The College   Summer 2002

Service-Learning: An Antidote to Apathy

By Geoffrey Pollock

"Service-learning has offered me the most exciting experiences I have had in college. I feel as though I have transformed from a mere 'consumer' of public education to an effective, innovative 'producer' of change and progress." - IUB Service-Learning Student Anna Newell

A small but beautiful tree is bearing remarkable fruit on the Bloomington campus. Its seeds have also taken root on other campuses in the system, but for the sake of brevity, this article will explore just a few examples of the harvest. The tree is service-learning and the fruit it bears is life-transforming experience. Granted, college itself transforms lives, yet all too often it seems the discussion of those transformations is slanted toward commerce. What will it get you? How much will you earn? How large a splash might you make? Service-learning begins and ends in the classroom. In between, students are out in the world making a difference.

Service Learning students

Service-learning students document an African American cementary in Helena, Ark.

The what of service-learning is dangerously simple, so simple, in fact, that the risk is to oversimplify it, and therefore minimize its worth. Simply doing good works in the community is not service-learning; it is volunteerism. Service-learning is a more complex equation. Every service-learning class is grounded in an academic component. Generally, service-learning focuses on civic as opposed to professional considerations. A service-learning class might exchange labor for stories, such as students' helping winterize homes of the elderly in exchange for oral histories of a much earlier Bloomington. Or a class might work with inner-city children in their schools.

The office of Community Outreach and Partnerships in Service-Learning (COPSL) oversees service-learning on the Bloomington campus, as well as being a resource for the service-learning work being done on other IU campuses: IU South Bend, IU East, and IUPUI. Much of the work the office does is helping faculty integrate service-learning into their courses. Associate Director Catherine Gray reflects, "Through service with community partners beyond the Sample Gates, service-learning offers students opportunities to deepen and enrich the meaning of their college experiences."

Each service-learning class fulfills a dual purpose: educating the students while also filling a bona fide need in the community. Community-based organizations typically define those needs. Reciprocity defines the difference between volunteerism and service-learning. Both partners, the community-based organization and the faculty, must take an active role in educating the students.

The "service" of service-learning is tied to the classroom through readings, writing assignments, and lectures. Classes explore the context of civics and philanthropy in their projects. Perhaps the most vital piece of service-learning is reflection. Every service-learning class has time built into the schedule for the students to reflect on their involvement, the goals, the outcome, and the meaning of what they undertook.

In addition to the regular classes, COPSL has partnered with the Residence Halls Association and Residential Programs and Services to offer alternative Spring Break experiences. Nowhere is the difference between service-learning and traditional learning more apparent than in the choices students make involving that momentous week in March. Panama City, Fla., versus Helena, Ark.? Or for those traveling south of the border, Cancun versus Guanajuato? Rather than being concerned with weeklong parties, the alternative Spring Breakers this past spring semester chose work over hedonism. Two classes of students from the College of Arts and Sciences took trips to Arkansas and Mexico that illustrate how far beyond basic volunteerism service-learning takes students.

Civil rights in Arkansas
Professor Quinton Dixie teaches in the Department of Religious Studies. His course, Eyes on the Prize: Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, is an excellent example of how service-learning can make a subject more real. The course was designed to explore the relationship between the movement's inception and the clergy. Concerned that his students felt too far removed from the era - most of his students were born 15 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - he structured a service-learning component into his syllabus.

Dixie and his students traveled to Arkansas, teaming up with the Arkansas Delta African-American Historical Society. With the exception of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, not much happens in Helena or in the neighboring town of West Helena. The visit made the front page of the local paper for half of the class's stay.

The students immediately became aware of how racially separate life is in Helena. That awareness would fuel the revelation that the causes struggled for in the civil rights movement weren't so far away. Although both towns are predominantly African-American, 2002 was the first year that both elected black mayors. Even that was contested, requiring a decision handed down by the Arkansas State Supreme Court to see to it that 150 African-American absentee ballots were counted.

The class interviewed former civil rights workers and educators in order to gain a more intimate knowledge of how they handled segregation, the movement, and Jim Crow. The real power of the experience lies in the moment. Facing a person, watching her eyes or her mouth, as she relates what it felt like to ride in the back of the bus, or what he thought when considering the law banning African-American men from whistling in public, adds urgency and depth to the learning.

The cemeteries in Helena are still segregated by race and religion. As student Tina Rains offers, "The white confederates were buried on a hill overlooking the Mississippi. Next down the road came the Catholic graveyard, and further along, the Jewish. Going down a long gravel road until you'd think there was nothing left was the black cemetery."

Service Learning student

A service-learning student documents an African American cementary in Helena, Ark.

The class helped document the black cemetery, many graves in which were unmarked. With the help of the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Pointer, the class was able to chart the precise locations and identities of many of the graves. Until that moment, all the information - more than 100 years' worth - had been passed down orally through the generations. Included in the information were memories and recollections of whom the deceased were related to, how and where they died, anecdotes of their lives, and reactions to their deaths. Some graves were marked by only a symbol or totem that related to a character trait, such as a driveshaft marking the grave of a man who liked to go driving or a metal headboard marking someone who was known to enjoy sleeping.

