[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
In August 2016, as part of its ongoing commitment to learn from and strengthen its program initiatives, MCC initiated a study of the impact of its three eleven-month programs for young adults: the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), in which young adults from around the world serve in Canada and the United States; the Serving and Learning Together program (SALT), in which young adults from Canada and the U.S. serve around the world; and the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network program (YAMEN), a shared program of MCC and Mennonite World Conference (MWC) in which young adults from outside Canada and the U.S. serve in other countries, primarily in the global South.
The study’s objectives were twofold. First, the study explored the effects of YAMEN, IVEP and SALT on sending churches, participants’ faith journeys, participants’ skills and passions and participants’ global citizenship. The study used an understanding of global citizenship based on a definition developed by Oxfam Canada as including awareness of
the wider world, respect for diversity, involvement in social justice causes, action to make the world more sustainable and contribution to local and global communities. Second, the study built on these findings to formulate recommendations for how best to improve the three programs.
For the IVEP and YAMEN parts of the study, the research team chose Colombia, Indonesia and Zambia for in-depth examination. In these three contexts, MCC has, or has had, extensive experience with its young adult programs, along with active engagement with Anabaptist churches. In each country, researchers organized focus groups and interviews of IVEP and YAMEN alumni. They also conducted interviews with Mennonite World Conference representatives, denominational representatives and pastors
and other leaders from congregations that have sent and received IVEPers and YAMENers.
For the SALT portion of the study, the research team emailed a confidential web-based survey to all SALT alumni with email addresses on file who served between 1981 and the 2015-16 program year, or approximately 78% of alumni. To assess how church leaders in Canada and the U.S. view SALT, researchers sent a short, web-based survey to pastors from a sample of Anabaptist sending churches, as well as to leaders of Anabaptist
denominations, conferences and mission programs with knowledge of SALT.
Through these surveys, interview and focus groups, the research team collected input from a total of 380 respondents. Through in-person interviews and focus groups in Indonesia, Zambia and Colombia, researchers heard from 86 IVEP and 11 YAMEN alumni, 35 pastors and MWC representatives, 45 lay leaders (other than pastors) and two
community leaders. The SALT surveys resulted in responses from 177 alumni, seven pastors and 17 Anabaptist denominational leaders.
The study found that alumni link their participation in IVEP, YAMEN and SALT to growth in their faith, personal and vocational skills and engagement as global citizens. To maximize this growth, however, the study found that participants need more consistent emotional support during and after the program. Additionally, the results show that the
primary impact of these exchange programs occurs in the lives of individual participants, rather than in sending and receiving congregations. This finding suggests that MCC should pay closer attention to discerning with church partners what changes sending and receiving churches want to come about through these exchange programs.
IVEP and YAMEN alumni across Indonesia, Zambia and Colombia noted that participation in these programs strengthened their commitment to service, increased their sense of independence or confidence, led to increased empathy and hospitality toward foreigners in their own country and contributed to the dismantling of stereotypes that participants held of others. The most cited effects for SALT alumni included: increased appreciation of diverse faith perspectives; new or improved language skills; new or increased interest in building bridges and/or community between people of different faiths, ethnicities and races; and new or increased interest in working on social justice causes such as poverty, inequality and racism.
While respondents generally reported largely positive effects from their participation in these exchange programs, they also identified negative outcomes, including spiritual struggles, stalling of careers, difficulty reconnecting with the church and depression. These negative impacts, in turn, were linked by participants to feelings of not having had either adequate emotional support during the service terms or emotional and vocational support upon reentry. Not having adequate support in place to help young people process and integrate their experiences can limit the ways in which the transformative experiences during their year of service can shape their lives.
