Perceptions of Service: A Case Study of Post-Earthquake Haiti

Allison Mousel
DePauw University

KEY WORDS:  service; Haiti; service providers; service learning; case study; perspective taking; cultural awareness; service effectiveness


This study examines the perceptions of service held by service providers in post-earthquake Haiti. Data came from a case study of a group of service providers who spent three weeks in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and analysis was performed on the responses to a questionnaire distributed to this group. Results reveal discrepancies and commonalities between self-role and perspectives and that of the other, or the projected role and perspectives of other service providers and the general local community.


Through a case study of post-earthquake Haiti, this study attempted to answer the question: What are the perceptions of service held by service providers after a disaster? The information was derived from the service providers themselves. For this study, a service provider was defined as a person or organized group that aids those whose needs cannot be self-supported nor supported in their community. This case study assumed that the learning gained from service was a form of public pedagogy. Public pedagogy was defined as the teaching and learning that occurs outside of the formal education system in alternative learning spaces (Windle, 2009). The project attempted to gain deeper insight into the lessons that service providers learn from working in a distressed community. It assumed that the interaction itself was a teachable moment (Lough, 2011).

One aim of this study was to identify the nature of socio-cultural education that may take place through this involvement and interaction. Is there a relationship between this interaction and social justice practices? This study expanded on the research base of education by exploring these relationships (Lough, 2011, Reeb et al. 2010, and Zhang et al.2011). In this case, the study was expected to investigate the post-disaster interaction between service providers and societal members, as seen in research by Thomson, Smith-Tolken, Naidoo, and Bringle (2010, p. 214). Specifically, does disaster condition the type of interaction being documented and consequently the type of service provided? Does the service reflect an understanding of cultural connectedness? Does it reflect an understanding of culturally responsive pedagogy?

The findings of this study should be most beneficial to service providers and citizens at large, while also benefiting community leaders for the positive implementation of aid, service planning, and its execution. This project employed both qualitative and quantitative methods of research. The data were collected through a survey questionnaire distributed to a group of service providers who worked in Port-au-Prince, Haiti for twenty days during January 2012. A frequency analysis summarizes the data collected statistically.

Literature Analysis

The literature reveals that there are conflicting ideas about the value of service and how it is created. According to Edvardsson, Tronvoll, and Gruber, “Individuals cannot create social systems; rather, they can only re-create or transform systems that are already made in the continuity of praxis,” a reoccurring idea that undermines many of the evaluations and conclusions drawn in the literature (2011, p. 331). Similarly, Edvardsson et al. also explained that value is not created by the service provider; rather, the provider can only offer “propositions that provide the prerequisites for value,” and further, value is influenced equally by the social context in which it is used (2011, p. 327, 334). The literature base exposes that value is determined by meaning, and service means different things to different people. Thus, there is discrepancy about the meaning of service.

To some, service means understanding the context and spaces in which it is being provided, as opposed to the service work itself, and leads to insight into the surrounding contexts. Davidson et al. believed that students benefit when they are “taught to work with communities to better understand contexts surrounding a social problem, as opposed to merely volunteering to provide service to a community” (2010, p. 442). They argued that service is a powerful opportunity to connect communities and build foundations for well-rounded educated citizens, who will later significantly contribute to society (2010). Nearly all sources agreed with Lough, who claimed that volunteering will increase “intercultural competence;” however the level of this advancement will be subject to certain conditions, and the resulting meaning gained from the service provided is consequently affected (2011, p. 452). Scholars such as Lough advocated for international service to “promote international understanding, shared knowledge across cultures, global engagement, international cooperation, and peace” (2011, p. 452). Davidson et al. suggested that service can expose people to “multiple diverse perspectives that must be considered by becoming increasingly conscious of the problems within the social system, and through getting a more realistic view” of humanity (2010, p. 451). From a wider perspective, Jenkins and Nowell explained, “Freire’s ideas applied to disaster management and community recovery provide a conceptual framework for seeing the potential of disasters to raise critical consciousness of structural injustices,” which again placed the context surrounding the service as the primary source of meaning (2010, p. 435).

