Building Critical Moral Consciousness Through a Service Scholars Program


“Service is not just about action, but must also be done with the conscious awareness of oneself and others, and with the commitment to constantly learning and acting as a global citizen.”

One member of the DSS Service Group to Siem Reap (Cambodia) photographs herself with a group of new friends, some of the Cambodian children she taught during her service trip. Her service group worked with the NGO Sunrise Cambodia to help provide education for economically disadvantaged children and youth in Cambodia.

These words, written by one of the undergraduate participants in New York University Shanghai’s Dean’s Service Scholars (DSS) program during the past academic year, exemplify the kind of learning DSS aims to provide. It also alludes to the kind of questions we, as two members of the team responsible for designing and facilitating DSS, sought to help our students explore in a meaningful and experiential way, i.e. questions such as: What is the meaning and value of community service? How is it relevant to one’s personal development and to developing a greater appreciation for the identities and experiences of others? What might the most responsible, helpful and transformative ways of relating to “the other” be? How might a commitment to community service be connected with the concept of global citizenship (a question especially relevant at a university like NYU, which espouses global citizenship and invites its applicants to “Make the World Your Major”)? What are some of the critical challenges our world faces and their causes?

Members of the DSS Service Group to Yunnan Province (China) planting trees as part of their environmental sustainability project with the Yunnan Green Environment Development Foundation.

Members of the DSS Service Group to Yunnan Province (China) planting trees as part of their environmental sustainability project with the Yunnan Green Environment Development Foundation.The DSS program at NYU Shanghai began four years ago when the Dean of Arts and Science and the Dean of Student Life at that time recognized the value of having a service-learning program at the university, which could help interested students appreciate the value of service in connection with the responsibilities of global citizenship. After the program’s first two academic years, it was recognized that to achieve this aim, providing students with opportunities to travel and volunteer with an NGO during those travels was not enough — the program’s academic and reflective components needed further development. It was for this purpose that the writers of this article were invited to work with a team to further develop the program.

Therefore, consistent with the theories of experiential learning and Freire’s liberatory (or “problem-posing”) approach to education, we redesigned the DSS program’s learning experiences guided by the conviction that, for voluntary community service to be meaningful, and ideally transformative, it needed to be combined with opportunities to reflect on these experiences. Furthermore, this reflection needed to be informed by certain key information and concepts relevant to exploring such issues as the meaning of service (e.g. its relationship to living meaningful and happy lives and to being responsible global citizens), the causes of poverty and social inequities, historical trends and learning regarding worldwide efforts to promote socioeconomic development since post-WWII, and how one who wishes to be of service can most appropriately view and relate to the “others” they wish to serve (i.e. the people they would encounter during their service trips, whose life’s circumstances and social positionality would be significantly different than their own). It also made sense for our participants to be given some particular background knowledge regarding the specific social issues and context they would encounter during their service trips.

A member of the DSS Service Group to Henan Province (China) creates a kite with a child. This group worked with the Chi Heng Foundation to provide education for HIV/AIDS impacted families in Henan.

Our aims in all of this were to help our learners gain an increased sense of their responsibilities as global citizens and to develop a passion for service and for promoting positive social change. We also wanted them to develop a broader understanding of certain social and environmental challenges humanity faces, and a basic familiarity with some of the efforts of international organizations, civil society, and national and local governments to address these challenges. In other words, we hoped to encourage students to develop what has been termed “critical moral consciousness.” [1]

Guided by these principles and aims, DSS developed into a year-long service-learning program, which this past academic year offered 37 undergraduate students opportunities to intellectually prepare for, participate in, and reflect on a service project of their choice, i.e. one out of the four service trips DSS facilitated during NYU Shanghai’s Spring Recess. These participants were divided into four “service groups,” three of which traveled to three different provinces in mainland China (i.e. Hunan, Henan and Yunnan Provinces) to assist with the work of three NGOs dedicated either to improving education and economic opportunities for disadvantaged segments of China’s population or to promoting environmental sustainability, while a fourth group traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia to assist an NGO there with the work of providing education for impoverished children and youth.

