Interview with Sister Nirmala Arul: “It is crucial to learn from each other and tailor the best practices to each context”.

Nirmala and Luz met in person at the EASLHE conference

Nirmala Arul’s story mirrors one of the examples where the seeds sown by CLAYSS worldwide have flourished. Nirmala, a religious sister and teacher from India, found the meaning of her vocation as an educator through service-learning. She poured her experiences and knowledge into the book “Community Service Learning and its Impact on Life Skills and Competencies”; it is now distributed in several countries.

Nirmala took the first step in 2018 but acknowledges CLAYSS’s support and guidance through Luz Abruj for enabling her journey so far.

After four years of fruitful online exchange, Nirmala and Luz met in person at the EASLHE conference (the European Association for Service-Learning in Higher Education) in Rome last September. According to Luz, Nirmala’s engagement reinforced the links between CLAYSS and Asia at a time of CLAYSS’ significant global expansion: “When we give a scholarship or a course, we are investing in a person we often don’t have news about afterwards, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t evolved and transformed their communities. In this case, carried by her enthusiasm, Nirmala herself kept us updated and involved in her initiatives. It is inspiring to know about these things to keep opening doors and spreading the seeds,” Luz shared.

Below, Nirmala answers some questions that help to know what she did and how she lived it.

Going back to the beginning of the bond between you and CLAYSS, why did you want to do that course for which you contacted CLAYSS? What were you looking for and why?
-I knew that I wanted to conduct scientific research to prove that when students leave the classroom and school to serve others, their lives change. I was already familiar with the terms ‘outreach’ and ‘Community Service. Consequently, I developed a few activities for this purpose. At the same time, I had already selected two schools for my intervention, but I hadn’t yet begun working with the children.
During this time, I had the opportunity to meet Sister Imelda Poole IBVM, who is based in Albania and was keen to learn about my research. After listening to me, she introduced me to CLAYSS and to Aferdita Gjoni, one of our collaborators in Albania. Aferdita serves as the coordinator for Service-Learning Projects in the Albania Mission. It was Aferdita who introduced me to Luz, and that’s when my Service-Learning journey began. I was pleased that my research aimed to not only understand the impact of students engaged in service but also allowed me to learn the techniques for preparing and involving students in the entire process of Service-Learning.

We understand that from that moment on, you never left service-learning (SL). What did you find in it?
-Yes, once I understood the meaning of Service-Learning, I never looked back because it became meaningful to me. I liked the concept of ‘WITH,’ which emphasizes doing everything with people, not just for them. I appreciated the way students and the community learn together. In the process of this, there is respect, connection, a bond, and a meaningful relationship. I must say I genuinely like the framework of service-learning.
There is a rich cultural exchange when students venture beyond the school’s walls, fostering the potential for strong bonds to develop between the students and teachers. Above all, students get to know themselves better as they interact with others. Their life skills develop, and they become actively engaged in civic matters. I have witnessed that children look at society and the world in a more positive light, and in the process, their career paths change.
Being the Service-Learning Coordinator has significantly shifted my attitude towards service for the better.

-During these years, did you do research on SL, did you carry out SL projects, what kinds of initiatives related to SL have you developed?

-After completing my research, I introduced Service Learning to our school children. I conducted orientations for parents and children and sent them to our NGOs in India and Nepal for 10 days. I also trained the teachers to accompany the students, emphasizing the importance of reflection at the end of each day. When the students returned, they shared their experiences with other schools, both in person and through writing. I witnessed how their lives changed.
I soon realized that there was very little research on Service Learning in India. To address this gap, I decided to write a book on Service Learning based on my research studies. I undertook this effort because there is a lack of literature on Service Learning in India. Additionally, I am currently working on another book that focuses on Service Learning in the context of higher education in India.

-Could you summarize in one or two sentences what you transmit in your book about SL? What did you want to convey?

-The title of my book is ‘Community Service Learning and its Impact on Life Skills and Competencies.’ Through my book, I aim to convey that Service Learning is not only possible but also a meaningful learning experience for students. Teachers require training to effectively facilitate students in their reflective service learning journeys.

-From Asia, you found in a Latin American organization a line of work that you later deepened into. What does this intercontinental nexus with people who you had never seen personally before mean to you?

-I had the privilege of visiting Peru and had the opportunity to interact with people in some of our missions. This experience made me realize the strength of solidarity and the various aspects in which Service Learning is practiced. I am familiar with the activities of Service Learning projects undertaken by institutes connected through CLAYSS. My aspiration is to promote the same spirit in India and across Asia.
I also had the privilege of attending the 6th European Conference on Service Learning in Higher Education 2023, Rome, Italy and the 9th Asia Pacific Regional Conference on Service Learning 2023, Bengaluru, India. During these events, I had the chance to meet individuals from diverse backgrounds who shared a common interest in spreading Service Learning. This motivated me further, and I believe it is crucial to share our experiences, learn from each other, and adapt best practices to our local context.
I look forward to staying connected with Service Learning practitioners around the world to continue sharing, learning, and adopting valuable insights.

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