Further, the meaning of service is seen by others as a focus on service learning, where the education of the providers is the central goal of the service. Thomson, Smith-Tolken, Naidoo, & Bringle defined service learning as two-fold educational experience, incorporating organized service addressing unmet community needs and reflection on the service to gain further understanding and insight (2011). Advocates of service learning such as Bringle et al. boasted about the increase in awareness of different cultures, promotion of civic growth and engagement, and contribution to struggling communities (2010). A study conducted by Davidson et al., concluded with findings consistent with the prior literature base, noting positive outcomes such as attitude improvements, increased social responsibility and awareness, and a better understanding of social justice (2010). Bringle and Steinberg further suggested that although service learning may not directly improve knowledge content, it undoubtedly improves cognitive thinking and general thought processing (2010). Service learning programs specifically have been found by researchers such as Thomson et al. to “increase student sensitivity to diversity, increase student knowledge and ability to get along with people of different races and cultures, increase student tolerance and decrease stereotyping, and increase students’ ability to work with diverse groups” (2011, p. 227). More so, Lough believed that the more immersed the volunteers are, the closer they are imbedded into the local culture and way of life, and thus the more in tune they are with the interworkings of the society, which allows for the development and implementation of customized service programs tailored to the true societal needs (2011, p. 453). Contrarily, under the wrong conditions, foreign service may be counterproductive, which Lough believed can lead to “increased prejudice, decreased tolerance, and frequent cross-cultural misunderstandings” (2011, p. 453). Therefore, since everyone comes from a different background and not all people view things in the same manner, the literature expressed that the meaning of service is for eliciting a change in attitudes and supporting the development of service providers.

However, meanings change, and service has different meanings to both the providers and the recipients. Edvardsson et al. explained that social construction theories assume that humans “have the potential to learn, adapt, and make their own choices. Meaning is to be understood within social structures and systems…[and with] how humans make sense of social interactions” (2011, p. 329). The angle from which service is approached affects the meaning it evokes to each party. Thomson et al. claimed, “A significant gap exists in the literature about what service learning seeks to achieve and how service learning is construed in non-western contexts” (2011, p. 217). In general, the literature suggested the importance of understanding that the meaning of service to providers and recipients as well as different groups in each realm differs from others.

The literature suggested that service is a form of public pedagogy, as far as what is being taught to the service provider and the service recipients. Potter believed that one avenue that makes it increasingly difficult to gain an unbiased view of the current situations of places in need of service is that much of what the public is told about various communities and countries comes from media sources rather than credible, researched sources (2009). Therefore, public pedagogy is tied into the resulting meaning of service; that is, what is taught and thus learned about others prior to and during service is a form of public pedagogy. It is consequently important to note, as Potter did, that the general public is often not provided with well-rounded information from which to examine other cultures and thus create adequate service programs (2009). Service therefore may be examined through this lens of public pedagogy. Public pedagogy can be defined through the literature by Giroux as the teaching and learning that occurs outside of the formal educational system that exists in school and class settings (2004). According to Giroux, the role of public pedagogy is to construct knowledge, values, and identities, which is much of what occurs in the foreground and/or background of service projects (2004). Much of the literature on public pedagogy emphasized how ideological and institutional forces use this form of education to perpetuate dominant values, raise consciousness, and counter conditions for opposition. On the other hand, according to Joel Windle, “The notion of public pedagogy offers a valuable way of understanding more generally how culture and power are organized” (2008, p. 379). As Maner and Mead (2010) alluded, it is important to note that the most impactful pedagogies enlist learners as participants and treat people as subjects rather than objects, thus making the wider public feel as though they hold the power. In this way, a great potential to threaten current systems exists within public pedagogy, which utilizes the subjects as the catalyst to spark the desired reaction.

