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Beyond Volunteering: A Guide to Service-Learning

Many people will choose at some point in their lives to volunteer. Volunteer opportunities range from spending an afternoon at a local soup kitchen, working for a week at an orphanage in one’s home country or abroad, or serving for two years with the Peace Corps. Volunteer opportunities abound, giving participants the opportunity to tackle social issues by serving affected populations. Yet, just as PCDN’s “Guide to Short Term Travel Learning Opportunities in Conflict Regions,” points out, there is potential for negative impacts. In some cases, a volunteer’s presence can do more harm than good.

Three commonly cited ethical concerns of volunteering are: (1) attitudes of volunteers; (2) issues related to money; and (3) misunderstanding of the social problem and its complexities. While most volunteers have an interest in helping others and may be sympathetic or even empathetic towards the receiving population, their service can at the same time be viewed as condescending. Volunteers (if they come from outside the community) may also be stereotyped as being wealthy, which can lead to expectations from the receiving population that volunteers make financial contributions. Finally, volunteers may misunderstand the situation in which they choose to volunteer, including making assumptions about the population they are serving and the underlying reasons of the social situation. How can one address these ethical concerns? By going beyond volunteering, to “service-learning.”

Service-learning is the practice of integrating pre-service education with meaningful community service, reflection, and post-service action. Service-learning allows “service-learners” to: (1) learn about the root causes of social issues; (2) engage in meaningful service that helps the community to meet its needs or goals; (3) develop the service-learners’ character as they reflect on their experience; and (4) share their experience with others. Service-learning can be done in one’s own community, through partnering educational communities with community organizations, and/or outside of one’s country or community.

Service-learning as a concept emerged in 1966 to describe a service project that linked students and faculty with organizations doing development work in tributary areas of East Tennessee. Shortly thereafter, the first service-learning conference convened in 1968. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the “Synergist” journal was created, which promoted linking learning and service. A number of grassroots level service efforts surfaced, including Campus Compact, Campus Outreach Opportunity League, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, and Youth Service America. In the ‘90s, higher education and high school institutions began incorporating service-learning into their curriculum. And in 2001 the first international conference on service-learning was held, inciting a worldwide movement of service-learners.

So how does service-learning differ from volunteering? A volunteer is often well-intentioned, but may not be well-educated about social issues. A service-learner, on the other hand, is concerned with root causes of social problems and, ideally, through the process of service-learning, alters his/her values and subsequent life choices based on the experience he/she had. Service-learning can involve short-term trips or long-term trips. Regardless of the length of the trip, however, service-learners use pre- and post-service time to learn about the issues, reflect on their experience, and demonstrate what they have learned. The following steps can guide those who want to evolve from volunteer to service-learner. (However, do keep in mind that as a service-learner goes into the field and becomes immersed in the community context, things may change and some steps may not be feasible. It is important to remain flexible.)

Step 1: Identify a community need

Step one is the preliminary analysis that investigates and identifies a need in the community. This need can be identified by creating surveys, conducting interviews, reading or listening to the news, or from personal experiences. Most importantly, don’t assume that you know what the community needs. Always consult people in the community when identifying their needs.

Step 2: Research, prepare, and train

Step two centers on pre-service education and preparation.

  • Gain a greater understanding of why the community need exists (research the cultural, social, historical, and political context of the community need/social problem)
  • Look at both facts and opinions of the issue. Consult statistics, policies, articles, videos, speakers, museums, podcasts, etc. (make sure to include as many perspectives on the issue from as many angles as possible)
  • Based on what is understood of the issue, create a service plan of action (emphasize how the service action will tackle the social issue and be meaningful to the affected population/community). Again, consult the community when creating a service action plan.
  • Complete skills trainings (make sure that the service-learner is equipped with all skills needed to carry out the service activity)
  • Prepare logistics (will the service-learner be working with a partner organization, is any fund-raising needed, when/where will the service activity take place, etc.)

Step 3: Reflect

In step three, the service-learner will reflect on the knowledge gained/ skills learned from step two. This reflection can include answering questions such as:

  • Why am I interested in this particular social issue?
  • How am I connected to the social problem?
  • How do my personal decisions affect the community need?
  • What are my biases, assumptions, or preconceptions about the social problem and the population that will be served?
  • What new things have I learned about the social issue based on my pre-service education?
  • What new skills have I learned based on my pre-service training?
  • How will I use this education and training during the service experience?
  • What are the goals of the service activity?
  • What are my personal expectations of the service activity?
  • What is my general feeling on the upcoming service project (excitement, apprehension, anxiousness, etc.)?

