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Teaching Forum - “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve:”

A Journal of the the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Sunday October 26, 2008 Edition

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“Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve:”
Service-Learning Partnerships in Smaller Communities

By Peggy Walsh


The movement towards voluntarism and civic participation among college students is widespread in the United States.  My conversations with students across the spectrum of age, gender, and social class indicate high levels of engagement in community service in their pre-college lives.  Some examples of their involvement are highly personal and interactive, such as coaching, tutoring or visiting the elderly, while others are resource-driven or behind-the-scenes, like collecting for a food pantry, or fund-raising for a nonprofit organization. Upon reflection, some students describe their helpfulness as motivated by religious or humanitarian beliefs, encouragement from their schools or parents to "give back," a desire to "look good" on a college or job application, or a combination of factors.  Some students resent the perceived "mandate" to volunteer in our culture.  Others report that it is one way to "reach out" and "feel connected" to other people outside of their ordinary networks of family and friends.  Many have never really thought about the value of service.  It is likely that both other-interest and self-interest lead young people to spend some of their leisure time in service to others.  Rural locations present challenges and opportunities.   This paper examines how applying a sociological lens to a regional out of school program resulted in better knowledge of community resources, an increased investment in service learning, and practical information for local leaders.

Service Learning

Over the last decade Robert Putnam brought attention to the loss of community (social capital) in the United States, and recent discussions ensued about how to rebuild the norms and networks that create and sustain mutually beneficial relationships.  Educators and researchers began to question more deeply who was involved in building strong communities, where and why.  What we rediscovered was that a cultural shift in education towards integrating service and learning had been happening over the last several decades.  In 1985, university presidents came together to form Campus Compact, a national effort to encourage engaged civic participation.  Student volunteerism and community service is alive and well.  

However, scholars have also expressed community service-learning concerns.  Dating back to the late 1960s, Ivan Illich delivered a scathing speech, "To Hell with Good Intentions," to a conference of community service volunteers.  He described volunteers as "benevolent invaders…..pretentiously imposing" themselves on disadvantaged people in their own spaces.  Although he directed his remarks towards US volunteers abroad, he warned of the potential damage of arrogant attempts to fix other people's problems.  He criticized the tendency to overlook cultural differences, ignore language barriers and the neglect of interpersonal communication that might bring mutual understanding.  Illich suggested that we look closer to home when seeking opportunities to be helpful.  Professors currently designing serving learning courses, however, must apply caution to the home front as well. 

Margaret Himley's more recent (2004) article, "Facing (Up To) 'The Stranger' in Community Service Learning" argues college-community relations are political. No matter how reciprocal and collaborative these relationships are described in public, professors and students tend to be "researchers" and community members the "subjects,"  and the ultimate product (whether it is a paper, a presentation or something else) is almost always the possession of the authors, who are the student researchers representing what they have seen and analyzed. Himley advised educators to address the power dynamics of college-community relationships by "historicizing the 'interest' in service learning expressed by contemporary politicians, more and more universities, and certain majors…" (p. 435).

Students' Views

While college students may be fully socialized into volunteer culture, the skepticism articulated above strongly resonates with them.  The requirement of service strikes a particularly negative chord.  After all, they point out, some criminal sentences include community service mandates.  Without thoughtful integration, community service can feel like "a punishment, a hassle, and a diversion, pointless."  These comments point to the need for authenticity.  Students can learn a great deal, they say, from purposeful, meaningful community work where they are making a real contribution, doing something they have not done before, and gaining an understanding of people's lives.

Students welcome experiential learning that is contextualized, connected to personal values, and relevant to their future.  Similarly, many professors appreciate approaches for service learning to achieve course outcomes and encourage reflection.  With smaller staff and fewer resources, rural community programs may be especially well suited to college partnerships.  Campus-based service-learning offices are incredibly helpful for facilitating contacts.  Land-grant universities, cooperative extension programs, and public liberal arts colleges historically have had considerable in this arena.

Situated Learning in Applied Settings

A variety of pedagogical tools and research methods are well suited to social science and sciences, arts, humanities, and professional studies coursework.   Employing a sociological perspective, participant observation, interviews, and questionnaires are a few examples from my discipline.   For example, students in the sociology capstone I taught last fall sought to understand the way that "social domains" of families, schools, and out of school programs interact (Garey 2004).   After reading Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods, a qualitative study of families in a metropolitan area, students were struck by the markedly different opportunities and constraints for school-aged children according to social class background.  Concerted cultivation, a popular childrearing strategy among wealthier families and parents with high educational attainment, involves intensive investment of time and money in children's enrichment activities.  By contrast, the accomplishment of natural growth is family socialization that gives children more leisure time with relatives and friends, more freedom from structure, but less attention to individual talents and academic interests.  Contemporary culture appears to reward the former strategy as evidenced by the college admission process.  Yet the students recognized the social value of each approach and wondered to what extent families in nonmetropolitan areas might reflect a combination of the two prototypes.   How might structure and freedom, enrichment and fun (!)  converge at the site of before- and after-school care?  To what extent do out-of-school programs in rural communities mirror the activities taking place in homes?  How might these be different?   What kind of care is available to parents who are not in the home during nonschool hours?  Can out of school programs reduce inequality As Garey (2004) notes, "care is alternatively defined as nurturing protection, instruction, or containment? The collision between these competing definitions explains some of the confusion and passion in debates about child care."