The literature suggested that power plays a significant role in the meaning and delivery of service. Maner and Mead stated, “All forms of leadership must make use of power. The central issue of power in leadership is not Will it be used? But Will it be used wisely and well?” (2010, p. 483). Therefore, the delivery of service is vital and raises questions about the types of leadership and power that are magnified through the delivery of service. When a community accepts or requests service, they are surrendering their power, and the service provider essentially sucks power out of the domestic entities. A role model provides guidelines for appropriate behaviors by demonstrating and consequently teaching normative rules. However, when accepting or requesting service, a level of control in decision-making once held by the local community is surrendered to the service provider (Maner et al., 2010). It is thus evident by the literature that the mutuality of the relationship between parties is vital. Hanna, Talley, and Guindon explained, “The urge to power is a significant aspect of human interaction,” and the leader-follower relationship is one that reflects a social contract of trust (2000, p. 430). As Maner et al. explained, service programs that adhere to a social contract wherein leaders facilitate actions in the best interest of the local community are more valuable because the bonds of trust, interest, and immersion result in a relationship of mutual understanding (2010). In general, the way in which power is defined has an impactful effect on the perspectives people of all parties have of their own doings as well as the perspectives they have of others.

The literature suggested that there is a fine line between leadership and power when it comes to the design and implementation of service. Some literature suggested that power could be used to strengthen societies through service provided by domestic or foreign entities. Researchers, such as Maner et al. (2010), revealed that power does not always have to come from within. In other words, sometimes it is foreign forces that hold the power to primarily control societies through service and other forms of public pedagogy, which provides the authority needed to control domestic society to a remote foreign entity. As Maner et al. suggested, factors such as “individual differences in dominance motivation, the stability of the group hierarchy, and the presence of intergroup conflict” need to be addressed to assure that leaders prioritize the goals of those whom they are working to help, rather than prioritizing their own power (2010, p. 484).

On the other hand, the literature warned that when individuals and entire communities become objects, power is taken too far and service becomes in danger of failing. Soforonio Efuk reported, “It was evident from fieldwork . . . that most NGOs interpreted the lack of cooperation and diversion of resources by local leaders as inability to manage the operations rather than anything to do with a shift of power and deterioration of social structure, value, and support systems (2000, p. 67). Moreover, Zhang, Higgins, and Chen asked, “Why do some people copy the managing behavior of a role model despite their dissatisfaction with this behavior as its recipients? The widely accepted answer lies in the strength of situations that define appropriate behaviors associated with a managing role and press individuals in a norm-consistent direction” (2011, p. 660). Overall, when the power is invested in the service provider constructively, the literature stressed ways in which service can benefit the provider. The literature is primarily focused on the benefit gained by the service providers in these ways as opposed to the effect of this power shift on the service recipients.

Furthermore, the literature suggested that service could create conditions of dependency. Jankins et al. defined liberation as “people engaging in the struggle to participate as co-creators in describing the present and building the future” (210, p. 434). However, most researchers, including Efuk, believe that situations placing societies in a state of struggle and in need of outside aid can result in domination of or domination by that society, depending on the acceptance of the assistance given and self-controlled utilization of this assistance. When a society is struggling due to some form of disaster, it is often willing to try various approaches to getting back to a self-sustainable place, even if what is actually being transmitted through service is only temporarily satisfying. Unfortunately, if this is the case, once the outsiders flee, the locals are likely to plummet back to their struggling state, as Jankins et al. believed. The level and approach to volunteering can likewise negatively affect changes in the community. Jenkins and Nowell explained, “When reality is prescribed by others, the oppressed cease to be subjects in shaping the world and rather exist as objects whose consciousness is defined by those who seek to maintain control over them” (2010, p. 432). Likewise, Lough believed, “When volunteers approach their work with a paternalistic approach or with goals that are not mutually shared by the host organization or community they, by definition, fail” (2011, p. 460). If struggling societies are increasingly putting their faith in others, they are relinquishing faith in themselves. Thus, service can instill a need for foreign assistance to endure struggles. Saye wrote, “International interventions and occupations have become common strategy for maintaining stability,” which can result in the withdrawal of domestic strategy and practices, reducing or eliminating their involvement in their own country and systems (2010, p. 82). On the other hand, Hanna et al. explained that struggling communities “often possess a very powerful and admirable ability that develops through their hardship and strife, even though they may not be aware of it,” and the role of positive, impactful service providers is to tap into this ability and to help to provide the tools and knowledge needed for the community to grow positively in the future (2000, p.441).

