Learning doesn’t have to stop at the classroom door. Many schools have developed relationships with community partners so they can offer service-learning programs to their students in a way that is integrated with certain classes. These are programs that put students into the community as volunteers and interns, allowing them to put their coursework into practice in real-world settings.
By participating in structured volunteer opportunities, students gain valuable experience that can help them plan careers while at the same time giving back to the community.
During and after these experiences, research shows that students bring their new knowledge to their coursework, providing a deeper understanding and appreciation of their discipline.
Examples of Service-Learning
- Campus-Wide Volunteer Day: Students from across the university gather to provide assistance in a collective manner. Examples include a day helping to build homes, cleaning up waterways, reading to children, or providing meals on a large scale.
- First-Year Community Projects: These are specifically designed for first-year students, and may be one-day or ongoing programs that encourage students to interact with members of their local community.
- Service-Learning Components: Service-learning components are organized courses that require a service-learning element, with a minimum number of hours of volunteering and a reflection exercise. These are especially common within ‘helping professions’ such as health care, social work, conflict studies, and so on, but are increasingly found in standard academic courses as well.
- Independent Service-Learning Courses: Similar to internships, these courses provide students with long-term opportunities to put their academic knowledge and skills to work within the community, followed up with a paper that synthesizes the experience as part of a student’s academic degree.
- Alternative Spring Breaks: These immersion experiences allow students to test the waters of service, cause-based activism, leadership-building, or relationship-building programs that enrich their lives while giving them a chance to interact with the world outside of the classroom.
In working with community members, often people less-fortunate than themselves, students experience the challenges that comes from being outside of their comfort zones. They are able to observe the issues from their classes first-hand, coming to a better understanding of problems as well as solutions. Students learn teamwork, leadership, responsibility, and the value of volunteerism. By working within the community, students further gain the satisfaction of knowing that their efforts and skills have made a difference.
How does Service-Learning Improve Student Outcomes?
Like other forms of experiential learning, students gain the opportunity to put their academic knowledge to work in a real-life setting. Such experiences reinforce the lessons from the classroom while allowing students to test theories and challenge expectations. Students must work with both peers and community members in unstructured environments, forcing them to learn responsibility, organization, teamwork, and leadership. These environments push students to develop necessary problem-solving skills, value civic engagement, and develop emotional maturity. They may also gain an appreciation for different cultures and populations as they confront issues of poverty, racism, environmental issues, crime, and discrimination.
How Schools Implement Service-Learning
Hollins University, Roanoke VA
At Hollins University, students can participate in a number of international service-learning programs. In the School for Field Studies, students engage in research in ecology, environmental concerns, and sustainable development while assisting communities in locations such as Costa Rica and Kenya. There’s also an annual program that allows students to participate in a service-learning experience in Lucea, Jamaica.
College of Charleston, Charleston, SC
College of Charleston students have the opportunity to participate in alternative spring-break service projects. They may travel to urban areas to help the homeless or provide environmental cleanup, or they can travel to locations such as the Dominican Republic to help with schools. In Charleston, many students also engage in service-learning projects such as the annual MLK Challenge.
Barry University, Miami, FL
At Barry University, the Center for Community Service Initiatives are at the heart of volunteering on campus. They organize activities for faculty, staff, and students to promote social justice. Some of their past projects include building awareness for human trafficking, advocating for farmworkers’ rights, and creating art projects for at-risk teens.