The DSS program further included two lecture/seminars for all 37 participants in the fall semester, and two similar lecture/seminars prior to their service trips in the spring semester. Associated with each of these lecture/seminars, a number of related academic readings and reflective writing exercises were assigned. In addition, several meetings of the four smaller service groups, a local “Day of Service” in the fall, and a weekend-long retreat in the spring provided additional opportunities for team-building, reflection, learning and practical preparation for their spring break service trips. Finally, upon returning from their service trips, our scholars developed group capstone projects, which were presented in a gala event at the end of the spring semester to the wider university community. These consisted primarily of short documentary videos each group created to share its experiences and learning, and to raise their peers’ awareness, regarding the situations they encountered during their service trips.

Early Outcomes of the Dean’s Service Scholars Program

The members of the DSS Service Group to Hunan Province (China) have one of their daily evening reflection meetings. This group worked with the NGO Peer Education Exchange Rostrum to help promote project-based learning in schools in rural Hunan.

We are pleased to note that our efforts, especially during the past academic year, met with considerable success! Indeed, it seems that for most of our students, participating in the DSS program had a significant impact on their views of themselves and their world, especially their understanding and motivation to be of service to their local and global societies.

It also helped them to connect community service with their understandings of their responsibilities as global citizens, and develop greater appreciation for the importance of relating authentically to others and for the systemic roots of poverty and other social injustices.Some outstanding signs of these impacts, and the resulting personal growth of our participants, are found in some of the reflections they were required to write throughout the academic year. Other signs are evident in the changes we observed and conversations we had, as program facilitators, with program participants.

Some outstanding signs of these impacts, and the resulting personal growth of our participants, are found in some of the reflections they were required to write throughout the academic year. Other signs are evident in the changes we observed and conversations we had, as program facilitators, with program participants.

For example, one Chinese freshman in his reflective writing observed that,

For me, the eight days in Hunan … [were] much more REAL than my life in Shanghai .… Compared to the one-year repetitive but busy life which mostly spent in a building [i.e. NYU Shanghai’s campus] lying upon the most expensive place of China [i.e. the Pudong district of Shanghai], these eight days are highlights of the year. I know that … those honest and kind souls I met [during his service trip] have already written [on] my heart and reshaped my attitudes towards world.

Another noted that his understanding of life had transformed as a result of participating in the DSS program from viewing life primarily as a “competition” (between self and other, or between different groups) to understanding life, and envisioning a “balanced” society, as being characterized by “thoughtful collaboration between both sides” (i.e. between “us” and “them”) and “the improvement in each of them.” This same student also shared how his view of the high school students his service group worked with in one of China’s poorest provinces changed, i.e. how “impressed” he was by their “eagerness to learn,” “vibrancy,” “authenticity,” “sense of responsibility, willingness to take initiative, and considerate minds,” especially when compared to the more socially and economically advantaged students he remembers from his own high school, and how “moved” he was by experiencing how these students treated all the members of his service group, “as if we have been good friends for years.”

Other DSS participants, in their reflective writing, made explicit connections between service and their understandings of what it means to be global citizens and to live happy, meaningful lives. One student from Kazakhstan, for example, came to view service as “an essential part of becoming happy,” while another (a Chinese participant) eloquently observed how, before participating in DSS,

I thought that all of us as human are global citizen[s] since we live all around on this planet Earth. Nevertheless, there is a deeper meaning …. We can say that being a global citizen is awareness. …. caring about the movements surrounding us, is a way to prove that we are really living in this world, receiving information and making responses. These responses are out of our own movements, where we gained self-awareness through awareness of others. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” … we understand both [others] and ourselves through the process of service.

Another wrote of having developed a sense of “mission to make great change in myself, to practice cosmopolitanism and global citizenship, [and]…. to regard human race family as a whole”. Significantly, this student (another local Chinese student participant) also regarded “cooperating with my diverse classmates” in their service project as “a wonderful way to test my practice of global citizenship”. For another student, “the relationship between community service and global citizenship” could be summed up in “two key words: Think and Act.”

