Serving and Learning Abroad with GEO

Tysen Lang (far right) and other volunteers in this summer’s HCUA Red Cross volunteer program in Oviedo, Spain.

For many students, learning through service while abroad can have significant benefits beyond classroom study alone. The practical experience can underscore and take students beyond academic concepts learned in the classroom, and the interaction with members of the host culture can deepen cultural understanding and strengthen language acquisition. In fact, a 2010 study found that students spent “significantly more time outside of class using the target language” when involved in service learning than did students in traditional study abroad language coursework (Martinsen 60)!

With such clear benefits, GEO encourages students to take advantage of service learning and internship opportunities at our Centers whenever possible. In some programs, these experiences are a required component, while in others they are voluntary, but the benefits for both are numerous, as GEO student Tysen Lang experienced this summer while studying Spanish Language in Oviedo, Spain. As a junior majoring in a health-related field and minoring in Spanish, Tysen chose to participate in a weekly volunteer program through the local Red Cross chapter that placed him in a nearby hospital where he and other volunteers would play games with hospitalized children in the pediatric and oncology wings. Read on for more about his experience below.

What was your day-to-day routine like?

Tysen: “Each day when I’m scheduled to volunteer at the hospital, the first thing I do when I get there is walk with the other volunteers around the pediatric oncology floor, the pediatric intensive care unit, and the pediatric postoperative unit to see if there are any kids who might be interested in playing games or hanging out with other kids and volunteers for a couple of hours that day. After we’ve gathered a list of names, we go…up to the 7th floor and pick the games that we think the kids might want to play that day. This can vary depending on how many kids there are, how old the kids are, and if there are any oncology patients because often times we’ll have to sanitize the games before we
bring them into the patient rooms.”

How often did you volunteer?

Tysen: “[First], I volunteered Wednesdays from 4:30 to 7:00pm, and then during the second month I volunteered both Mondays and Wednesdays from 4:30 to 7:00pm.”

Many volunteers and the children didn’t speak English. How did this experience help your language study?

Tysen: “About two or three of [the volunteers] could speak fairly fluent English, but most of them only were able to speak Spanish (which was good because it meant I got to practice a ton!). In terms of working with the kids, I really enjoyed that as well! I was nervous at first because I was worried about the language gap being too difficult to overcome, but it turned out to not be that big of a deal at all. I found that I could understand most of what they were saying and had no problem speaking or responding when it was my turn. The great thing about playing board games was that even when I had absolutely no idea what the kids were saying or what the other volunteer was saying back, I could still follow along because most of the games I had either played before or were simple enough to get the hang of after a round or two. Some of the games actually specifically revolved around vocabulary, which was amazing for me because I got to learn a ton of new words and practice thinking and recalling the ones I already knew – board games are a surprisingly good way to help learn a language!”

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do volunteer work like this?

Tysen: “Although volunteering itself was a huge help in practicing my Spanish, there were often times when I was just standing there, on the outside of the conversation because it’d take too long to explain everything over to me again. I feel like I would have gotten a little more out of it if I was able to speak a little better coming in. For that reason, I think I’d only recommend it for higher intermediate or advanced students. [Also], I enjoyed the experience a ton because I like working in hospitals and my goal is to one day become a doctor, but I think anyone from any area of study (not only medicine) could find enjoyment volunteering through this program.”

To read more about this and other service-learning programs offered by GEO, please visit our website.

Works Cited

Martinsen, R. A., Baker, W., Dewey, D. P., Bown, J., & Johnson, C. (2010). Exploring diverse settings for language acquisition and use: Comparing study abroad, service learning abroad, and foreign language housing. Applied Language Learning20(1-2), 45-69. (