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Service learning and civic engagement

By Amanda Knopf


I chose my job recruiting and training college students to mentor and improve college access for low-income, first-generation or otherwise at-risk middle school students for many reasons but one in particular: I believe that by inspiring college students to get involved in their communities, together we can have a greater impact than I could alone.

Giving college students space to have their voices heard, helping them value, appreciate and learn from their own and others’ diverse identities and experiences, and teaching them to be engaged citizens is the most important work any educator can do.

Teaching students how to have a positive impact on the lives of others should be crucial learning outcomes for any institution of higher education. My dream is for my students eventually to have these same goals for the people with whom they interact every day no matter what career they pursue.

Commonplace as civic learning may seem on college campuses today, John Saltmarsh notes in an article on the Association of American Colleges and University website that it wasn’t until the early 1990s that service and academics were commonly woven together. Here is information to share with your students about how civic education (either through a formal service learning program or by volunteering on their own) can enrich their college experience and preparation for a future career.

Encourage your student to take initiative when it comes to how they learn.

“Civic engagement” is a popular buzzword in higher education, but on many campuses, passive, lecture-style education remains the status quo. While large lectures may not be entirely avoidable at some universities, classes with a service-learning component tend to be smaller, with more active participation required both in and out of class.

Encourage your college student to explore service learning and civic engagement opportunities.

Whether your student majors in pre-med, business or English, they will benefit from taking at least one class involving experiential learning and a closer relationship with the professor, peers and community mentors. At Duke University, service learning courses are offered in 40 academic subject areas and involve 20 volunteer hours which are “integrally related to the academic subject matter of the course.” In addition, students are asked to reflect on the ethical and civic dimensions of their experience. Examples include “Chemistry Outreach: Sharing Chemistry with the Community,” a dance course titled “Performing Sexual Health,” and a writing course called “The Pet Connection” that examines therapeutic rehabilitation programs like “Puppies Behind Bars” and equine therapy for children with autism.

Resist the negative stereotype of electives.

Many service learning, leadership or civic engagement classes still carry the burden of being an elective, which implies “easy,” “GPA booster” and “not necessary,” but in reality this label describes a class that, rather than fitting into one academic discipline, involves lessons applicable to any major and is often more time-consuming than a traditional course. The 2014 White House Summit on Civic Learning and National Service concluded that the attitude in academia toward civic engagement and service learning must shift from “elective and available to pervasive and expected.” Colleges across the country have worked to make these types of courses as rigorous and their outcomes as measureable as those of core courses. They no longer deserve to be seen as a sacrifice for a more prestigious course title on a transcript or a copout to receive an easy A.

Civic engagement opportunities are more than a line on a resumé.

While useful as resumé builders for recent college grads, active learning offers so much more than can be contained on a piece of paper. Engaged students will gain historical, political and cultural knowledge of the community in which they serve, learn skills such as how to communicate and problem-solve effectively with people of diverse backgrounds and opinions, how to lead and work as team, and how to apply their classroom learning to real-life situations.

Resumés almost never convey a person’s traits — like being a self-starter, able to inspire others toward a common goal, and eager to go beyond expectations — or values, such as diversity, inclusion and social justice, which employers may use to set top choices apart from equally qualified applicants. Since many service learning programs employ reflection as a learning tool, students will be well-equipped to talk about what they learned and how the experience helped them grow. At Washington University in St. Louis, for example, students can enroll in a course where they are paired with a local start-up to work on management consulting projects. This type of real-world experience will be invaluable when students enter the job market.

Break the bubble.

Even at schools most vocally committed to service learning and civic engagement, there remains a “bubble” around the campus that can make it hard for students to be truly involved in the community. With everything one needs on campus — food, social events, study spots, lectures by visitors from outside the college — students may be hard pressed to ever feel a need to get out into the larger community. Even if your student does not take a service learning class, urge them to use campus resources to find a volunteer opportunity off campus. This can be a unique opportunity to meet people besides students and professors and broaden their understanding of and appreciation for the place where they are living for four (or more) years.

 A natural way to network

With an eye to future job/grad school prospects, college students, especially juniors and seniors, are advised to make connections with people in their field. This can be harder than it sounds, but volunteering is one way to learn how different organizations work, forge relationships with supervisors and co-workers, and open doors to a future job or recommendation letters. Taking a course with service learning or civic engagement requirements makes finding these opportunities and making connections easier, and the course work (often journal-style reflections) will help your student connect their service to their desired career even if the two seem unrelated.

College students have real power to make a difference! Encourage your student to explore service-learning or other civic engagement opportunities at their institution.

 

Amanda Knopf teaches community engagement and service learning classes at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. She also tutors high school and college students in English, writing and test prep through the national tutoring service, Varsity Tutors. Amanda graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2012 and then earned a Masters in English from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Amanda is passionate about improving equity in higher education and college access for disadvantaged students, and also about softball — she played in college and has extensive coaching experience.

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