IVEP and YAMEN alumni in Colombia, Indonesia and Zambia requested more emotional support after their year of service. In all three countries, alumni stated the importance of connections with other alumni to process their experiences and the challenges they faced upon re-entry, even decades later. Alumni affirmed the countries that organized IVEP and YAMEN alumni reunions and encouraged MCC to organize more such reunions
in the future, while also using social media to foster connections among alumni. Study participants also suggested that MCC and sending churches create mentorship opportunities, in which older alumni could serve as mentors for recently returned alumni, providing a listening ear and walking with them as they reintegrate into their home communities and look for work or return to school. Additionally, for alumni who desire confidential emotional support or who have had traumatic or challenging
experiences during their year of service or reentry, MCC needs to make confidential counseling resources more accessible to participants. These resources need to be presented in a way that lessens stigma and normalizes the use of professional counseling.
Unlike IVEP and YAMEN alumni, SALTers did not expect MCC to provide them with ongoing support during re-entry. SALTers did, however, note the need for more consistent accompaniment and emotional support during the program. While many noted that they experienced growth during challenges, functioning under ongoing stress and trauma is not ideal for growth and should not be normalized. MCC should continue
to provide in-country supervisors with clear expectations for supporting SALTers, including frequency and types of check-ins, and resources related to self-care, such as confidential counseling. All in-country supervisors should receive ongoing training on trauma and sexual violence so that they can better respond to SALTers who experience trauma and can also proactively create environments in which SALTers know that disclosing sexual violence or other traumatic experiences will result in a life-giving,
In her article, “The ‘Third World’ is Not Your Classroom,” Courtney Martin explores how learning happens during study and work abroad experiences. Martin argues that “the best learning happens not just when you’re thrown off a bit . . . but when you have the context of real, complex relationships within which you can find your footing again.” The study findings suggest that MCC needs to do more to facilitate opportunities for participants and alumni to find their footing during and after these exchange programs
within the context of complex relationships that provide them with the space to process and integrate their experiences into their lives.
At the level of the sending church, the pastors and congregations interviewed for this study voiced their affirmation for the positive impact IVEP and YAMEN have on participants, including increased leadership skills, strengthened commitment to service and an improved understanding of Anabaptism and the global church. The extent to which church leaders noted a pronounced effect at the level of the local church is variable, however, with many suggesting that the impact of these programs are
focused at the level of the individual.
Several pastors in Colombia, Indonesia and Zambia, however, believed that connecting local churches to the global church is an important objective of these programs, although they thought that more could be done through the programs to strengthen those connections. While not an explicit objective of YAMEN or IVEP, strengthening church-to-church connections is certainly a complementary objective to current program objectives to “build the church together” (YAMEN), “share gifts between churches”
(YAMEN) and “strengthen bonds of Christian fellowship” (IVEP). Connecting participants’ receiving and sending churches intentionally and systematically may be a way to strengthen these programs’ overall ability to strengthen the church, break down barriers, bring people of a common faith together despite diverse expressions of that faith and further support the work of Mennonite World Conference. If MCC desires IVEP, YAMEN and SALT to effect change at the level of the church, MCC should work with MWC and its church partners to determine what local churches want to achieve through church-to-church connections and then intentionally administer these three young adult exchange programs in such a way that better facilitates connections between sending and receiving churches.
IVEP, YAMEN and SALT have led to transformative effects in the lives of participants in the areas of faith, personal growth, skill development and global citizenship. Providing more consistent emotional support to participants and intentionally connecting sending and receiving churches will allow MCC to strengthen program effects for participants and their churches.
Meara Dietrick Kwee is an MCC learning and evaluation coordinator.
Clark, Janet and Simon Lewis. “Impact Beyond Volunteering: A Realist Evaluation of the Complex and Long-Term Pathways of Volunteer Impact.” Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), United Kingdom, March 2017. Available at https://www.vsointernational.org/fightingpoverty/our-research-andevaluations/impact-beyondvolunteering.
Martin, Courtney. “The ‘Third World’ is Not Your Classroom.” Bright. March 7, 2016. Available at https://brightthemag.com/the-third-world-is-not-yourclassroom-9eee1546f565.
Brigham, Margaret. “Creating a Global Citizen and Assessing Outcomes.” Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, 1/1 (2011): 15-43. Available at http://journals.sfu.ca/jgcee/index.php/jgcee/article/view/27.