Reinvigorating the Culture of Service in College

This week, I am delighted to post a piece by my long-time colleague Wendy Fischman. Wendy is a researcher at Project Zero and the project director of a major national study of higher education in the United States today. It’s been my privilege to work closely with Wendy over two decades on a number of projects—and this study, now in its fifth year, represents a high point of our long-term collaboration.

It’s our intention, during the coming year, to begin to report concepts and findings that are emerging from our ambitious study. At this point, in September 2017, we are not quite ready to share any concepts or findings, let alone conclusions or recommendations. But readers of this blog over the months can gain a sense of some of the themes that we have been thinking about. In this spirit, I hope that you’ll read—and profit from—Wendy’s thoughtful essay.

-Howard Gardner


Reinvigorating the Culture of Service in College

by Wendy Fischman

Ask any well-informed high school senior applying to college about his or her extra-curricular activities, and “community service” will undoubtedly be cited. Such students know that service involvement is regarded as embodying valued personal qualities, such as leadership, collaboration, and empathy. The kinds of service that students carry out in high school represent a wide range of activities—from organizing bake sales to raising money for various causes, to traveling to a remote site to help an under-served population. In fact, such “community service trips” have become so common among young students that at a recent panel on the admissions process (which I attended wearing my parent hat), an Ivy League admissions director warned prospective students to avoid the trap of only writing about what they thought colleges wanted to read: “…In the college essay, please don’t just tell us about your service trips; tell us about what is different about you. Reading about the umpteenth trip to Costa Rica is not unique anymore.” The audience laughed. In many ways, “service hours” has become a prerequisite for successful applications to selective colleges, at times rivaling grades and standardized test scores.  

To be sure, students carry our service for many reasons. It is possible that some students are gaming the system, and that some are simply fulfilling requirements, but for many students, community service is or becomes personally meaningful. Regardless of the original intention, involvement in service at a young age, through school, religious organizations, and familial tradition, may catalyze deeper involvements. For example, early experiences volunteering at a homeless shelter or at a food bank, help individuals shape views about themselves, as well as about those whom they can serve in various ways. Working closely with people in need, young students may begin to believe that they can positively impact society; in the happiest of circumstances, this realization can facilitate enduring engagement and sometimes, a lifelong commitment.

However, even for students who have or get the “service bug,” once in college, the emphasis on service may be significantly diminished. Oftentimes, students begin to prioritize other objectives that they believe will help them with the next phase of life, whether it is graduate school or a first job. Campus Compact, a long-standing, national coalition of more than a thousand colleges and universities, was founded to help colleges and universities make civic and community engagement a priority for teaching and learning. Though the program has endured for more than 30 years, the important challenge remains: how, in the midst of so many diversions, to instill or maintain a culture of service among students on campus.

I am disturbed by this disjunction between the emphasis on service in high school, for a variety of reasons, and its marginalization at many institutions of higher learning. As I think about how to reinvigorate service learning on the college campus, two distinct positive examples come to mind.

The first is at the University of La Verne, a small, private Brethren university in La Verne, California, where undergraduate academics are integrated with community engagement. For example, from the start, on the first day of freshmen orientation, students sign up for a day of service, where they meet and bond with other students and faculty in their selected “FLEX” (First Year La Verne Experience), a learning community consisting of two courses from different disciplines, plus a writing course. For instance, the FLEX “Markets and The Good Life” combines courses in economics, philosophy, and writing, and involves service outreach. Specifically, students work with a local transitional facility called “Prototypes,” which supports women struggling with drug addictions, domestic violence, mental illness, and other problems. Through this work, students experience first-hand how the content of their coursework relates directly to the “real world.”

The second example comes from Tulane University, a medium-sized, private university in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tulane prides itself on being be the first research university to integrate public service into the core curriculum (in 2006, as part of the school’s Renewal Plan following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina). Faculty connect with community area partners to develop innovative service courses, such as “Persuasive Writing: Aristotle in New Orleans,” in which students mentor middle and high school debate clubs and help facilitate a citywide debate tournament, and “Introduction to International Relations,” in which students create lesson plans for pre-K and elementary school students at a local charter school. To graduate, Tulane requires that students take a service course within their first two three years and also participate in an additional service experience before graduation; the options include a second public service course, internship, research project, travel, or capstone.

Surely, many colleges and universities around the country have public service centers and other school-sponsored community service opportunities. However, sometimes, these programs rely on availability of school funds and/or personal funds (e.g. service trips cost money, some schools can cover this for students, other times students have to be able to pay for themselves). And, if some form of service learning is not a central focus for the school (e.g. a requirement for graduation), the likelihood of student engagement will become limited—either because of time, money or competing responsibilities of networking, internships, additional majors and minors. The opportunity to immerse students in community work, perhaps related to their major and future career, may be lost. 

In speaking with hundreds of students across ten disparate campuses, as part of our national study of higher education, we hear two familiar gripes about the college experience. First, in terms of academics, that content is not often relatable to real world problems; and second, in terms of social life, college can feel like a “bubble,” because it is isolated from the rest of the world. Prioritizing service work in college will not only address these deficits; such a focus on service will also teach students that it is a necessary and often required element to being a good worker and a good citizen.

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