Having established that an "authentic context" is important for learning and service, we created a class project where students could practice situated learning in a setting with opportunities for participation, observation, and collaboration.  Students learned from children and program staff (the "experts") in their day-to-day activities.

The Community Partner

In July 2007 the Monadnock School District was awarded a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant by the U.S. Department of Education.  This federal program supports academic enrichment out-of-school for students in "high-poverty and low-performing schools."  Several rural school districts in New Hampshire have won grants, students meet state and local student standards in core academic subjects, such as reading and math; offers students a broad array of enrichment activities that can complement their regular academic programs; and offers literacy and other educational services to the families of participating children.

Katherine Newman (2002) suggested that research partnerships can be formed between colleges and communities for evaluation purposes.  She writes, "Students are a good source of research labor and often are very interested in the problems of the poor. …Because most states have a network of public universities distributed throughout the territory, one can use their location to generate appropriately diverse research populations--urban/suburban/rural, multiple ethnic groups, neighborhoods with different levels of poverty, and areas with higher and lower levels of unemployment, could be among those most important to represent.

The out-of-school program (ACCESS) that partnered with us was interested in a partnership to provide some data for program monitoring purposes and to supplement the largely quantitative evaluation plan already in place.  A successful program will bring improved math grades, improved reading scores, improved homework completion and class participation and student behavior – all based on teacher reports.  They wanted to know what we wanted to know too:  Can a community program "cultivate" children regardless of family background?  Can students in a structured program also feel free to explore?  What's going on?  Students selected dates to visit and observe the program in the mornings or afternoons.  They wrote and compared their field notes, interviewed staff, and read through documents that had already solicited parental feedback, and compared these to their own notations.  

The long-term program goal is to establish community learning centers that help students in high-poverty, low-performing schools meet academic achievement standards; to offer a broad array of additional services designed to complement the regular academic program; and to offer families of students opportunities for development.

Through service learning, the students were able to provide descriptive information about what happens over the course of an average day – they reported children's behavior, staff/children interaction, activity selection, transition time.

            The college students shared written and verbal snapshots or "scenes" and they considered what these interactions meant for school children's success.  They recorded their field notes and led a public forum to present and discuss what they saw.  In this way, the "product" was not a research paper or a report authored by a detached observer but a "living" document that could be examined and discussed in a group setting.  They merged the scenes on audio files which were transcribed and passed on to the program coordinators along with summaries of interviews and observations.   Then we held a public forum.

The public discussion focused on strategies for the future, and students stepped forward to continue their involvement through independent studies or volunteerism.  Working directly with programs that seek out sociological thinking and research methods allows students to see first-hand how the skills they are learning in class apply in a practical setting.  Students reported that they felt confident about speaking up on a topic they had studied and analyzed in a real-life situation.   The learning happened when students researched the mission and goals of the partner agency, and the enthusiasm increased when they saw the reciprocity of collaborative partnership.   Bringing the program staff into the college classroom to identify questions to be answered was as important as moving beyond the classroom to participate and observe out-of-school.  The service component is the connection to a program and its participants, expanding the "realm of the possible" through engaged, meaningful, experienced that provide a service to local rural programs.   

Thank You to Chris Brown, Erin Eames, Abby Feather, Jessica Kipka, Peter Lauranzano, Nate Lesch-Huie, Grisel Levene, Danielle Love, Shannon McSpiritt, Jesse Miller, Ashleigh Shepard, Ashley Spencer, Ben Wimett, members of the social stratification seminar, fall 2007, Jeremy Miller, ACCESS NH Program Director, Service-Learning Center, Keene State College, Ann Rancourt, Associate Dean, Keene State College, and the students and staff at Gilsum, Troy, and Winchester, NH sites for allowing us to visit and speak with them.


Garey, A. [interview]. (Sept., 2004). Conversations with the experts: A look at afterschool care."  The Network News: A Sloan Work-Family News Publication 6(5), September, pp.1-5 (Newsletter of the Sloan Work and Family Research Network Network, Boston College). This interview is available on the Internet at: http://wfnetwork.bc.edu/The_Network_News/03/The_Network_News_Interview03.pdf

Himley, Margaret.  (2004).  "Facing (up to) 'The Stranger' in community service learning." College Composition and Communication 55,3.

Illich. I.  (1968).  "To hell with good intentions."  From the Service Learning Reader: Reflections and Perspectives on Service available through the National Society for Internships and Experiential Education This essay is available on the Internet at: http://www.nsee.org

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: legitimate periperal participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lareau, A.  (2003).  Unequal childhoods.  Berkeley:  University of California Press. 

Mihalynuk, T. and S. Seifer. (Aug., 2007).  "Higher Education Service-Learning in Rural Communities."  Community Campus Partnerships for Health.   http://www.servicelearning.org

Newman, K.  (2002).  "The right (soft) stuff:  qualitative methods and the study of welfare reform" in Studies of Welfare Populations:  Data Collection and Research Issues  edited by  Michele Ver Ploeg, Robert A. Moffitt, and Constance F. Citro, Committee on National Statistics, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council.  This report is available on the Internet at: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/welf-res-data-issues02

Putnam, R.  (2001.)  Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.

Putnam, R. and L. Feldstein.  (2004.)  Better Together: Restoring the American Community. New York:  Simon & Schuster.

CopyrightUW System

Margaret Walsh is Associate Professor of Sociology, Keene State College, New Hampshire.