Chelsea Escalante

As graduate students, we are deeply committed to our individual research projects, but often our topics are very specific inquiries and those without a background in our area have difficulty understanding the implications of our studies. We spend countless hours inside labs, libraries, and specialty archives, but do our findings make it past academic journals and presentations? How do they impact real lives in our communities? I know that in my own experience, I have collected and poured over linguistic data for months, only to ask myself at the end of it all, is this information really going to make a difference in any concrete way?

When my adviser introduced me to the idea of public scholarship as a way to engage with a general public audience on aspects related to my linguistic research, I became very interested. In the past, I spent significant time in domestic and international service, but ever since beginning graduate school, I have become distanced from community engagement. As I read more about the Mellon Public Scholars Program, I began to envision a project that could bridge my research with public service—something that could bring tangible benefits to an international community while at the same time give me valuable and marketable experience in an area outside of my specific field of study.

My project will research the long term effects of a specific international volunteer program– an American NGO situated in Guayaquil, Ecuador– exploring how the service experience has affected the lives of the volunteers themselves as well as the native Ecuadorians that the foundation serves. Since 1991, the Catholic social justice organization has sent a group of volunteers to live in poverty and solidarity alongside their neighbors. The volunteers live in modest conditions and receive a stipend of approximately $1/day (similar to what their neighbors earn) and serve their communities in different educational and social work capacities such as running after-school programs for disadvantaged youth, providing micro-finance opportunities for women, accompanying leprosy patients and inmates, and assisting in medical dispensaries. Upon the completion of their service period of 12 months, the volunteers typically return to the United States and the Ecuadorian community receives a new group of volunteers who continue the work of their predecessors. Although the NGO receives anecdotal evidence of the positive experience of the volunteers and the Ecuadorian community members, it remains unclear what the long-term effects of such service really are. How does the year of service affect the trajectory of the lives of former volunteers? To what extent does it inspire them toward a life of service? What do Ecuadorians see as the positive and negative effects of the constant presence of a foreign program in their community? Does the volunteer experience benefit one group (either the volunteers or the Ecuadorian community members) more so than the other?

In an effort to answer these questions, my proposed project will elicit oral histories of both former volunteers and Ecuadorian community members in order to explore how volunteerism has affected their personal lives in a long-term manner. This humanistic approach to data collection, which will abandon natural science models of research such as hypothesis testing and measurement and replace them with an example-rich and thoughtful analysis of the insiders’ account, will allow me to explore the interpretations and meanings that volunteers and community members assign to their experience. I hope to be able to create a multi-media report with which to share my findings in order to contribute to the growing conversation regarding how volunteerism affects both the sending communities as well as the receiving communities—a topic that is valuable given the academy’s growing interest in the area of service learning.