Step 4: Serve

Step four is the actual act of serving a community. Service can vary in duration, from short-term to long-term, and in location, from local to international. It can also take a number of forms:

  • Direct service (direct interactions with the community being served—examples include serving food to recipients at a food bank, tutoring or training adults/students, etc.)
  • Indirect service (packing boxes of medical supplies that will later be distributed to receiving population, restoring a building that is, or will be, a homeless shelter, etc.)
  • Advocacy work (lobbying policy makers, raising awareness of community needs, etc.)

Step 5: Reflect

In step five, the service-learner will reflect on his/her service activity.

  • Did the service activity reflect issues that were researched and learned about in step two? How?
  • What skills did I use?
  • Which skills were exceptionally important?
  • Were there any additional skills that would have been useful to the service activity? If yes, which skills?
  • Which goals of the service activity were met? Which ones were not?
  • Which personal expectations of the service activity were met?
  • Which ones were not?
  • What surprised me about the service activity?
  • How did the service experience impact the community need?
  • How did my attitude change about the community need and population that was served?
  • What changes can I make in my personal life to continue learning about the social problem, address its root causes, and/or serve its affected population?
  • What will my next “action/service” steps be?

Step 6: Demonstrate

In step 6, service-learners will demonstrate to others what they learned throughout the service-learning experience. This may include:

  • Sharing their background research
  • Demonstrating newly-learned skills
  • Discussing with others about the community need/social issue and their service experience

This can take place in everyday conversation, by holding a conference, posting photos from the service experience, starting a blog on PCDN or other sites, communicating on social media, etc.

Step 7: Continue/Commit

In step 7, the service-learner never stops being a service-learner! He/she will alter his/her values and subsequent life choices based on the experience he/she had. Service-learners will continue to engage in the issues they learned about and/or tackle new community needs.

  • Continue to volunteer with the same organization, affected population, or community need
  • Identify new volunteer opportunities or possible internships
  • Engage in political efforts –write letters to political representatives
  • Continue learning about social issues –attend conferences, read the news, etc.

Interested in joining a service-learning group or starting your own service-learning activity?

The following is a list of some key organizations that organize service-learning activities for youth and/or adults. It would be very difficult to post a complete list of all the organizations or opportunities available for those interested in service-learning, so this list is intended as a starting point. Please feel free to add your own suggestions.

  • Break Away
  • Building Tomorrow: Sit for Good
  • Campus Compact
  • Children, Youth and Families Education and Research Network
  • Circle K International
  • Elderhostel Service-Learning Programs
  • Global PACT
  • Learn and Serve America
  • National Service-Learning Clearinghouse
  • Service for Peace
  • Students Serve
  • Summer of Service
  • The Corps Network
  • Virtual Volunteering Resources
  • Western New York Service-Learning Coalition
  • Youth Service America
  • Youth Voice and Engagement

To read further about service-learning, please see the following:

America, Youth Service. “Semester of Service Strategy Guide.”

Away, Break. “Break Away Manuals.”

Billig, Shelley H., and Andrew Furco, eds. Service Learning through a Multidisciplinary Lens: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Bolton, Gillie. Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development Second ed. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005.

Bowdon, Melody A., Shelley H. Billig, and Barbara A. Holland, eds. Scholarship for Sustaining Service-Learning and Civic Engagement: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2008.

Casey, Karen McKnight, Georgia Davidson, Shelley H. Billig, and Nicole C. Springer, eds. Advancing Knowledge in Service-Learning: Research to Transform the Field: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2006.

Clearinghouse, National Service-Learning. “Toolkits.”

Compact, Campus. “Educating Citizens – Building Communities.”

Eyler, Janet, and Shelley H. Billig, eds. Deconstructing Service-Learning: Research Exploring Context, Participation, and Impacts: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2003.

Eyler, Janet, Dwight E. Giles Jr., and Angela Schmiede. A Practitioner’s Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning: Student Voices & Reflections. Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1996.

Furco, Andrew, and Shelley H. Billig, eds. New Perspectives in Service Learning: Research to Advance the Field: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2006.

Gelmon, Sherril B., and Shelley H. Billig, eds. From Passion to Objectivity: International and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Service-Learning Research: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2007.

Hatcher, Julie A., and Robert G. Bringle, eds. Understanding Service-Learning and Community Engagement: Crossing Boundaries through Research: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2012.

Moely, Barbara E., Shelley H. Billig, and Barbara A. Holland, eds. Creating Our Identities in Service-Learning and Community Engagement: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2009.

Network, The Corps. “Strengthening America through Service and Conservation.”

Root, Susan, Jane Callahan, and Shelley H. Billig, eds. Improving Service-Learning Practice: Research on Models to Enhance Impacts: IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2005.

Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action: Basic Books, 1984.

Service, Corporation for National and Community.

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