Written by Michael Rouleau
Eastern Connecticut State University hosted its second annual Civic Action Conference on Nov. 8. to dissect the practice of “service learning” and its impact on students and society. Service learning is a mutually beneficial teaching strategy that aligns classroom learning with community efforts. Organized by the Center for Community Engagement, the conference featured insights from Eastern faculty and students – Rick Battistoni, who teaches public/community service studies at Providence College, was the keynote speaker.
“Why connect classroom to community?” asked Terry Lennox, digital art and design professor. She had three answers: Working in the real world accelerates the learning process. Secondly, when students can see their impact, they realize the value of their work. Thirdly, service learning is great for portfolios and resumes.
For several years, Lennox has led the Eastern Design Group (a capstone course for seniors) on digital design projects with local nonprofits and community organizations. Among their endeavors, students have designed a permanent exhibit at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, as well as created designs for a gala at Windham Hospital and the nonprofit Grow Windham.
Speaking to service learning in general, Lennox added, “students benefit by increasing their depth of pre-professional experiences, as well as gaining the reward of successfully working together and seeing their individual talents bring about positive change.”
Communication Professor Denise Matthews has taught a video field production course for 14 years, in which students produce videos for local organizations. “While the quality of the work is very important,” she says, “the experience that students acquire in the process of working as a professional with a client may be the most important component of their learning experience.”
Business Administration Professor Fatma Pakdil brings her students to collaborate with local businesses to analyze operations management topics. “We focus on their business problems and projects so students can see the real-life application of topics covered in the classroom,” she said. “Having a real case with various topics to work on is more challenging and informative, and shows students what they can expect after graduation.”
Keynote speaker Rick Battistoni took the stage for his talk, “Community or Political Engagement? Educating for Democracy in Troubled Times.” “Our current political landscape is full of craters and our discourse has become more polarized,” he said, adding that “voter turnout is abysmally low, especially among college-aged people, for a country that I like to think of as a democracy.”
Battistoni is confident that well-implemented service learning in higher education can counter this civic disengagement, saying that “community engagement is indeed education for democracy.”
In order for this to come to fruition, however, Battistoni says service learning must satisfy three things: purpose, accountability and time.
He explained that classroom goals must clearly align with the goals of the community partner (purpose); the impact must be measured (accountability); and the programs must be long enough to develop meaningful relationships and knowledge (time). “It must be sustained and developmental,” he said, “not just a one-and-done.”
This concept of “time” aligned with the conference’s opening presentation on Eastern’s soon-to-be-formalized Civic Action Plan, which aims to “institutionalize” the practice of service learning. The plan will expand service learning and community engagement opportunities at Eastern; create an academic minor in civic engagement; develop a committee on community-engaged teaching and learning; and reinforce the practice by recognizing and rewarding service learning achievements.
“Eastern has always had a longstanding relationship with the community; it just hasn’t always been organized,” said Kim Silcox, director of the Center for Community Engagement, which acts as a bridge between the campus and the surrounding community. “This plan broadens and refines the work that’s already been happening on campus.”