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Rich Harris


Promoting positive change through Community Service-Learning

By Will Weaver

Editor's Note: Will Weaver, now deceased JMU parent, submitted this tribute to Rich Harris, director of community service-learning at JMU, who has created an environment where all members of a university community can come together to change the world one person at a time.

In January 2007, as JMU students trekked back to Harrisonburg after a month-long winter break, some were readjusting and settling back into their dorm rooms or apartments while others were simply trying to come to grips with the reality that spring semester was indeed about to begin. At the same time, JMU administrator Rich Harris was doing some settling and mental preparation of his own. Why? Because he was not in the familiar surroundings of Harrisonburg, he was nearly 9,000 miles away on the opposite side of the world in a remote village in Thailand living without electricity and running water.

"Being immersed into another culture results in a much richer, deeper and powerful learning experience."

Gaining different perspectives

Prior to this excursion into the Thai hinterlands, Harris, associate director of the JMU Community Service-Learning program, spent a week in Chiang Mai attending a worldwide conference sponsored by the International Partnership for Service-Learning, a nonprofit educational organization offering unique study-abroad programs to students by combining academic study with volunteer service.

The conference offered panels on a variety of topics like leadership, participatory governance, sustainable development and justice, and gave Harris and 250 other participants from 26 countries an opportunity to enhance their service-learning skills. Conference attendees also learned tips on applying these skills in their own institutions or organizations. Harris said, “My favorite panels were the ones that introduced different economic and community development perspectives. It was interesting to see different perspectives that valued community development more than material development.”

Embracing Thai culture

For Harris, with his short auburn hair, wiry-framed glasses and a slightly grayed beard, the most rewarding experience was his firsthand interaction with Thai culture. Harris spent three days exploring the Chiang Mai Province where he rode an elephant through dense rainforests and took a tour of a sustainable farming community before the conference began.

“Our group rode the elephants for about an hour through the jungle and then attended a demonstration of the traditional ways Thailand has used elephants in the past,” said Harris. “The Elephant Institute is a Royal Project sponsored by Thailand’s king to preserve the traditional Thai custom of using elephants for labor, logging and farming. However, now that Thailand is an industrialized nation it has very little use for elephants today. It’s a wonderful example of positive tourism.”

After the conference, Harris and seven others participated in a Jan. 11–16 optional service project among the Lahu people in a rural Thai village to which they traveled for three hours along unpaved roads in the back of an old pickup truck. “It was like driving on the Appalachian Trail,” Harris said in his enthusiastic southern accent.

Once in the village, Harris was totally immersed into the Lahu culture: Living in a hut, watching the people slaughter chickens for dinner, helping to prepare meals, weaving baskets, attending the local school and even washing dishes. “They [villagers] thought it was a hoot when I washed the dishes,” said Harris with a large smile. “In Lahu society men rarely wash the dishes.”

Rich Harris with students at poster session
Rich Harris talks with JMU students about Community Service-Learning opportunities.

Learning from a collaborative culture

Harris said that Lahu people can spend days working on a single task like stripping bark from bamboo to make baskets. “In the U.S. this may not seem too productive, but the effort in which the Lahu people come together and work toward a common goal produces a communal spirit that is rare in the U.S.” He was also amazed by the interaction among the people as they performed tasks in the village while oftentimes laughing and telling stories. “They have little stress, and individuals are guided by working together more than by schedules.”

According to Harris, Lahu villagers subsist almost exclusively on their own crops and animals, and grow only the amount of food they need. It is not a cash economy, so collaboration and relationships are highly valued and rewarded.

“In a materialistic society like the U.S., we often lose touch with the community aspect. Whereas our society may only ask 'What’s in it for me?' and not 'What’s good for the community?' In the Lahu village, community and working together are essential parts of their culture and survival.”

Even as isolated as the Lahu people are from the rest of the world, Harris said westernization is gradually creeping in. In a village without electricity, people use car batteries to listen to the radio and Western commercial clothing is increasingly replacing traditional garb, which results in an increasing number of villagers selling products like baskets at the local market to raise money to buy luxury items.

For their service work, Harris and the group helped a local Christian church build a cement walkway, paint the outside of the building and implement rudimentary toilets. The Lahu village is a Christian village, which is unusual in a predominately Buddhist country.

After spending more than two weeks in Thailand, Harris developed a greater appreciation of cross-cultural learning. “We need more of an international perspective,” said Harris. “We see too much of the world from U.S. lenses. Being immersed into another culture results in a much richer, deeper and powerful learning experience.”

Building JMU's culture of service

For the last eight years, the compassionate, energetic and always smiling Harris has attempted to imbue this spirit through JMU Community Service-Learning projects, which gives students an opportunity to volunteer in a variety of local agencies in the Harrisonburg community. The CS-L Alternative Spring Break program also offers weeklong service projects domestically and abroad.

U.S. News & World Report ranked JMU 24th nationally in 2002 for service-learning programs. That’s the kind of recognition that caught the eye of the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership, which to the delight of Harris invited JMU to become a distinguished partner of the organization.

“We’re always trying to partner with new organizations and find new programs that meet student needs,” said Harris.

JMU senior Brianne Casey participated in an IPS-L&L program this past summer when Casey, an ESL student, spent 12 weeks in Mexico where she studied at the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara. After her morning classes, Casey helped construct a summer program for kids in impoverished suburbs.

She said she just happened to stumble upon the IPS-L&L Web site and decided to investigate further. “I was attracted to IPS-L&L because of the service-work component. I’ve been involved with ASB programs and JMU service learning, so IPS-L&L gave me the opportunity to study abroad and help out the community. I feel like you get to know the place better if you’re not a tourist,” Casey said.

Read more about Rich Harris at

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Published: Monday, February 10, 2014

Last Updated: Monday, February 22, 2021

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