We are now facing many problems, some of them are global problems, and others are at the local layer. A global citizen does care about others and the world they live in as well as takes action… We need to concern about the global issues and act locally and specifically.

Another thoughtful student concluded that,

showing respect to the specific culture of the community you are working in is … strongly connected to … global citizenship: you need to have a kind of cultural empathy. According to a scientific research I have read about, empathy is a kind of psychological reaction towards a certain group [of] people you identify with. That is to say, to have a cultural empathy on the people you are going to serve, you have to learn about their culture …. [and] admitting that you belong to larger community than you thought before will [also] help you be clearer about the reason why you want to serve.

That some students significantly developed their understanding of the systemic causes of the social issues, which they first studied through an academic lens in the program and then encountered directly during their service activities, as a result of participating in DSS was similarly attested to by several students. One American participant, for example, noted that, “often times, when reading things like this [i.e. reading about hardships and injustices experienced by others], it’s easy to disassociate yourself from the material,” but meeting the people in person who are affected by these issues, “forces you to try to fully appreciate what they went through…” He went on in his writing to demonstrate a well-informed and well-researched appreciation for how “systemic issues with corruption and abuse of power are the root cause of the dramatic differences between the rich and poor” in the service site he visited (i.e. Siem Reap, Cambodia). For another student, her service-trip (which involved working with a Chinese environmental NGO in Yunnan Province) caused her to reflect more deeply on “the relationship between us and … nature as well as what methods we should use to persuade people to promote a healthier relationship.”

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the forming of what could be called “authentic relationships”[2] with those they sought to serve in some ways during their service trips (the intellectual and emotional preparation for which was emphasized in our curriculum) proved to be a highly motivating and transformative for many of our participants. One student, for example, noted how her experiences in DSS taught her “we should be humble toward things, toward people, and toward nature,” how “the most important thing during the process of service is to change the perspective, … put ourselves into [the] position” of those we wish to serve, and how important it is to regard oneself “as equal” with “the local people and truly have the communication with them.” In this perspective, it became clearer to another student, that,

At the end of the day, it [i.e. their service experience] is about … those relationships we form — coming to know someone who has a completely different situation in life … perhaps the most influential work we could achieve is educating ourselves and then educating others when we come back.

Reflections on our learning as educators

In conclusion, the authors wish to reflect on what we, as educators, learned through this experience about facilitating service-learning within a university. To begin, we wish to emphasize that we too were participants in this service-learning experience — educating ourselves, reflecting on and re-evaluating the same concepts and questions as our students (both questions we posed and questions our students raised).

Furthermore, we realized that to most effectively explore these questions, a traditional academic approach to learning would be inadequate. Rather, an experiential approach was needed, which is of course inherent in the very concept of service-learning. In other words, learning about these issues should not be solely abstract and theoretical, but needed also to include direct experience related to the issues studied, experience in which theoretical concepts could be applied and tested, and from which new questions could arise. In addition, our pedagogy should aim to encourage and elicit, in an integrated fashion, our learners’ search for what can be referred to as truth, beauty and goodness (in keeping with the classical philosophical notion of “educare”). As one of the authors, Glen, explores in more detail in another publication,[3] the pursuits of truth, beauty and goodness through education can be understood to mean respectively 1) the search for a more complete and useful understanding of a problematic situation (i.e. “truth”), 2) seeking personal meaning and the valuing of aesthetic experience (i.e. “beauty”), and 3) the desire to help others expressed in action (i.e. “goodness”).

This implies, for example, that for our program to be transformative, reflection of social issues and injustices needed to be combined with reflections on questions of a profoundly personal and philosophical nature, e.g. questions regarding how service gives meaning to life, regarding our oneness with and participation in a larger whole and the responsibilities this entails. In other words, as one of the assigned texts noted, the reciprocal and essential relationship between personal growth and social transformation needed to be brought into focus in a balanced and integrated way.[4] In this way, we were able to guide our learners, through processes of self-reflection and dialogue, to learn, in more meaningful and holistic ways than often occurs in academic settings, about themselves, the world they live in, the possibilities and promise of becoming responsible global citizens and committed agents of social change, and the importance of authentically connecting with others.