According to the literature, what is more obvious than the internal dependency often created by service is the outward dependency on societal function. The mistake that is commonly made, according to the general literature, is that service organizations will try to deal with the lack of systems in the local society by creating artificial structures or systems. Unfortunately, as explained by Efuk, “Unlike traditional systems, these imposed structures [are] insensitive to traditional support and value systems” (2000, p. 64). Thus, the research conducted by Efuk and others concluded that although implementing new systems may seem like a positive contribution, if the service providers do not address how the community will be able to sustain such system and the practicality of doing so, it is of no benefit to the local people. Efuk further highlighted the fact that maintenance of service programs is difficult: “Even among relief officials there is no disagreement over the failure of NGO communities in supporting self-reliance projects” (2000, p. 59). Thomson et al. suggested, “Forming long-term partnerships with third sector organizations may prove more important . . . than in the U.S. where service programs tend to focus on short-term community service projects and activities” (2011, p. 230). Further, Efuk continued, “We need to be aware of the larger systemic picture, create accountability of action, and encourage more specific ways to promote the recognition and viability of local capacities in humanitarian relief emergencies,” because without emphasis in these areas, service providers are not adequately addressing development needs (2000, p. 57, 66). Thomson et al. claimed, “[We] are beginning to place greater faith in third sector organizations than government to provide what the state has been unable to provide: peace, improved quality of life, democracy, and poverty alleviation” (2011, p. 229).

The literature also suggested that power could feed into feelings of oppression, further undermining the resulting dependency. The relationship between protecting power and creating conditions of oppression is a fine line. As Maner et al. further explained, “Derogating a subordinate could reflect a desire to protect one’s own powerful role, though it could also reflect a more general tendency to see others as incompetent” (2010, p. 485). Pamela Jenkins and Branda Nowell explained, “Individuals become oppressed objects when their decisions and actions, their identity, even their very sense of reality are prescribed to them by others” (2010, p. 434). Hanna et al. defined oppression as an “unjust, harsh, or cruel exercise of power over another or others,” and they continued to reveal that oppressed groups need not to be seen as helpless victims, and that there is a better way in which to approach service in order to avoid oppressive relationships (2000, p. 432).

Further, the literature suggested that powerful charity could feed conditions of oppression in ways that are difficult to accept. Often, community service is associated with charity, as seen through Efuk’s comments, which underpinned the idea that struggling communities are helpless and perpetuated judgmental views and thus inappropriate assistance. Thus, the literature suggested that the concept of service as charity is dependent on the avenues through which power is delivered. Hanna et al. agreed in that the dominant culture tends to favor “White, Eurocentric ways of being, thinking, and acting that may not fit the reality of cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity present in this country (U.S.) or other countries” (2000, p. 431). Charity can perpetuate the image of oppression because the views of the oppressed are not questioned and instead are seemingly accepted, and the power is handed over with little or no debate. Thomson et al. believed, “The relevant and immediate concern is the risk of [volunteers] viewing their community activities as something that is done to and for others but not with others. Engaging them so that they respect local ways of knowing, practice democratic and egalitarian approaches to interactions, develop intercultural competencies, and approach service activities in ways that develop efficacy for all participants are challenges that must [be] addressed” (2011, p. 231). Moreover, Wright and Sandlin presumed that “change in which the subordinated are empowered to take control of their lives and to change the conditions which have caused their oppression” could be of great benefit (2000). Such changes have the potential to allow and support a community to take strides in the direction of progress and self-sustainability.


This study employed both qualitative and quantitative methods of research through the distribution and analysis of a questionnaire to address the overall question: What are the perceptions of service held by service providers after a disaster? The ten-item questionnaire was distributed to a group of service providers who participated in a service trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during January 2012, as the research at hand was a case study. The questionnaire was electronically distributed to a group of ten undergraduate students between the ages of 20-22, all of whom were students at DePauw University and made up the service group. Analysis was conducted on the seven responses received.

This method of utilizing a questionnaire allowed the researcher to explore participant experiences and opinions by providing structure through consistent questioning as seen in surveys as well as drawing open-ended responses as is common in interviewing methods. The categories of analysis used attempted to address the main concepts of self-role, self-role in others, self in action, assessment of other, and self-effectiveness. The questionnaire is below in Figure 1, along with the concepts that each item aimed to address.

