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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: January 4, 2008

Structured ‘service learning’ opens up new opportunities

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

College students have a long and proud history of community service. From neighborhood cleanups to preparing mailers for non-profits to helping in hospitals and child care centers, the energy and good will of college students has been turned to volunteerism across the nation. Catholic universities are especially noteworthy for this since service to others is typically an explicit part of their missions.

Plainly this is good for those who are served. Direct service to children and the elderly, for example, enhances their lives. Uncompensated labor for non-profits can stretch scarce dollars and allow agencies to achieve their core missions for less.

But the volunteer experience is also good for college students themselves. Because Catholic universities are private with high tuitions, many of their students are from relatively wealthy homes. Most have little experience of the many human problems associated with poverty and disease, for example. Volunteering helps them to experience these realities and to appreciate a wider range of human experience. It may also bring them into contact with groups with whom they have had little prior relationship. Thus, volunteering can be an important form of learning for college students.

However, as valuable as these learning opportunities can be, they are also unstructured. Two college students working at the same social service agency may come away with very different understandings depending on a myriad of factors — the people they meet, the conversations they have, their own level of curiosity, etc. Some may have only the satisfaction of having helped, with little understanding of the social situation of the agency’s clients or the challenges faced by the non-profit in providing services.

Learning by helping

Now, however, there is a new movement among American universities to introduce opportunities (and sometimes requirements) for academic course work focused on service. Called “service learning,” it takes the potential for knowledge from a service experience and structures it academically. It ensures that there will be learning from the experience of helping others, a self-conscious learning that can be articulated, tested and graded as with other academic material.

This has long been the case in professional programs. Before a nursing student spends time in a community setting, for example, she or he learns about the nature of the community involved, the incidence and prevalence of illnesses, access to care issues, cultural factors that shape understandings of health and disease, etc.

Throughout the service experience, student encounters with patients and clients are made explicit learning experiences. The conclusion of such an experience might include testing on every aspect of the community clinical reality.

This pattern of educational preparation, service experience and academic reflection is the hallmark of service learning. Standard teaching and learning techniques are wrapped around the service experience. Lectures and assigned readings provide intellectual context.

Exams, papers, journals, oral reports and class discussions help students process the service experience and give it a richer, more connected meaning. These techniques change what might have otherwise been simply an act of volunteerism into a powerful educational experience.

Consider the impact on a student in a service learning course that involves work at a community center in a relatively poor minority area. Learning the history of the community, its current composition and the challenges it faces in the classroom before the service encounter enriches that encounter immeasurably. To have a structured reflection on the experience afterward may well make this a life-changing course.

New faculty role

One other benefit that might not have been anticipated is emerging from the service learning world. In order for faculty members to create such courses, they have to interact with communities and agencies outside the university. A successful service learning course will no doubt be repeated, creating long-standing relationships between university faculty and organizations in need.

Who can say what the long-term implications of this new interface will be for universities and their surrounding communities? But one has to suppose it will be very good for everyone involved.