Tina Rains plans to work with inner-city children after graduation. Although her plan preceded her visit to Arkansas, the trip reaffirmed the personal and social importance of it. As she states, "We need to know our own history. A lot of African-American kids don't know their cultural history, and that's something that needs to change."

Some people question the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education, or that the greatest success during a college student's academic career is personal development. Check the corporate rosters of the Fortune 500. Many of the CEOs generalized, rather than specialized their education, at least at the undergraduate level. Service-learning has everything to do with personal development and making choices that point to aspirations higher than potential income or grades or networking. Service-learning opens students' minds and exposes them to different ways of thinking, living, and personal interaction.

Children, seniors, and eye care in Mexico
In the case of Russell Salmon's Mexican history class, Mexico: In Service, the service-learning component required a much greater degree of logistical support as well as facility with a foreign language. Consequently, Salmon, associate professor Emeritus of Spanish and Portuguese, required students to submit an application. Salmon's goal was to educate his students about the whole history of U.S.-Mexican relations, not just the "north-of-the-border" perspective. As part of the trip, the IU students met with a group of students from the University of Guanajuato to view and discuss a movie on the stereotyping of Mexicans. During the ensuing discussion, the group's goals were called into question by one of the Guanajuato students who asked, "Why is it exactly that you learn Spanish? So you can come here and further dominate us?" As harsh as the question may appear, its content framed a dialogue that continued for the remainder of the group's stay. Even after the group returned to Bloomington, it remained the lens through which any learning or increased awareness was analyzed or reflected. Case in point: Considering the U.S.-Mexican history of military actions, what would Mexico be like today if it had retained possession of the oil found in Oklahoma and Texas?

After their arrival group members split up and pursued three separate projects simultaneously. The first group worked in a preschool for the children of the host agency's employees. The second worked in a home for elderly women run by an order of nuns. Suspicious at first, the women soon opened up to the students, creating bonds impossible to replicate inside a classroom. The students were overwhelmed by how devout religion helped the elderly women deal with the inevitability of death and dying. They also learned firsthand that old age hurts, and that much of the women's irascibility emanated from acute pain.

The third group worked in an eye clinic that is a teaching satellite for the IU School of Optometry. Here the students with the highest proficiency in Spanish worked. This group actually expanded its reach during its stay. With the help of Dr. Cindy Foster, the students moved from the clinic in Guanajuato to a D.I.F. (the host agency) clinic in Silao, a small town in the country. Many of the people who received eye tests were members of the Chichimac, the region's indigenous tribe.

The students serviced 150 people, some of whom started their journeys into town before sunrise. Most of the patients were illiterate, so instead of using what we think of as the "normal" eye charts with letters, the ones used in Silao carried shapes. In very immediate terms, the service learners were confronted with the fundamentals of multiculturalism. The patients were by no means unintelligent, yet perceived everything from physical space to time in different ways.

The key distinction between charitable work and the academic viability of service-learning is in reflection guided by expert faculty. For all the alternative Spring Break participants, the weeks following their return to school were devoted to exploring and discussing their involvement. As a class requirement, they kept journals to provoke introspection. If you read those journals, one idea comes across as unanimous: As far as learning about themselves, these were the most valuable experiences of their college careers. As Salmon notes, "If information is A, knowledge is B, and wisdom is C, then how do we move students from A to C? That is the purpose of service-learning and why it is so important."

Service-learning proponents and participants are a small but significant population on campus. What started as a grassroots movement grew to be included in a large Lilly Endowment grant of 1998 that was aimed at student retention. As Linda Smith, associate dean for undergraduate education, offers, "Anything that can make classroom learning 'real' or show a student what they can attain in the world is important." Service-learning meets the actual needs of a community rather than merely meeting the needs of a course.

Christie Wise

IUB student Christie Wise works with children at a preschool in Guanajuato, Mexico.

As interest in service-learning has grown, so has IU's commitment to it. This fall a new minor will be available. While the number of students who choose leadership, ethics and social action as their minor will probably be limited, the fact that it will be offered is critical to the College of Arts and Sciences' maintaining its mission. Intrinsic to a liberal arts degree are the questions "What is my place in the world?" and "What kind of role do I have?" As Smith observes, "The minor is constructed to ask these questions and to help students think intellectually about them."

The addition of this type of minor also makes IU more attractive to students in general. A prospective student may not have an interest in the leadership, ethics, and social action minor, but it reflects on the College's depth and breadth of offerings. In turn, anything that makes the College of Arts and Sciences stronger will bring a better student to Bloomington.

This is the third and final year of the Lilly funding. Will the service-learning program continue? Yes, but not without some adaptations along the way. Everyone knows money is tight and that desires outpace dollars, but service-learning speaks to the very heart of the liberal arts. For that reason Smith says, "This type of event is worthy of subsidy." Keeping the projects going may require an increase in student costs, along with funding pieces coming together from a variety of sources, but in the model of service-learning, a joint effort will produce a fruitful outcome.

In the end, service-learning creates change. Along the way, students earn college credit because they have to analyze and reflect on their work. They undertake reading and writing assignments given by faculty to underscore that what they pursue in the classroom has meaning in the real world. As Tina Rains says, "It was incredible. I can't stress enough that it makes you look at the world differently."

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Geoffrey Pollock is a writer at the IU Foundation Office of Publications.