The innovative Humacitér service learning mission has become a cornerstone of La Rochelle Business School’s approach to educating responsible managers. The aim of this mandatory, 3-month long experience is to equip future managers with the capacity to adapt to issues emerging in different social contexts. I recently spoke with Sarah Vaughan, associate Dean at La Rochelle Business School and Daniel Baudin, Director Humacite, Ethics and Solidarity, about their experiences with service learning.
What is Humacitér?
Humacitér is a combination of two French words, humanitarian and citizen. It is a mandatory three-month, full-time, humanitarian, social or civic service learning initiative that exposes students to cultural, social, economic, political, and religious differences and thus helps to develop their humanitarian values. It combines courses, community service, and opportunities for reflection on the learning that occurs through that service. The programme was piloted in 2007 and fully deployed to all taught programmes of the school in 2012-2013. This past year 809 students completed a Humacitér mission, and 70% of these were completed abroad.
Service opportunities are carefully selected in partnership with local NGOs, to align with the learning goals of Humacitér and the student’s degree programme. Recent projects have included working on a housing project in India and an orphanage in Nepal, working with First Nation communities to develop sustainable tourism projects in Yukon, and developing training programmes on environmental issues with local communities in Morocco.
What additional support are students given for their projects?
The school provides a portfolio of courses to raise student awareness and prepare them for this experiential learning component of their degree programme. A range of electives are offered covering major issues—developing countries, human development, UN Millennium Objectives, history of religions, principles of fair trade, humanitarian activities, UN Agencies, NGO’s, Human rights, and development history. Students are required to take two electives out of the fifteen available during their curriculum.
Business school curricula rarely explore social issues and when they do so, such issues are either given short shrift or are approached almost exclusively from the management perspective (i.e., management in nonprofit organisations, or social entrepreneurship). The elective portfolio has been designed to raise student awareness of ongoing or emerging global challenges, and the need to improve or advance global conditions. Issues discussed include widespread poverty and efforts to eradicate or alleviate it, international cooperation for social development, the implementation and realisation of human rights, inequitable social conditions, and issues in sustainable development. Consistent with our mission, we want to provide our students with both information and opportunity: information through the courses, to explore and gain an understanding of the complexity of these issues; and opportunity to subsequently empower them to engage in the grassroots projects within communities in need.
What have been some of the challenges?
The first challenge when the Humacitér programme started was to convince our students of the pertinence of a voluntary service learning mission as a solidarity and commitment initiative, as an integral part of their degree. It was a “juxtaposition of contraries” for them: voluntary v. mandatory, service learning and solidarity v. business knowledge. No other business school in France had initiated a programme to support NGOs and communities in need, and it was not in the wider collective unconscious either.
The second challenge was also, partly, to convince our business school faculty and staff of the purpose and relevance of such an initiative.
The third challenge was to dissipate the reservations of some of the NGOs–the primacy of profit maximisation over all other values is perceived by many as the core of both social and environmental problems. Was the school trying to transform the global corporate agenda, was it really trying to take the notion of citizenship to a global scale, or merely trying to burnish its image in its communications for the recruitment of future students? It has been a process of mutual learning over time: the partnering organisations have shared their methodologies and our students have made innovative contributions across the traditional boundaries to relationships with the local communities.
Another challenge has been to keep our Humacitér programme sincere to its underlying values and principles and to guarantee its ethical coherence. One recent trend to note has been the rise of the “charity business”—volunteering organisations and agencies mushrooming worldwide, providing at a cost, “solidarity emotions” to Western students. Far from being enabling conditions, these money making developments are perceived negatively by the local communities, and there is a strong risk of longer term repercussions for students accessing acceptable and appropriate projects.
What about successes?
The first successes came when the first students came back from their Humacitér mission. It had been such an eye opening and transformational experience for them: almost all realised that they had “grown” in maturity after such a unique experience. They felt happy to have made a difference— to have added value both to the communities involved, and to themselves. They also realised that this was going to be an asset, literally, for their personal and professional lives.
Over the years, Humacitér has become a definite appeal to potential candidates to our business school in terms of recruitment, and is systematically given in the top three reasons for joining the school.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
An initiative like Humacitér can only be successful if there is genuine commitment from all stakeholders within the business school. It requires a shared vision—that students have the right to study, explore, and experience these issues as a core and primary focus of their education, and that we can inspire students to become actively involved and subsequently consider the social and environmental impact of their work. The real question schools should ask themselves is why put something like this in place, is it purely in response to a fashion or is it a strategic vision?
It also requires dedicated resources—not only a team of faculty and staff to support the preparation, monitoring, and assessment of students before, during, and after Humacitér, but we also have to monitor safety issues daily (prevention and intervention plans) as political situations can change rapidly across the globe.
What’s next for Humacitér?
Humacitérrelies on a large network of dedicated NGOs in the Third and Fourth World that trust our approach, and that we trust. The extension of our network is key to the development of our Humacitérprogramme. We monitor the quality of our cooperation, and we have to continually “weed and seed.”
The school has invested in preparation programmes and we continue to develop and improve advice and support to students, and to increase the elective course offerings. We are currently developing two new projects:
– a Humacitérreview committee with representatives from charities, NGOs, alumni and other higher education institutions across the world, to provide the strategic focus for developments to the programme in the future
– a “Humacitérnetwork,” where students and alumni can share their experiences (the impact on students is strong even years after they have carried out their Humacitér mission)
We are also at a point where we feel we can publish on our Humacitérexperience. Over 3500 students have undertaken a project, giving invaluable insights into the transformational process, and we would now like to track the impact of the experience on their career trajectories—including the impact on the recruitment decisions and whether students have carried out their intention to act differently once in the workplace.