Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Larsen, Marianne A.

2nd Supervisor

Tarc, Paul



The popularity of service learning and ‘abroad’ experiences continues to grow. Alongside this growth, a significant body of research has emerged on the effects of these experiences on volunteers and sojourners. Much less is known about the impacts on host communities. This thesis research attempts to address this gap, guided by the question “How has one American host community been affected by the presence of service learning volunteers?”

Geographically, my study examined a host community in a medium-sized ‘Rust Belt’ city in the Northeastern United States. The ‘Rust Belt’ refers to states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana that were formerly, but are no longer, heavily involved in the manufacturing industry. In this host community, volunteers from within and beyond the United States engaged in service activities, including working with after-school programs, improving food sustainability, and revitalizing neighbourhoods facing continuing disenfranchisement.

To situate this study, I brought together literature across the domains of community service learning, international service learning, and volunteer tourism. This literature informed my approach to illuminate and problematize how service learning volunteers serve a U.S. community as organized by an intermediary organization. My theoretical framework brings together critical concepts from critical race theory to probe and to think more deeply about host community perspectives. From this critical orientation, the project challenged the conventional notion of the United States being an ‘outgoing’ source of volunteers to also being a ‘receiving’ destination for students from around the world. It also redirected notions of need beyond the Majority World.

This is a qualitative instrumental case study. Data collection involved conducting semi-structured interviews with the hosting community including community partners, host families, and intermediary organization members. Findings demonstrated that the host community saw benefits of participating in service learning. They also believed a main benefit of ‘hosts’ was that it provided another avenue to reclaim their own agency by having reciprocal conversations about their wants and needs. In this sense, it improved community morale and enhanced local autonomy. Nevertheless, complexities across race and social class were also made visible and were a source of both tension and reflexive learning.

Summary for Lay Audience

The popularity of service learning and ‘abroad’ experiences continues to grow. While people are learning more about the positive and negative effects of those experiences, much less is known about the impacts on host communities themselves. My research asks: “How has one American host community been affected by the presence of service learning volunteers?”

Based in a Rust Belt city in the United States (states formally involved in the manufacturing industry), this particular host community has experience and engagement with participants coming into their city to volunteer on various projects. My study, through the support of critical literature, explores ideas of ‘service’ and ‘need’ and what they mean to the host community.

I interviewed various host community members who believed that the service occurring in their community gave both them and volunteers a more global view. In particular, the host community believed a main benefit to service learning was that it provided a chance for the community to stand up for their own concerns and priorities. In this sense, the service strengthened community morale and enhanced their already-existing neighbourhood independence. In addition to the benefits, the findings also pointed to some of the tensions of service, like around issues of race and class.