, in the moment,  Pura Vida side.  It’s part of my life that I don’t want to lose touch with again and plan to develop after my time on the reservation.

 Overcoming and Managing Triggers for Anxiety

There were a few points where I was pushed to my learning edge on the trip that really helped me to develop my confidence and to overcome my anxiety. The first was on our hike in the Grand Canyon. It was a long hike down and it was 10x harder getting back up. The second time was when we were at coal mine canyon and we had to slide down this one hill to get to an overlook but it looked like if you did it the wrong way you were going to fall to your death. There was another instance that was similar when we were at Newspaper Rock where we had to slid down loose dirt to get off the mountain. This was particularly funny because I have an anxious laugh and when I found out that that is how we were getting down I broke out into uncontrollable nervous laughter.

Stepping away from sightseeing and into cultural experiences, I had trouble with the sweat lodge experience. It was a combination of all of my triggers for anxiety: body image, tight spaces, complete darkness, vulnerability etc. I had a panic attack 2 minutes into the first round of the sweat and had to step out. I also have trouble with the textures of foods, if they don’t feel right I become physically uncomfortable and anxious, so I had some trouble with the tripe soup. It was tasty but I had a hard time because of the textures. The last cultural experience that I had to overcome was the activity where we were challenged to be at the moment. I have a hard time reflecting on certain things and the activity kind of triggered those.

The point in telling you all of this is that I was out of my comfort zone a lot and I was reminded of things that were bad that happened to me, but I did the best I could to push past all of that and “be in the now”. It wasn’t easy but I knew just as we were watching the Navajo and learning about them they were doing the same to us. I know that not everyone gets an experience like this and that it is hard to get people to share their culture and present again and again so I did the best I could to not come across in a negative light. I did my best to leave a good impression even when I felt uncomfortable or anxious about something we were doing because these individuals open up their homes and lives to us and that is a really big deal. I wanted to make sure that I got the full experience of the trip, and I did.

Big Picture

Overall, the big picture behind this post is that Global Service Learning initiatives help students to develop a sense of intercultural sensitivity, which helps them maintain a positive worldview. Trips like this teach students about themselves and help them develop their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. Finally, these trips teach students how to think about and interpret their social world in a different context other than their own. Trips like this are powerful tools and can greatly enrich the curriculum of any program.


Adler, N. J. (2008). International dimensions of organizational behavior. Mason, OH: Thompson.

Hartman, E., & Kiely, R. (fall 2014). Pushing Boundaries: Introduction to the Global Service-Learning Special Section. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 55-63. Retrieved July 2, 2017.


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