Figure 1: Questionnaire

1. How many service trips have you been a part of?

Context of prior experience

2. How many Third-World countries have you been to?

    Context of prior experience

3. How would you define the role of the service provider?

    Definition of self-role

4. What were your perceptions of the service providers you observed and/or worked with in Haiti?

    Self-role in others

5. What are your general perceptions of the service you provided?

    Self in action

6. Based on the three or four organizations you visited, Zanmi Beni, Mission of Hope, Helping Haitian Angels, and Haitian-American Caucus, what would you classify as positive and negative characteristics of a service program?

    Assessment of other

7. To what extent did you feel that foreigners served the Haitian community?

    Assessment of foreign other

8. Do you think the length of your stay affects those whom you are helping?

    Definition of sense of effectiveness

9. What do you think was the response to your involvement?

    Definition of sense of effectiveness

10. Based on your experiences in Haiti, what advice would you give someone about to embark on a trip as a service provider?

Inferential definition of service

Using a questionnaire was beneficial to the qualitative research investigation due to the freedom and opinionated nature of responses and details allowed, regulated questions and tone in expressing questions in writing, and reduction/elimination of bias from the researcher through the use of a single written questionnaire. Further, questions were all left open-ended to reach for a spectrum of results not affected by prompted answers from which participants select, so participants were not encouraged to respond in any specific way. Further, the questionnaires were completed individually and with the opportunity to remain anonymous, which supported more honest answers. The researcher was the primary means of data collection for qualitative research, and the qualitative analysis of questionnaire results focused on meanings and understandings conveyed by participants.

Quantitatively, a frequency analysis was performed to cross-analyze the responses from participants and see if any patterns could be found. Words and phrases used by participants in their responses were tallied in applicable categories for appropriate questions, and a frequency analysis was conducted to explore the commonalities and/or differences in participant responses. A sample of the instrument used for the frequency analysis can be seen below in Table 1.

Table 1: Sample Frequency Analysis Table for Self-Role in Other

Perceptions of Other Service Providers

Frequency Across Responses to Item Four

Caring Attitudes


Presence of Detrimental Hidden Agendas


Service Organizations Lacking Organization/Structure





This research found that service providers perceived service as rewarding but limited and overall an experience from which learning was a priority. They also viewed service providers as all having caring attitudes; however, they were also perceived as often having hidden agendas. With respect to context of prior experience, most participants had been on one or two service trips, and for nearly all, Haiti was their first experience in a Third-World country, as is depicted in Figures 2 and 3. In the process of self-reflection, the research found four major areas of interest regarding service and service providers: self-role, self-action, assessment of other, and inferential definition of service.

Figure 2: Context of Prior Experience (1 of 2)


Figure 3: Context of Prior Experience (2 of 2)

This research found that the role of service as defined by service providers was primarily a material/physical role, as was evident by commentary on building structures, implementing systems, and providing labor assistance. In fact, as Figure 4 shows, out of the people sampled, 45 percent (four people) felt that the primary role of a service provider was material/physical, 33 percent (three people) felt that serving an emotional role was primary, and 22 percent (two people) felt providing monetary support was primary.

Figure 4: Definition of Self-Role

Further, the research found that the perceived role of self in others, or the perception of other service providers, was caring but sometimes deceptive. That is, they felt that while all service providers had caring attitudes, they appeared to also have hidden agendas. Figure 5 depicts these results explaining that of the sample, 33 percent (five people) perceived service providers to have caring attitudes, 27 percent (four people) felt that there was also a presence of detrimental hidden agendas, and 20 percent (three people) believed that the service organizations where the providers worked lacked structure. Further, 20 percent (three people) had what was classified as other perceptions.

Figure 5: Self-Role in Others

The research on the concept of self in action revealed that although the work accomplished was rewarding, service providers felt they could have done more. Figure 6 shows, of the sample, 46 percent (five people) felt that they could have done more with regards to service provided, 27 percent (three people) felt that the service was rewarding for all parties, 18 percent (two people) felt their service was limited by available resources, and 9 percent (one person) mentioned the learning gained from service.

