Reflection Bridges the Gap between Volunteering and Life

Elizabeth is the Founder and President of Blue Bridge Project. BBP is the first international travel program to partner with local non-profits and offer post-trip guidance to help high school students apply their summer experience to their individual goals and future endeavors. Elizabeth Leonard Head Shothas worked in high school student travel for over 8 years and has led students on trips around the world. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College, where she majored in International Relations and Spanish, and Penn Law School where she pursued public interest law. Elizabeth was the first recipient of the Penn Public Interest Fellowship and used her funding to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities as an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. In her spare time, Elizabeth can be found on her yoga mat, experimenting in the kitchen, or romping with her Labradoodle Walter.

There are certainly no shortages of service learning opportunities for students, but most organized trips end their engagement with students when the trip ends. So often, meaningful experiences abroad are quickly forgotten once students re-enter their home communities. In order to ensure that the experience stays alive and relevant, post-trip reflection is key. Blue Bridge Project was founded on the principle that reflection helps bridge the gap between the volunteer experience and the student’s life at home.

ea1With a wake-up call at 6am, our students begin a jam-packed day. Under the hot sun, they help construct a rain-protected bus stop for a rural community, tutor students in English, paint a new classroom, run a kids camp and play a friendly yet intense game of soccer. By the time the sun sets, between dinner and a well-deserved night of rest, our students always have structured “down time” for reflection. After students return home, they revisit their journal entries and answer difficult questions about how re-adjusting to life at home has affected the way they view their volunteer experience.

At Blue Bridge, we strongly believe that reflection is integral to the service learning process. Why?

Reflection helps students recalibrate their expectations. Students start their summer with all the best intentions but these intentions often get lost among the busyness of everyday activities. Students are consistently aware of how the day’s activities fit into their individual goals and develops their experience.

Frustration is a critical part of the experience because it forces us to confront key questions about volunteering. Giving students an outlet to express these sentiments helps them work through their own misconceptions and pre-trip expectations. Students witness how their perspective shifts over the course of the trip and can make changes to their behavior and outlook.

On a trip to Nicaragua, a few students were the victims of petty theft. Someone in the village had ea2stolen cash out of a backpack while we were away at the worksite. Many of the students were understandably upset because they felt the community didn’t appreciate their volunteer contributions. We used this unfortunate incident as a great way to uncover some previously unspoken assumptions about our experience.

We helped students “unpack” their expectation that the community would appreciate their contributions. We talked about why we seek appreciation and explored the many ways that an individual can show appreciation. Finally, we discussed how one individual may not represent the entire interests of the group and used our own political process to demonstrate this point.

Reflection helps students use their experience in the future. Volunteering abroad challenges students and offers many opportunities for personal growth. Too often, students get no guidance and leave other programs with a very warped perception of international development. Blue Bridge Project was founded on the principle that high school students can learn, that international development is complicated and that they are only exposed to one small piece over ea3the summer. We encourage our students thoughtfully and sensitively articulate the lessons learned from their volunteering experience.

Because the issues students encounter abroad are complicated, Blue Bridge helps each of our students think about and apply their summer experiences after their trip. Students who experienced the petty theft in Nicaragua came home with a more nuanced appreciation for what volunteers often expect from their volunteering experience. When they applied these learnings to domestic service opportunities, they were able to recognize why and when they sought validation for their service.

Sometimes the best reflection happens once students are home and back in their regular routines. We remain committed to all of our students to help them with this transition.


  • Thank you for this post! It is very important to reflect in order to truly learn and grow as individuals and volunteers. This lesson absolutely applies to everyday life as well. Love the story about the petty theft.

    “We helped students ‘unpack’ their expectation that the community would appreciate their contributions.”

    This made me think, in general, how many of us looking to work in international development or even in the public service sector have the wrong expectation that our service will be well received and appreciated? Especially when perhaps we are giving the “wrong” kind of aid.

    So in light of this post, I would like to ask the readers and even you Elizabeth, why do we often have such expectations and seek validation when volunteering or providing a service?

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