Recently, international educators have made an important leap in thinking: from a “mobility” paradigm to a “societal” one. In today’s conference sessions and hallway conversations, we are asking ourselves less about benefits to individual students or institutions, and more about benefits, and unintended consequences/pitfalls, to communities and society at large.

Research in this area in still spotty, however (Gonzalez, 2021; Larsen, 2016). In this essay, I review recent research in community involvement/perspectives and also offer some thoughts on how we as a field still need to shift toward greater “epistemic plurality” — or, more simply stated, more diversity of thought and perspectives beyond what remains largely mobility-focused definitions (despite the recent leap in thinking.)

Research on Community Partnerships and Exchanges

The first category of recent research might be called research on “community partnerships and exchanges.” This category of research is more traditional and familiar to international educators, and involves research on study abroad programs that are designed to involve community members directly. The recent Frontiers special issue on Special Issue on Listening to and Learning from Partners and Host Communities: Amplifying Marginalized Voices in Global Learning (2022) exemplifies this category of research, although due to the complexities of conducting research with communities while also managing the programs themselves, the research results are often somewhat thin. 

For example, Black et all (2022) give results of participatory action research on their program, the innovative Panama-Heritage University Indigenous Intercambio Program (PIIP). This scientific and cultural exchange matches students from Heritage University and indigenous community members from the Ngäbe and Buglé Indigenous peoples of Panama. The students conduct community projects together, with the goal of mixing the Western, scientific approaches of Heritage University with the indigenous scientific knowledge of the Ngäbe and Buglé communities. Because the researchers are also running the program at the same time, however, the interviews give a more general overview of the community connections and collaborations and do not delve as deeply as one might hope on conversations around epistemic plurality. Research in this category thus tends to highlight a general sense of increased community engagement, rather than direct community benefits or the specifics of epistemic plurality, per say.

Similarly, Erbstein et al. (2022) describe their approach to their equally innovative Nepal: Community, Technology and Sustainability program. This education abroad program is a joint venture of the University of California-Davis and the Nepalese Hands-on Institute. Although Erbstein et. al. do a fantastic job of describing the benefits of the program and their de-colonized conceptual approach, the article is more of a case study and less of a research article — again likely due to the multiple roles that the organizers are playing.

Research on Host Families and Communities

There is a small but emerging body of research on host families and communities (see Toms, 2013; O;Sullivan et. al., 2019; Reynolds, 2014). In fact, Vostermans and MacDonald note that “hosts are often excluded from the scholarship and programming of global service learning” (2022, p. 95). In their research project involving 37 surveys of host families and partners, Vostermans and MacDonald found three salient themes: a desire for “mutuality,” gendered labor around misconceptions of the role of women, and preparation, particularly around language learning. Interestingly, “mutuality,” in the host families view, referred sometimes to social capital they hoped they would gain from the experience — mirroring, in some ways, the social capital students often hope to gain from such experiences. Similarly, Wairungu, Carotenuto, and Kibochi (2022), in their participatory research on the St. Lawrence-Kenya Semester Program, find that mutuality is often a cornerstone — and unrealized — goal. However, they also note that the experiences of students visiting often expands their monolithic understandings of Americans. And, Habashy and Webster (2022) find that economic benefits were one of the main desired outcomes of host families, along with social and cultural benefits.

On Epistemic Plurality

Despite this recent research, most of the research focuses on benefits to community participants (which may itself be thought of as epistemically capitalist in orientation) or on building partnerships and trust. Most of the programs and research on those programs tends to highlight increased collaboration, but does not foreground epistemic plurality, or the diversity of thought amongst participants and community members. 

Diversity of thought might be defined further as distinctly different frameworks and approaches for approaching common issues. For example, community members may have an indigenous framework — or set of frameworks — for understanding nature and science, or art. Although programs highlighted here aim to involve those indigenous approaches, it is not clear to what extent communities are successful in articulating their approaches as valid or even clearer windows into the social and natural world. If conversations and programming only touch upon explorations, without true collaboration, different epistemic approaches are potentially lost. Further, if researchers are only pulling salient themes from traditional interview methods, they may be losing opportunities to foster or understand epistemic plurality.


Black, J. L., RunningHawk Johnson, S., Silfee, D., & Mariano Gallardo, C. (2022). An Indigenous Intercambio Program: Empowering Underrepresented STEM Students to Participate in Scientific and Cultural Exchange Through Study Abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad34(3), 16–43.

Erbstein, N., London, J., Poudel, B., & Katwal, S. (2022). Authentic Collaboration and Active Commitment to Equity: An Evolving Case of Centering Marginalized Voices in Education Abroad. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad34(3), 73–93.

Gonzalez, K. M. R. (2021). Host Community Perspectives on Short-Term Study Abroad: Literature Review Using Watson’s Theoretical Perspective.International Journal for Human Caring,25(4), 306-314. https://doi.org10.20467/HumanCaring-D-20-00056

Habashy, N., & Webster, N. (2022). The Power of Listening: Host Community Members’ Perspectives of a Field Research Education Abroad Program in Costa Rica. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad34(3), `168–202.

Larsen, M. A. (2016). International service learning: Engaging host communities–Introduction. In M. A. Larsen (Ed.), International service learning: Engaging host communities(pp. 3–18). Routledge.

O’Sullivan, M., Smaller, H., Heidebrecht, L., & Balzer, G. (2019). A Nicaraguan/Guatemalan encuentro: villagers hosting international service learning groups reflect on their experiences. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue Canadienne De l’éducation, 42(3), 635–663.

Reynolds, N. (2014). What counts as outcomes? Community perspectives of an engineering partnership. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 20(1), 79–90.

Toms, C. (2013). The economy of global service-learning and the problem of silence., E. and Yang, W. (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1)1-40.

Vorstermans, J., & MacDonald, K. (2022). Essential Participants: Centering the Experiences of Southern Hosts in Global Service-Learning Pedagogy and Practice. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad34(3), 94–122.

Wairungu, M. ., Carotenuto, M., & Kibochi, N. . (2022). African Homestays and Community Engagement: A Case Study on Reciprocity and Neocolonialism. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad34(3), 141–167.


Leave a Reply

Sign In


Reset Password

Please enter your username or email address, you will receive a link to create a new password via email.

%d bloggers like this: