Written by Michael Rouleau
Willimantic, Conn. – “The world is a better teacher than any classroom.” These words, spoken by Education Professor Mark Fabrizi, address Eastern Connecticut State University’s motive to provide a practical, liberal arts education. That is why hands-on, out-of-class learning experiences are commonplace for students across campus. Whether it’s studying abroad or performing undergraduate research, students engage in practical learning every day of the semester, regardless of their major. One educational strategy in particular that has seen growth at Eastern is “service learning.”
Service learning blends the needs of a community-based organization with the learning of a college student who is interested in that field. What is the result? An up-close learning experience that is beneficial for the student as well as the organization—and the community at large.
Last year, approximately 1,000 Eastern students engaged in service learning, equating to thousands of hours of service to the community and impactful learning for students that could not have been obtained in a traditional classroom setting.
“My philosophy behind service learning revolves around the conviction that students learn best by actively engaging with the course material,” said Ricardo Perez, professor of anthropology. “By making them apply classwork to the field setting, service learning places the student at the center of the learning process.”
Perez incorporates this teaching method in his course “Latinos in the United States,” in which students work with “Puentes al Futuro” (Bridges to the Future), a Windham Public Schools afterschool program for English-learning Hispanic youth. In Perez’s “Urban Anthropology” course, students are placed in various social service agencies in Willimantic, working on projects related to homelessness and substance abuse.
Service learning builds a bridge between the University and the community. However, developing an effective service learning program is a delicate balance, according to Nanette Tummers, professor of kinesiology and physical education. “Students need to ask, ‘what does the organization need?’ as opposed to going in and telling them what they need,” said Tummers.
Students in her “Personal Health” course lead a community program of their choice, based on a health-related need they have identified. Students have developed and implemented programs at senior centers and recovery shelters, ranging from yoga classes to nutrition counseling sessions.
A tenet of service learning is that “service” is fully integrated into the course curriculum. For Social Work Professor Pamela Chiang, 20 hours of fieldwork with social service agencies is required in her course “Intro to Social Work.” In addition to helping students apply their knowledge in a practical setting, Chiang said, “the rationale behind this requirement is to help students determine if social work is a good fit for them.”
In this prerequisite course for admission into the social work program, students see how theories and ideas are implemented in professional settings. “The evaluation from agencies also provides our program another perspective of whether students are ready for this profession,” said Chiang.
The impact of service learning is realized during the “reflection” component, which should happen throughout the semester. Reflection provides the bridge between community service and the educational content of the course. “Simply having students volunteer is not enough; giving them the opportunity to reflect on their experience and apply what they are learning in the classroom to real-life situations is the value of service learning,” said Kim Silcox, director of Eastern’s Center for Community Engagement.
In Fabrizi’s course “Contemporary Issues in Education of Children,” students are expected to complete 15–20 hours in a local school or volunteer with a youth organization. In this course, students gain experience working with youth in a variety of settings in preparation for a career in education, social work or other service-oriented career.
“Service learning is a critical aspect of the education program, since so much of what we do involves the transfer of theory into practice,” said Fabrizi. “The insights gained from service learning are enduring and personal, and through it, students better understand how to use their education to immediately make a real difference in the lives of children.”
Broadened horizons and increased social awareness are side effects of the service learning experience as well. “It provides students a great opportunity to discover other ways of living and become active and engaged citizens in the community,” said Nicolas Simon, professor of sociology. Upon the conclusion of a course, Tummers added, “students’ perceptions of Willimantic change for the better” as they interact with the local people. “Their worldviews are expanded; empathy is developed.”
Whether it’s “Race and Ethnic Relations,” “Media Inequalities” or “Deviance,” a number of Simon’s courses have a service learning component. While these field experiences further explore concepts discussed in class, he takes the reflection process one step further as well. At the end of the semester, students summarize their experience with poster presentations and write articles that are published on social media.
While the educational benefits of service learning are clear, more importantly, “the students really like it,” according to Perez. “They’re engaged, it validates their education, they can see their impact, it expands their awareness,” added Tummers.
Professor William Lugo’s sociology course “Criminology” focuses on factors related to crime—class, education, race/ethnicity. Through volunteering with related agencies, Lugo said, “service learning allows my students to look at various ‘push and pull’ factors in one’s life that serve to ‘push’ them away from criminal activity, or ‘pull’ them towards it.”
In a job market that remains competitive with ever-changing demands, out-of-the-ordinary experiences build resumes and distinguish graduates. Speaking to the networking opportunities of service learning, Tummers reported that some of her former students have landed jobs and internships with the agencies they worked with, such as the mental health organization Journey House.
However, the essence of service learning goes back to community engagement. In particular, projects dealing with area schools are “great for the children,” as they expose them to college students and positive role models. Perez added, “The young kids look forward to when the students arrive.”
While many of the projects described above deal with the social sciences, Perez concluded, “service learning can be incorporated into any course, major or field,” so long as the service is academically focused and responsive to the needs of the organization.