SST changes lives one person – and country – at a time
By Stuart W. Showalter

CV Image Jen Ryan ’00, of Elkhart, Ind., had never set foot outside the United States before heading to Costa Rica for her Study-Service Term (SST) as a sophomore nursing major. She has returned five times to the country and plans to volunteer there in the long term as a nurse.

Today, Jen works primarily with minority and immigrant patients at a community health center. In this setting, she uses her Spanish all the time. “My views on the world and people in general have changed,” she said, “especially in how I relate with people from different economic classes. I have more patience, more sensitivity and more awareness of spiritual needs” – qualities she attributes directly to her SST experience.

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SST also had a lasting influence on David Leaman ’85, who lives in Chicago. Soon after arriving in Nicaragua in June 1984, David met and talked politics with some young Nicaraguan men about his age. Two decades later, he reflected, “I wonder what happened to Marvin and Dennis and Carlos, what paths their lives took – whether they were able to make it through the war, what opportunities they have had to contribute to their society.”

David’s experience on SST in Honduras and Nicaragua helped clear a path that led to his career as associate professor of comparative politics at Northeastern Illinois University: “I explore questions related to political and social change in Latin America – and try to contribute in some small way to building meaningful democracy in my country too.”

David and Jen’s stories are only two of many that emerged from a study conducted in 2004-06 on the long-range impact of the Goshen College SST program. Yet, these stories illustrate powerfully the potential of the SST program to influence the lives of those who choose to study and serve in a significantly different country. Nearly 7,000 Goshen College students have participated in this innovative international laboratory since its inception in 1968.

The research study was based on a survey of 1,358 randomly selected alumni who had participated in SST during the years 1968-98; 661 respondents completed a 75-item questionnaire for a response rate of 48 percent. Findings from this study strongly indicate that SST has a profound influence on students’ lives. Among the major findings:
  • A remarkable 91.5 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “SST was one of my most important life experiences.”
  • Four out of five SST alumni agreed that “my SST experience strengthened my faith.”
  • Two out of five reported that they have served with a mission or service agency since graduation, half of these for at least one year.
  • SST’s use of host families and citizens of the host countries as teachers and service supervisors was endorsed by more than 90 percent of respondents.
  • Maintaining contact with host families has proved challenging, with contact falling off markedly after three years. Still, 16 percent of respondents have been in touch with hosts after four years. In addition, almost one in five graduates has made a return visit to the host country since returning from SST.
  • SST sites, either by country or language grouping, made little difference in students’ appreciation for the overall value of the program; they viewed the experience as significant in every location.
  • SST has implications for graduates’ careers, but not in effecting abrupt changes in academic majors. Rather, the experience tends to open new options along career paths already chosen, such as providing unanticipated opportunities to connect with sub-populations of clients or customers or patients or students. Almost 60 percent of the respondents noted specific ways SST had contributed to their careers.
  • SST students form lifelong friendships with each other, with 16 percent of respondents reporting that they remain in touch with other members of their SST group. Some students proudly noted that they had formed life-time partnerships on SST through marriage.
  • The Study-Service Term has appeal for potential students, with almost 60 percent of the respondents agreeing that “SST was a major factor in my decision to attend Goshen College.”