How to Teach Your Students to Talk About Development and Service
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How to Teach Your Students to Talk About Development and Service

Development is complicated. Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult to describe what you’ve learned (or what you’re preparing to learn) during a culturally-immersive travel experience to friends and family back home. It’s easy to exaggerate the differences between your hometown and the communities your classes visited. And it’s important to remember that you’re getting as much back as you’re giving—what you contribute in labor and materials is returned many times over in the new perspectives and cultural experiences you take away from those travel experiences.

Rustic Pathways’ community partners aren’t just people who happen to live in the communities where classes travel. They’ve become friends and family in the years we’ve worked together. Be intentional about framing the people you meet in a positive light and not defining them by their current circumstances.

Below are some ways to make sure you’re sharing your experiences in a productive and accurate way. After reviewing these suggestions, use this exercise with your class to help them articulate the type of service they’ll be completing during their Rustic trip.

Use the Right Words

Make sure you’re describing communities accurately and honestly and conveying the shared values of community members. Take the time to get answers and do your research to correctly represent our partners and their stories.

refugee vs. immigrant
Is this community forcibly fleeing political oppression or persecution, or are they living in this place to provide a better life for their family?

migrant worker vs. seasonal worker vs. low-wage worker
Is this family moving regularly to follow crops, are they stationary and only employed seasonally when jobs are available or are they only able to find jobs that don’t provide livable wages?

nationality vs. ethnicity
What nationality would this person describe herself as if you asked her (regardless of legal status), and what is her self-described ethnic background?

worker camp vs. settlement vs. batey vs. refugee camp
What is the purpose of this settlement? Is it temporary? Is it permanent?

without a nation vs undocumented
Does this person have legal status in any nation, or have they entered the country from another without proper documentation?

Rustic Pathways Children’s Home + The Sacred Valley Project vs. orphanages
The Children’s Home and Sacred Valley Project are dormitories and boarding houses that allow students closer access to good education; they are not orphanages.

cultural beliefs vs. personal beliefs
Does this person I spoke with act or behave this way because they belong to a certain group, or because of their own personal beliefs?

Describe Service and People in Ways Others Can Relate

Use empowering words to describe the people you meet to others. 

We all want to be proud of where we live and the communities we have created. Though someone’s house may look very different than yours, remember that it is their home and they have worked hard to make it their own, so use words that reflect this. If a person you met is working a low-wage or undesirable job, remember that he or she is doing it for their family. If someone is sick or in a bad place, imagine how someone would describe you if they met you under these circumstances.

Ask yourself: Would I describe someone this way if they were standing here with me?

Explain your service project in the context of the ongoing projects and vision.

If you have contributed (or will contribute) to development work, describe some of the ongoing projects and how yours fits into the community’s long-term plan. You are working on one piece of the puzzle; the community was there before you arrived and will be there after you leave, continuing the project and working toward their vision.

Ask yourself: By doing this work, how will this change peoples’ day-to-day lives? What issues does this project address? What steps of the project happened before you arrived? What is the next step in the project? What is the greater benefit?

Give examples of parallels to your audience’s lives to create empathy.

Paint a picture for the people you’re speaking with to help them understand what it would be like to live in this community. Give them examples of parallels to political, cultural, or social movements that they can relate to.

1. The family we worked with had three kids—two girls and a boy, like ours!
2. Imagine if when it rained, water leaked into your house and turned your floor into mud.
3. The migration concerns they have are very similar to what we are experiencing here.
4. The turtles we worked with were the ones that we saw at the aquarium last year.

Unanswered Questions are OK

Everyone’s situation is different. Sometimes the solutions are more obvious (we prioritize building homes for the elderly and families with children) and other times they are complicated. Give as much information as you can and be honest when you don’t know an answer. If you want to know more, ask us or your community partners on the ground. Sometimes the people you are talking to will have more information than you about a topic, so keep an open mind to learn more from unexpected places. Is your mom a doctor who works in public health? Is your neighbor originally from Tanzania where you did your project? Development is about learning, asking questions, and pairing problems with resources.

And remember that projects and visions change. Communities’ needs are not static, and neither are our projects! Communities change with time, growth, cultural shifts, and innovations. We always need to be ready and adaptable for these changes and continue the open communication with our global and local partners that allows us to make the greatest impact with the resources we have.

One of the most empowering and humbling things to admit is I don’t know. And isn’t why we travel to answer that question?

If you have any additional questions about how to teach your students about development and service or want to provide tips of your own, leave them in the comments below.

If you haven’t arranged a Rustic Pathways Group Travel program for your class, call 800.321.4353 or email Or click below for more information.

About the Author

Lauren DeAngelis Alvarez

Director of School Partnerships

Lauren brings experience from across Rustic Pathways’ sales and operations, including as our Strategic Partnerships Manager and USA Country Director. She lives between two Caribbean cities—New Orleans and Santo Domingo—and spends time by the ocean in New England where she grew up. She is a Temple University alumnus and non-fiction reader. You can usually find her hosting unexpected parties, exploring cities, or hiking the bayous with her family.