The high school at which I teach takes students on adventure, culture, or service trips every March during our “Interim” week. This year we have 41 programs traveling to 19 countries. Most of the trips travel to countries within Asia, but we also have some farther afield, such as Tanzania, Turkey, Jordan, and Spain. Twenty-two of the programs include a service dimension.
I will be taking 20 students to a school in western Thailand outside of Phuket called Yaowawit School, which was created as haven for children who lost at least one parent during the tsunami on December 26, 2004. As a Christian educator aiming to contribute to the spiritual lives of students, I hope to learn how trips such as these can be most beneficial to my students.
Talking with students and reading their responses in our service learning courses has convinced me that when students are placed in courses and experiences that ask them to ponder the big questions of life, they respond with self-understanding, joy, sense of purpose, gratefulness, and care for the community. These responses continue to draw me to social conscience education.
Seeing student growth such as this, I’ve oftentimes felt that social conscience education can be described as something “spiritual.” However, I’ve been hesitant to speak with confidence that this form of education indeed qualifies as spiritual growth. The reason for this is that the term spirituality is hard to define and is used in different contexts for different purposes. I purposely avoided using this term in my research on social conscience education, although the qualities of spirituality mentioned below appear throughout my dissertation. Some of my students, too, are clearly wary when the word “spiritual” is used, fearing that this seemingly innocuous term may be a cover for religious indoctrination.
However, a new book by a team of highly respected psychologists has caused me to re-consider my cautious reserve regarding references to spirituality during service trips. Rather, given the research findings, I hope to begin to sensitively assert that our service learning programs do indeed develop the spiritual lives of students.
Spiritual Development of Students
The results of this seven-year research study have now been published in Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Spiritual Lives (Astin, Astin and Lindholm, 2011). The researchers surveyed 112,000 freshman students at 236 colleges and universities to gain some baseline data about the spiritual and religious lives of students. Then more than 14,000 of these students participated in follow-up research three years later to determine their growth in the intervening years.
The researchers chose not to assign a singular definition to the concept of spirituality. Rather, they decided to work with a cluster of ideas. Spirituality, they thought, involved:
- Inner, emotional lives of students in contrast to the objective world
- Personal identity and values
- Connectedness to others
- Qualities of compassion, love, and equanimity
In the final chapter, the authors summarized their conclusion how to best develop the spiritual lives of students. Their suggestions coalesce around four areas:
1) Study abroad: Taking students out of their familiar surroundings and daily routines to experience the lives of others brings to conscious attention personal and cultural differences, and causes them to reflect upon their own lives.
2) Interdisciplinarity: Using resources from more than one discipline suggests that the end goal of schooling is beyond gaining expertise in a particular field. These goals are related to bigger life questions, such as finding personal happiness or creating a just society.
3) Service learning: Service learning often incorporates elements of the first two points, but also explicitly emphasizes improving the lives of others. While the authors of the study note that any kind of charitable actions promotes spiritual growth, the holistic approach involved in service learning is especially powerful. The study also found that including leadership training also enhances students’ spiritual growth.
4) Contemplative Practices: While the first three areas are widely practiced at the university level, the fourth dimension of contemplative practices is relatively unexplored. The research concludes that using intentional practices to increase introspection, such as journaling, group discussion, prayer, and meditation, are potent sources of spiritual growth.
Planning a Service Trip to Thailand
Cultivating the Spirit has provided theoretical guidance for our March 5-12 interim trip to Thailand. The idea for this trip originated in September when a guest speaker in my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class led students and myself through a powerful labyrinth walk experience. In our follow-up discussion, I suggested to our labyrinth guide, Martha, that she and I team up to lead a trip to an Asian country where we could make use of this spiritual practice as a form of service. I remembered that one of my colleagues had visited a school in western Thailand in previous years, and he thought this school would be ideal for this kind of program. This is how I came to make connect with Yaowawit School, which was founded after the 2004 tsunami to give children that had lost one or both parents a quality education. Yaowawit is about 5 km from the village of Kapong.
Here is a description of the trip I wrote for our Interim booklet:
“Building on the work of past interim groups in the Khao Lak area over the past five years, this service interim will spend the week at Yaowawit School run by the Tsunami Children Foundation. We will join the school community and contribute to its various programs, such as vocational training, computer training, English language, child development, and sports and cultural programs. While previous interims built homes for the people of Khao Lak, this interim will focus on providing emotional support and English instruction for the children of tsunami victims. Students will learn not only about the effects of the devastating tsunami that struck the region in 2004, but will consider both the rewards and challenges of restoring health and well-being to the people of Khao Lak.”
We have planned a week of activities that contains elements of all four areas mentioned above that enhance students’ spiritual growth:
1) Study abroad: Although many of our students are familiar with Thai resorts, visiting an area struck by the tsunami and supporting children that are trying to find a way to have a bright future in rural Thailand despite the tragedy will certainly give them an experience outside of their urban, academically-oriented, and privileged lives attending a top international school in Hong Kong. On the first day of the trip we will get a tour of the “tsunami sights”, visit a village that was deeply impacted by the tsunami, and consider the lives of those left behind. I expect that seeing the devastation that remains and visiting villages where nearly every family lost one or even many relatives will provide a serious and enduring backdrop for our service at the school.
2) Interdisciplinarity: Although there is no formal academic work associated with this trip, I will try to incorporate various elements that will engage students’ critical thinking. On our first day, Andaman Discoveries will share how their tour agency is grounded in a socially responsible philosophy that seeks to partner with the community and enable it to rebuild itself. We also will have a number of volunteers that will share how they are using their business skills to support this unique school, which hopes to sustain itself through tourist use of an adjacent lodge. The school/lodge was started by a German entrepreneur who, following the tsunami, wanted to support the children in this area. (I’ve been told that the students at the school clean the rooms and wait on tables at the lodge’s restaurant.) Finally, I hope we can learn how the school moves students through the grieving process. Thus, I hope that students will gain more than just an emotional connection with their younger charges, but will consider how various local and overseas partners have attempted to rehabilitate the western Thailand community. Perhaps our students will want to consider one of these aspects of strengthening communities – corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, counseling, international development, or ESOL – in their university studies .
3) Service Learning: Our goal is to join the school community and contribute our time and abilities. We will be teaching English in the mornings, which is very important for these students who later may join the hospitality industry in Thailand. We will donate children’s storybooks (in English) as well as grade-appropriate ESOL workbooks to the school. Although we’re not sure of all the ways that we can contribute before we arrive, we expect to help with computer training, sports, and other activities. In return, we hope to learn about farming, something our students know very little about. Our final contribution will be to build a labyrinth on the grounds. We hope that students and tourists will use the labyrinth as a way to process their experiences and promote self-reflection.
4) Contemplative Practices: Set in rural Thailand, this school includes Buddhist teaching and meditation as part of their educational program. The students meditate for half an hour every morning and evening. Our students may join some of these sessions, and the principal of the school has arranged for several hour-long classes for us to learn more about Thai Buddhism. In addition, we will have regular discussions and journal writing. We also hope that building and using the labyrinth will lead to student reflection. Finally, I’m expecting that the school’s setting – in an orchard five kilometers from the nearest village – will bring students into a new relationship with nature.
Following the trip I will write a blog entry about my experience at Yaowawit and an additional entry addressing the question whether the students felt that they have experienced spiritual growth from our visit to the school. I hope that I can better understand the key elements of a weeklong trip that support students’ personal growth.
Astin, A.W., Astin, H.S., & Lindholm, J.A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ spiritual lives. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.