The core of GESI is the collaboration and relationship building that takes place through students' in-country work and experience. What makes GESI unique is how these interactions are shaped and understood through the rigorous preparation and reflection which provides an academic foundation for their fieldwork. Furthermore, students develop the analytical and interpersonal tools to engage, critique, and understand the challenges of community development at an international level.

Before Leaving the States: Pre-Departure Coursework

The GESI program starts on Northwestern’s campus where students take two Northwestern courses focused on building an understanding of their role in the process of international immersion and community development. In addition to two academically rigorous Northwestern courses, students will attend country-specific sessions, learn about development topics from practitioners, and attend language classes to prepare them for time abroad. GESI students will also work closely with a team of program alumni and student instructors, who will provide academic and personal support, assist in teaching activities, and prepare feedback on GESI students’ weekly reports throughout the summer.

See the 2018 Welcome Packet for a glimpse of a typical schedule.


  • Summer
Doing Development: The Theory and Practice of Community Engagement


Professor Paul Arntson

Course Description:

This course helps GESI students strengthen local community development efforts by identifying and harnessing existing community assets. The practical lessons in this course include asset mapping and identifying processes that improve intra- and inter-team communication and relationships. The objectives of this course are (1) to prepare students to successfully execute community engagement work with host organizations or local host communities, (2) to provide structure for their work in-country (3) to teach students how to reflect collaboratively and meaningfully on their learning experiences when they return. Through this method of preparation, implementation, and evaluation, students become more competent collaborative change-agents in their communities and institutions.

Development in the Global Context


Diego Arispe-Bazán

Course Description:

This course combines intensive classroom and structured experiential learning to analyze community-based international development. Students examine fundamental debates over the nature and goals of international development, alternative approaches to development work, the common assumptions employed in development work, the effects of power in development work, and the theory and practice of community-based development. In addition, students will be introduced to the political, social, economic, cultural and geographic characteristics of each host country that are most relevant for development. During fieldwork, students apply these principles to design and implement a small-scale community development project with peers and community partners. Through a series of written assignments, students use their time in the field to conduct interviews and additional research to analyze core questions and controversies within international development. Students reconvene at Northwestern to examine individual experiences and research in the field, as well as compare experiences with GESI peers who worked in other countries and different development sectors. Students draw lessons from these comparisons and articulate their own arguments about international development work.

Open Letters

Open Letters were introduced to GESI in the summer of 2014, in collaboration with GESI India 2011 alumnae, Danielle Littman and Ariel Maschke, as an exercise to deepen reflective practice, reinforce group formation and provide opportunities for students to convey the impact of their experiences and engagement in new ways. Ariel and Danielle were exposed to "Open Letters" through Robert Gundlach's Writing for Social Change course at Northwestern. In technical terms, an open letter is a one-page response to a communal prompt, addressed most often to your colleagues or peers. It is personal writing, purposefully shared. In GESI, Open Letters provide an opportunity to have creative space for reflection and expression. The Open Letters process also serves to build trust and foster accountability within GESI groups. Students select one Open Letters prompt per week to respond to from a list of 8-10 prompts. At the end of each week, students gather with their teams to share their letters. Sample prompts include: a) Write a letter to someone back home about what you wish they could understand; b) Write about what you wish you could say to someone you've met in-country, but can't or don't know how; c)  Write about an image you'd never seen, or experience you'd never had, before this week.

Starting in Summer 2015, GESI started capturing recordings of students sharing their Open Letters at a Story Slam event during GESI's Final Reflection Summit. Moving forward, select stories will be shared. GESI is working to integrate Open Letters as a reintegration tool to encourage on-going reflective practice as students return home and continue to process their GESI experiences. Additionally, the use of the Open Letters will be expanding its framework as an alumni engagement activity.

Listen to the recent Open Letter Story Slam!

Upon Return: Final Reflection Summit

We believe reflection is an integral–and often missing–component of study abroad programs. The GESI Final Reflection Summit, which takes place at Northwestern, is designed to help students contextualize their international community development experiences within the larger issues of international development theory and practice. The Summit helps them process and reflect on their work with GESI, as well as  compare and contrast their abroad experience with those of other students. Through guest speakers, students are also introduced to paths to stay engaged with the issues they care about most. During the Final Reflection Summit, students will submit and present a group project poster.

See the 2018 Final Reflection Summit Packet for more details about this component of the GESI program.