Service-learning benefits both partners and students
“There’s something different about the way Central does it,” says Cheri Doane ’98. She’s referring to service-learning at Central, and when you start talking to people about the concept, many will say something along those lines: When it comes to service-learning, Central is taking the road less traveled.
Doane is director of Community-Based Learning at Central, which encompasses service-learning. Through the program, students perform service for community organizations as part of classes. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship for the community partners and the students, as students learn practical skills about how organizations work, and partners can have projects completed. In practice, it’s more complicated than that. Students say what they learn goes far beyond basic skills, and some even hesitate to use the term “service,” as that implies they are the ones giving up their time, when in fact the relationship is extremely cooperative.
“I like to call it a vulnerable situation,” says Walter Cannon, professor of English. “We are vulnerable in the sense that we are willing to take in what they are saying and we can make changes. We can adapt and not impose our set of beliefs or desires on them. We try to respond to them.”
Cannon has taught a class with a service-learning component for 20 years. Writing for Non-Profit Organizations allows students to practice their writing skills while working with organizations in the community. He says, “We discover real needs in the community. This course exists because partners in the community say that they need writers.”
In 1994, Central received a grant from the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to initiate a variety of service-learning programs. The non-profit writing course was one of five original classes designed to pilot service-learning, and Cannon says a main goal is to “extend the notion of community,” so students come to think of community not just in geographical terms, but as involving people in various spheres.
Cannon stresses the listening component of service-learning, saying, “Unless we listen to each other, we can’t really progress.”
Students agree. Dana Wolthuizen ’15 says she benefited at least as much from her service-learning placement as the organization did from her. She gained lifelong skills she hopes to put to use in a future career. Wolthuizen worked with New Hope Community, a community center in Oskaloosa that assists lower income families.
As an English major and not-for-profit management minor, Wolthuizen was excited to put her writing to work for a purpose. The course Writing for Non-Profit Organizations includes study of the process of grant writing, a task Wolthuizen focused on for New Hope. Grant writing is also a skillset that’s in demand. “Grant writing has been very practical, and it’s great working with an organization to put it into practice—I’m learning so much from them,” she says.
Grant writing is a field Wolthuizen hopes to pursue after graduation, and she appreciates the opportunity to gain experience in the area. “It’s something not a lot of people have,” she says.
Hunter Thorpe ’16 also completed Writing for Non-Profit Organizations, and he worked with Crossroads of Pella for his service-learning placement. The non-profit exists to provide a number of services to the Pella community, including after-school programs, counseling, ESL classes and support groups. Thorpe assisted Crossroads with press releases and grant research. The work was an opportunity to build on experiences he gained during a fall semester on Central’s program in Washington, D.C., where he interned with Shared Hope International.
Thorpe says in addition to the expertise he acquired during his placement, he appreciated the class discussion that helped to put what he learned in context. “We talk a lot about social issues, and it’s great to hear everyone’s views,” he says. “In class, Dr. Cannon talks about the importance of listening to what our community partners are saying.”
Doane helps to match students with community partners, and she takes a proactive role. If she hears about a need in the community, she thinks about how it could be met via service-learning. She stresses that these partnerships are enduring, existing not just for the length of a project or a class, but for the long-term.
“We develop partnerships holistically,” Doane says. “Engaging in partnerships on an ongoing basis allows us to sustain a commitment to the community.”
This is part of the reason Central’s program differs from some other schools. And it’s caught the notice of major organizations. In December 2014, Central was named a finalist for the President’s Award for Community Service by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Central was one of only 16 schools to receive the finalist designation, and one of four finalists in the category of General Community Service. This means Central is one of the top five programs in the country, out of almost 700 applicants, for that particular category. Central was also named to the 2014 Honor Roll with Distinction in a second category, education.
The President’s Award is the highest federal honor a higher education institution can receive for its commitment to community service. It’s not the first time Central has been recognized by the organization, having been named as a finalist for the President’s Award in 2012, and appearing on the honor roll with distinction in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013.
In January, Central was again recognized for service when it received the Community Engagement Classification for 2015 from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Central was one of six Iowa colleges and universities to receive the Community Engagement Classification for 2015.
In order to obtain this designation, Central submitted evidence that the campus mission, culture, leadership, resources and practices support contributions to important community agendas. The application is rigorous – more than 50 pages— and covers all aspects of community engagement.
The Community Engagement Classification takes place on a five-year cycle. Central will be classified until 2025, after which the college will have to demonstrate further improvements from its civic commitment.
Overall, more than 40 Central College courses have community-based learning components. Of course, service also takes place in other ways, such as on study abroad programs and during the college’s annual Service Day, when faculty, staff and students spend the day working with organizations around the area. They may cut brush at Lake Red Rock, paint classrooms at an elementary school or spend time with adults with disabilities.
Learning to Listen
While service occurs in many ways, classes with service-learning components are a vital part of the community-based learning catalog. Katelyn Watson ’17, a sociology major, recently completed a service-learning placement at Crisis Intervention Services in Oskaloosa as part of Intro to Social Work. The organization works with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and Watson says she has learned much that will be applicable in her chosen career field as a high-school guidance counselor.
Her work involved giving presentations to high-school students, as well as planning for fundraisers and other work — “whatever their needs were,” Watson says. “It was helpful to learn firsthand about social work and to get some background in the field.”
Watson became familiar with the difficult situations social workers often face. “I learned that as an advocate – they get calls in the middle of the night (to go meet with someone),” she says. At first, the thought of encountering someone in the middle of a crisis was overwhelming, but Watson says she learned that “it’s ok not to be perfect— you just need to be there for them.”
Cassie Cumings-Peterson, volunteer coordinator for Crisis Intervention Services, says the organization “values the work that service-learning students bring.” While each student’s experience is unique, Cumings-Peterson says she tries to match student interests with duties. “Our goal is to infuse the service-learning experience with opportunities that are meaningful and memorable,” she says.
For Watson, the time spent working with Crisis Intervention Services has reinforced her decision to pursue a counseling career, and she says service-learning “is so important, because there’s only so much you can learn in a classroom.”
After teaching the Writing for Non-Profit Organizations class for 20 years, Cannon has a pretty good idea of what makes service-learning work. In fact, he and Doane recently teamed up to write a book chapter on the subject. “Service-Learning and Civic Engagement: A Sourcebook,” published this spring, includes
Cannon and Doane’s chapter on the idea of holistic partnerships, and how service-learning can be situated as part of the larger community, not as an entity on the outside looking in.
Cannon says listening to community partners means understanding that, “We’re part of the community. We’re not just standing alongside of it or on top of it. The relationship is a dynamic one.”
While national honors are nice, that is the real goal – making connections between the college and the community, while helping to dissolve the boundaries between the two.