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Arab Students Grow Community Roots with “Service Learning”

CAIRO—More than a decade ago, students at the American University in Cairo marched a camel around campus to raise awareness about water waste and conservation.

They put stickers in bathrooms reading: “Every drop counts.” They hung posters in prayer rooms. And they passed around flyers from an information booth—all as part of a writing course that embraced a teaching methodology known as service learning.

“I knew that I was doing service learning because I was careful to read about it and to make sure I was following the principles,” said Amani Elshimi, who taught the course. “But there was no such thing as ‘service learning’ on campus. There was no official means of giving it a designation.”

Now there is growing interest in the concept, but it is still best described as being scattered in pockets, not massively popular. “It hasn’t yet reached a tipping point,” said Elshimi, who is now the American University in Cairo’s director of undergraduate research.

Service learning is traditionally defined by four main characteristics, according to Amy Newcomb Rowe, program manager at the Talloires Network, which starts up and supports programs worldwide aimed at encouraging civic engagement. Students must engage in experiential learning, usually outside the classroom, meet a community need, reflect on what they do outside the classroom back in their course and get credit for their community service.

(Courtesy Rabih Shibli)

Service learning is a United-States based term and is often referred to as community or project-based learning in the Arab world. “It’s a methodology of teaching,” Newcomb Rowe said. “First and foremost, it’s a pedagogy.”

And educators are eager to embrace it.

“There’s been a growth in practice in trying to integrate service into the curriculum,” said Nelly Corbel, assistant director of the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Education at the American University in Cairo.

Some of that interest is coming from university presidents, who want to partner with communities to solve social problems and believe communities around them have experiences to offer the university, said Newcomb Rowe.

Faculty members, meanwhile, view service learning as a tool that clearly strengthens student interest and learning, said Corbel. “If you have a student who sees how their urban-planning class or art class relates to the actual world, it’s a student who will, in a way, have a deeper purpose, and it’s a student who will understand the concept in a much more holistic, comprehensive way,” she said. “There is also a very human element at the end of the day: You create a link between you and the community.”

Courses were first labeled “community-based learning” at the American University in Cairo starting in 2009, according to Elshimi. Now, there are dozens of courses that follow or define themselves by the methodology.

In September, the university’s civic-engagement center will hold a three-day service learning workshop with Innovation in Civic Participation, Silatech’s Wajibi program and the Ma’an Arab University Alliance for Civic Engagement—a regional network of 15 universities that promotes and enhances universities’ civic roles. The training aims to develop participants’ ability to integrate civic engagement in curricula and provide participants with specific ways to foster learning through community engagement and student service.

Corbel said the training hopes to respond to a main challenge. Reflection, which allows students to bridge what they experience in the community with what they learn in the classroom, is an important part of service learning. But it is difficult to do in large public-university classes. “When you have a class of 1,000 or 2,000 freshman in a public university class, conducting a reflection session becomes a little more complicated,” she said.

Some courses at the public Cairo University, however, have embraced the concept’s core components. Moustafa Baraka, who previously taught there, recalls students in its engineering department doing community projects as part of their coursework as far back as 2006. But they faced security challenges alongside Egypt’s 2011 political unrest.

“Because of the revolution, you could not take students outside on the weekends when a neighborhood was not ready to receive guests,” said Baraka, who is now the civil engineering program director at the German University in Cairo. “Students were outside on their own and things were getting tight and there were risks.”

Aly Gabr, vice dean for education and student affairs in Cairo University’s engineering faculty, said courses stopped focusing on areas for community work that might be dangerous for students. Students were not asked to work during risky hours of the day and made sure they went to neighborhoods with proper paperwork. “There was hype about security and so on, but I know for a fact that this last academic year, we had no problems,” he said.

Students have worked on public health in eastern Cairo with the city’s garbage collectors, or zabaleen. They have tackled illiteracy among older employees on their campus, Gabr said, and they have worked with orphans.

The programs, however, are not labeled service or community-based learning. “Across the region, people have always engaged in the community without giving it that name,” Elshimi said.

The American University of Beirut (AUB), for example, has long run broader community projects across Lebanon, says Rabih Shibli, acting director of the university’s Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service, which was established in 2008. For their final projects, students in the engineering, planning and health departments, among others, often work in the center’s programs.

Students recently built two portable schools in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that serve 1,200 Syrian refugees—an effort that comes with challenges, Shibli said. “You have to be very careful and be very cautious about sending students to places that are subject to instability,” Shibli said. “This is one of the major constraints.” The country sometimes lacks the political channels and infrastructure to harness the ideas of students and professors who are eager to work toward change, Shibli said.

Regardless, service-learning programs will be an official part of AUB’s curriculum in about a year. “This region is very much in need of this component,” said Shibli. But there hasn’t been enough investment in it, he said.

“At the end of the day we need to start upgrading and developing underdeveloped, war-torn communities,” he said. “Service learning followed by community projects is the only way for inducing sustainable change.”

“For us, it’s a necessity.”


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