Service learning: Creating leaders, fueling optimism
By Robin Noble
As we wind toward the winter holidays, the good work of college students is a bright light in an otherwise bleak news cycle.
Some of the most inspiring work can be found in a sector of university life called service learning.
Service learning combines academic instruction with meaningful community service. College students who participate are simultaneously focused on giving and taking: their time and talents for invaluable experiences, practical knowledge and a much broader perspective.
Parents, is your student looking to find or expand a circle of friends? Is she curious about the world and raring for practical experience? Is she a natural leader, seeking opportunities to practice her skills and gain new ones? Service learning offers her a combination of perspective and payback she won’t get anywhere else.
What to look for
Innovative service learning programs can be found on campuses throughout the country. Some of the most accomplished were cited by U.S. News & World Report recently in a listing of the top 25 service learning institutions, derived from a survey of college presidents, chief academic officers, and deans of students and admissions.
Butler University in Indianapolis is on the list. Its Center for Citizenship and Community takes care to define what service learning is not: stand-alone volunteering, charity, donations and philanthropy. Rather, the university states, service learning is “academic learning linked to relevant community service.”
This is a key distinction, and something about which students should be mindful. The time and commitment required by service work can be intense, so the links to learning should be strong.
Butler graduate Stephen Cornelius served at the Indiana School for the Blind and the Visually Impaired as part of a service learning initiative. “I found myself making friends, sharing stories, and most importantly, connecting with others. Those connections made all the difference,” he says.
Beyond showing up
In effective service learning, students respond to authentic social needs through community service that is integrated into the curriculum and accompanied by systematic reflection.
Consider for example, Evan Cooper, a politics major at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine who engaged in service learning through a constitutional law class. He volunteered with a non-profit law firm, helping to provide legal aid to those who couldn’t afford it. He helped with client intake, essentially managing the initial client interview for the firm. He helped families gather paperwork; he returned phone calls and answered questions. It was gritty, time-consuming work but the outcomes were worthwhile.
“I hoped this would help me decide if I wanted to pursue law school, and I think that it has,” he said. “I believe that a liberal arts education tends to help broaden your understanding of other people and the world. It has fostered my desire to get involved with the community and work toward the rights of low-income families.”
Mr. Cooper’s internship was coordinated through Bates’ Harward Center for Community Partnerships, the university’s hub for a wide range of community engagement activities.
Bates tops the U.S. News ranking, with more than a third of its students taking a service learning course each year, and many embarking on community-engaged research projects.
Reflecting on travel-based service
At Elon University in North Carolina, students have many opportunities to integrate learning and service. The university’s Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement houses a student-led volunteer program, coordinates Elon’s academic service learning programs, and sponsors the university’s Alternative Breaks Program (part of the national Break Away organization).
Alternative breaks are short-term, immersive service experiences that occur during university breaks; they are essential do-good options for spending summer, spring break, winter break, etc. According to Break Away, nearly 24,000 college students participated in alternative breaks in 2015.
A lot has been written about misinformed or overly idealistic college students traveling for service, a perspective Elon students have taken to heart.
“We believe that travel-based service learning is messy and complicated, and can unfortunately be laden with past colonialist attitudes, but that it can be done right if education, reciprocity, and critical reflection are prioritized,” writes Kim Lilienthal and Evan Small, editors of the Elon student-authored book More Than Just A Trip.
More Than Just a Trip is a collection of Elon students’ reflections on their service travel in the United States and Central America.
Service learning to connect
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, freshmen and transfer students spend three days before classes begin immersed in service programs around Chapel Hill. This unique, student-led orientation provides an immersive introduction to an array of service learning opportunities.
“We love to have students work with us because it combines the efforts of the university and the community. It gets them outside the university bubble,” said George Barrett, associate director of Organizing and Advocacy at Heavenly Groceries in Chapel Hill. “It’s great to see how students connect with the community. They make some great inter-generational connections and bond to do good work.”
“(The program) has had a tremendous impact on my Carolina life from introducing me to the world of service opportunities in the community, to providing me with the chance to hold a leadership position for the program I love,” says UNC student Courtney Bain.
Adding justice to the equation
Boston College is a Jesuit university, and as such has a central goal of preparing graduates to work for a more just society. The school offers students opportunities to “develop a deeper understanding about the social injustices that contribute to inadequate living conditions for so many of our neighbors.”
BC’s metropolitan location means there are many nitty gritty issues to address. Its service learning programs focus on issues like immigration detention, homelessness, human trafficking, criminal justice reform and education reform.
Like other effective service learning institutions, BC has created a primary portal for all service activity offered at the school, the Volunteer and Service Learning Center. The outreach of such a hub is extensive; the center recently helped coordinate an interfaith vigil for Syrian refugees, co-sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the Muslim Student Association.
Patterns in the news cycle are instructive. From time to time a terrible thing will happen. Journalists descend and the dispatches reverberate for days and weeks. Blockbuster tragedies are branded with titles and logos. Movie stars weigh in. Facebook alternately rages and resounds with tirades and tributes.
Rightly so, but the crush of attention on a big happening can sometimes steal attention from the constant, small miracles alight in the world. The ceaseless good work of college students – as simple volunteers or engaged service learners – seems to qualify as one of these.
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