Figure 6: Self In Action

In terms of the assessment of the other, this research found that organization, funding, and learning/open-mindedness were the most important characteristics of service organizations. However, efficiency and community involvement were almost equally represented. These findings can be seen in Figure 7, which shows organization, funding, and learning mentioned each by 18 percent of the sample as important characteristics of service organizations, and following that, efficiency and community involvement were both mentioned by 14 percent of the sample, and 18 percent mentioned other qualities, including support, safety, and explicit goals.

Figure 7: Assessment of Other

Finally, this research looked at the inferential definition of service. As discovered through the findings, open-mindedness was mentioned the most as a key aspect of service. Figure 8 depicts the full results of the participants inferential definition of service and planning for such service trips: Of the sample, 36 percent mentioned open-mindedness or learning from the community as the most noteworthy part of service, 29 percent said thorough planning and organization, 21 percent said extensive research prior to the service, and 14 percent emphasized having a clearly developed and realistic purpose of the service to be provided.

Figure 8: Inferential Definition of Service


Generally speaking, although certain tag words came up more than others, the concepts presented by the participants in the research tended to be more evolved and complex than the tallying of words could adequately represent. For instance, one participant explained, “The term service provider is anyone who provides service to another individual or group that is in need of assistance. I wouldn’t consider people providing only monetary or physical donations to people in need as good service providers, but I would still consider them service providers.” In this case, a service provider is seen to potentially play all of the roles the frequency analysis looked for, but value is now associated with the meaning of each role. This participant continued to say, “The best service providers have intentions of assisting the group of people that they are working with to become self-sustaining and independent.” What is really interesting is that for this particular participant, the service trip to Haiti was both the first service trip and first experience in a Third-World country. Thus, through the self-reflective research process, these ideas and levels of thought were reached. The idea of helping the people to help themselves was a commonly inferred definition of service across the responses.

Further, it was very interesting to see the research in this study parallel the concepts displayed through the literature review. Specifically, with regards to dependency, the research concluded that service organizations must be cautious in how their work is done to reduce the risk of causing dependency. This is exemplified through one participant’s response:

Positive characteristics of a service program are providing guidance, knowledge, and some physical and monetary assistance. The first two are the most important because if you only give physical and monetary support, the people you are helping will become dependent and never be able to survive by themselves. By providing guidance and knowledge, you give them the power to be self-sustaining, and that is when you give some physical and monetary assistance in order to help them get started.”

In this way, the research fits well with the concepts presented by prior literature, in terms of power, dependency, and oppression, which was also seen through responses to delve deeper into the value of service.

Another participant quote worth highlighting was, “Overall, I think Haiti has a lot of structural issues: too many NGO’s doing the same thing, government and police corruption, a lack of infrastructure. These are things that cannot be turned around on a service trip. It is a much bigger problem than sending in young adults by the hundreds to give a week of service.” This provokes some interesting considerations that were not examined in this research but would be interesting to study. That is, where should service begin? From the participant responses, various definitions of service arise, but they also mention further considerations that affect what in fact service does. The service provider, which is the main perspective of this research, is only one aspect of service, a necessary one to consider, but there is much beyond that is highly influential as well. It would be interesting to see how these various aspects interplay in what service is, what it means, and what the consequences or repercussions are of service on the providers and those receiving service.


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Supplemental Material

I. Frequency Analyses for Participant Responses to Questionnaire

Table 2: Frequency for Self-Role Definition

Role of Service Provider

Frequency Across Responses

Material/Physical Role


Emotional/Mental Role


Monetary Role


Table 3: Frequency for Self-Role in Other

Perceptions of Other Service Providers

Frequency Across Responses

Caring Attitudes


Presence of Detrimental Hidden Agendas


Service Organizations Lacking Organization/Structure




Table 4: Frequency for Self In Action

Perceptions of Service Provided by Participants

Frequency Across Responses

Could Have Done More


Rewarding for all Parties


Limited by Resources


Both Sides Learned


Table 5: Frequency for Assessment of Other

Characteristics of a Service Program

Frequency Across Responses







Efficiency/Utilization of Resources


Community Involvement




Table 6: Frequency for Inferential Definition of Service

Advice and Suggestions for Service Providers

Frequency Across Responses

Open-minded/Learn from the Communities


Thoroughly Plan and Organize


Research Extensively


Have a Clearly Developed and Realistic Purpose




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