We were also able to guide our students to develop a deeper critical lens with which to view the community service work they experienced in (and in some cases prior to) DSS, and hopefully will continue to experience in the future. NYU Shanghai, in many (curricular and extracurricular) ways, provides its students on-going opportunities to engage in a discourse about the responsibilities global citizenship entails. One of the ways DSS uniquely contributes to this fertile learning environment is, we feel, the way the program guides participants to both intellectually and experientially explore the intersection between community service and critically conscious global citizenship. This too, we believe, better prepared our participants to appreciate the lives and stories of the others they hoped to serve, and relate to them in authentic ways, since the act of service thus became associated in their minds with a sense of being inherently connected to a larger whole (i.e. with global citizenship).

As an example, one of the materials used in Seminar 3 during the spring semester was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s inspiring TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”. This talk resonated with many of our scholars, as they could pinpoint instances in which they had believed themselves to have comprehended a situation, but were actually bringing a “single story” along with them to a new experience, thus placing a barrier between themselves and those with whom they were interacting. One of the challenges we and our students faced was to be wary of and critically question the limitations of “single stories” in the materials we provided our students to read, watch and reflect on regarding the historical and social contexts of the situations they would encounter at their service sites.

To mitigate against this, before, during and after their service trips, each of our four service groups engaged in regular group reflections, in which, among other things, they critically examined the preconceived categories and ideologies they may have carried from their own personal experiences and/or been exposed to by the readings (and videos) assigned to them in our program or other academic courses. Especially during and after their service trips, these group reflection meetings, facilitated by DSS staff and the scholars themselves, allowed our participants to apply the critical lens they were encouraged to develop prior to their trips by asking difficult questions and re-evaluating perspectives based on their service trip experiences. These intimate conversations also provided a safe space for all to grow alongside one another. Although each group worked together throughout the year, the bonds between them were further strengthened during and after their trips through a spirit of camaraderie, mutual respect, shared involvement in and dedication to their service projects, and through connecting their service experiences to their lives and communities after returning from their trips.

Indeed, one of the authors, Simone, who accompanied one of our service groups on its spring service trip, observes, “I, myself, could not have had such a rich experience coordinating the program or attending these service trips as a staff member, without the investment of our scholars, and the willingness they had to challenge themselves and be open and receiving to others. There is simply no one way or correct format to do service, but each time we engage, there should be significant effort dedicated to doing so responsibly.”

[1] See Mustakova-Possardt, E. (2004). Education for critical moral consciousness. Journal of Moral Education, 33(3), 245–269.

[2] See Cotten, G. (2017). The Role of Authentic Communication in Moral Development and Transformative Education: Reflections on a Case Study. The Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2017 issue, 47–64.

[3] ibid

[4] See FUNDAEC. (2003). Intellectual Preparation for Social Action, Vol. 1. Royal Palm Beach, FL: Development Learning Press. 45–46.

About the Authors

Glen Cotten is a Language & Service-Learning Lecturer at NYU Shanghai with a Ph.D. in educational research. His dissertation research focused on the role of “authentic communication and relationship” in moral development and transformative learning. Glen is committed to developing approaches to education that promote both personal and social transformation in order to address critical challenges individuals and communities face in an increasingly globalizing world. Consistent with this commitment, he continues to develop, through a praxis of reflection, action and dialogue, a framework for education that aims to encourage and integrate the pursuits of “truth, beauty and goodness.”

Simone Francis is an incoming graduate student in Indiana University’s HESA program, and was previously a Global Leadership Fellow at NYU Shanghai, focused on diversity initiatives development and community building programs. She considers the intersections between social justice, community service and international education to be an important approach to addressing global social issues. In her work, she aims to guide students in exploring their identities, provide meaningful spaces to learn and engage with difference and break down the walls formed by collective “otherness”.

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