Student travel company Where There Be Dragons have adopted the language of learning service and use the book in their programs abroad. We caught up with Jenny Wagner about how the learning service approach fits with what they offer to students.
Learning Service: Can you tell us about how you came to Dragons, and what you think is special or different about it compared to other student travel companies?
I first started working for Dragons on a West Africa semester program in Fall 2013. I had previously worked for a couple of different student travel companies, and one of the things that immediately set Dragons apart for me was how we push students out of their comfort zone rather than working as “cruise directors”. As an organization we’re willing to challenge our students to eat local food, take public transport, speak the language, and participate in daily life on a profound level. As a first-time instructor I loved this— I felt like I had permission to give students an authentic travel experience where they really connect with and learn from local people. Our experiential learning curriculum focuses on cultural integration as a strategy for both safety and learning.
My Senegalese co-instructors also played an important role in this process. Other companies I had worked for employed local staff mainly as logistical coordinators, but at Dragons my colleagues from the “Global South” hold a central leadership role as educators. They are able to implement a curriculum embedded in local realities that feels more profound than anything I could facilitate as a foreigner.
Learning Service: Dragons is a student travel organization working in the Global South, but unlike most similar outfits, they don’t offer voluntourism placements. Can you explain why that is?
Our programs are designed for students to learn from local voices and wisdom in the countries where we travel. The typical voluntourist experience reinforces a problematic assumption that the communities in the Global South “need our help,” and that our students are somehow qualified to provide that help. We don’t want our students to go home congratulating themselves. We want them to go home asking more questions than they came with. As educators, we complicate common assumptions about “international development” for students and refocus them on the value of what our hosts have to teach us. We’re not visiting communities to “fix” them, but so that our students can learn from the wisdom of a different system of living.
That’s not to say that we ignore social, economic, and environmental problems facing these communities. Too often, discourses about issues of global inequality problematize the Global South while ignoring the root causes of social and economic injustice. A Dragons student explores the tough questions: Why does global inequality exist, and who is implicated? What my position is in the system? What do I have to learn from the community that I’m visiting? How does social change work in different cultural contexts? How do I skillfully address the issues I care about at home?
Learning Service: When students contact you saying they feel motivated to go abroad to “help”, how do you convince them that the Dragons approach is better?
There’s an easy thought exercise for this: ask a student think of a problem facing their own community, such as homelessness or gun violence. Now have them imagine a foreign student from Guatemala or Cambodia or Madagascar try to address this problem for the United States. How would you advise this student to begin their problem-solving process? Most students respond that the foreign student would need to learn about the history, economics, and culture of the United States before attempting to solve our most pressing social issues. They might also point out that the foreign student would need to have a good command of the English language to effectively communicate with people here. Most students can make the connection that if they were to visit another country, it will require a lot of learning before they develop the background knowledge and skills to get involved. We try to highlight the importance of a learning mindset when you’re new to a place.
Learning Service: Dragons has adopted the concept of learning service as one of its core components. What does that mean, and what does that look like on a course?
Learning service teaches that service is a lifelong mindset, not a one-time accomplishment. Our students show up not as “helpers” but as learners. This means approaching new cultural contexts with curiosity and humility, learning about local solutions to problems, and getting a picture of the greater landscape of big issues. You wouldn’t show up to work as an intern and expect to run a meeting. Similarly, our students often spend a lot of time listening. We hear from social activists, politicians, teachers, farmers, students… and reflect on our own place in the world.
Learning Service: You specifically work with the Princeton Bridge Year program. Can you explain what that is and how students engage with learning service throughout their time there?
Dragons operates Princeton University’s Novogratz Bridge Year Program, a 9-month international program for incoming Princeton freshmen. We have Bridge Year programs in five countries: Bolivia, China, India, Indonesia, and Senegal. Bridge Year students live with homestay families, partake in intensive language study, and hear guest lectures from local experts in a variety of fields. We critically engage with the concept of “learning service” throughout the year, and a core part of this is a 7-month volunteer internship during which student apprentice with one of our local partner NGO’s. Dragons work hard to manage student expectations about what role they will take on in these organizations, and we have a careful vetting process to ensure that our partnerships are sustainable and mutually beneficial.
Learning Service: Do you find that students that come on a Dragons program are affected by issues of power and privilege, and ideas like the white savior complex? What do you do on your programs to unpack this?
Absolutely. Even students who come on our programs without having given this much thought may realize that they hold strong beliefs on these topics based on their social and cultural conditioning. The first step to teaching students about power and privilege is becoming aware of the institutional systems that we are all a part of. These topics can be highly charged, and we often do fun activities such as roleplays to depersonalize tough topics and get students to try on new points of view. International travel is a great time to start thinking about and re-evaluating our own deeply held beliefs, since we often encounter ways of thinking and being that are radically different from our own.
Learning Service: How do you think the student travel sector needs to change, and what needs to happen to get us there?
Too often, the sending of students closely resembles many troubling aspects of colonialism. I think that the student travel sector could work harder to consider all the different stakeholders involved, especially host country communities. I would love to see, in the next 5-10 years, a push for more reciprocal, exchange-based programming between the Global North and South. An important step to making this happen is seeing more people from the Global South represented in leadership of student travel companies and setting the agenda and best practices for the industry.
Jenny Wagner is an educator, anthropologist, and writer with a growing side hobby as an amateur musical theater director. She has worked with Where There Be Dragons since 2013, and currently serves as the Bridge Year Program Director for the Novogratz Bridge Year Program in partnership with Princeton University. Jenny lives with her family in Dakar, Senegal and splits her time between the US and West Africa. The main photo shows a scene from the Dragons Andes and Amazon Semester (credit: Aaron Slosberg).