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Getting Serious About Service

For many schools, an increased commitment to community service fits the student body, curriculum, and neighborhood.
University Business, Jun 2008

THE SMALL AND UNDISTINGUISHED GATEWAY Plaza-with its hair salon, costume jewelry shop, Big Time Wholesale Store, and local branch of <b>DeKalb Technical College</b>-is just miles away from the stately grey and beige stone buildings and grassy quadrangles of <b>Emory University</b> in Atlanta.

Inside the DeKalb Tech building, almost 22 different foreign flags hang over a comfortable reception area near a "Welcome to Our School" poster that repeats the message in 22 languages, from Albanian to Hmong. "We're in the heart of immigrant Atlanta. Seventy percent of the immigrants coming to Georgia come here," says Michael Rich, an associate professor of political science at Emory. Rich also directs Emory's Office of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP), which coordinates undergraduate volunteers here who tutor recently arrived immigrants in the English language.

Emory students do the same at four other locations around Atlanta. Others roll up their sleeves to work with Habitat for Humanity and almost 300 local nonprofits that mentor refugee children, work with the juvenile courts, and teach conflict resolution to fourth-and fifth-graders.

But these initiatives represent just the tip of the iceberg here and at colleges and universities across the country, where community-based service programs, curricula, and research have grown to titanic proportions over the past decade.

Making service learning 'a compulsory part of the curriculum was a savvy move by schools that realized that summer semesters or senior internships were not enough to satisfy today's student body.' -Rob Frankel, The Princeton Review

Emory was recognized two years ago as an "Engaged Institution" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in its newly created roster of 76 schools that place a heightened emphasis on community service. The Princeton Review, famous for its guides to higher education, has published its own list of 81 <em>Colleges with a Conscience</em>, selected for the breadth of their community service opportunities and "service learning" courses that tie their curricula to those activities.

"There is an unapologetic push on the academic and cultural level to focus on service learning," observes Rob Frankel, The Princeton Review's vice president of publishing. "Over the past decade, there's been an absolute shift from the curriculum offerings and extracurricular activities at colleges and universities."

Campus Compact-an organization founded at <b>Brown</b> more than two decades ago to encourage college students to become more active citizens-reports a 60 percent increase in service participation over the last five years, and more than $7 billion worth of volunteer work coming out of its nearly 1,100 member schools annually.

"More students are doing service because they firmly believe that collective action is the best way to get out there and accomplish something," explains Campus Compact President Maureen Curley, who says that 98 percent of Campus Compact schools now offer service learning courses, and that 86 percent have created their own community service or service learning offices.

"I come from that generation that didn't participate. Back in the 1980s and '90s, it was about the 'Me Generation,'" adds Vincent Ilustre, executive director of the Center for Public Service at <b>Tulane University </b>(La.)."Now there's a renaissance of wanting to be involved." And while undergrads are still attracted to causes such as protecting the environment and tutoring at-risk students, their horizon has broadened. They are making inroads into urban planning, immigrant services, and public health, to name a few.

Emory's OUCP, which opened in 2000, has become a busy partner with Atlanta's nonprofits and city agencies, offering a gateway to them for all of Emory's schools-from nursing and public health to business and theology. The center has served as an incubator for new service initiatives and a magnet for faculty looking to connect their courses and research interests to the outside community.

"Instead of calling the switchboard and being routed to seven or eight other places, we become the front door," says Lynn Zimmerman, Emory's senior vice provost for academic programs.

"We provide a continuum visible to faculty, students, and the community. People can see where they plug in," adds Ozzie Harris, Emory's senior vice provost for community and diversity.

In 2006, Emory added a $2 million subsidy for the center as part of the university's five-year strategic plan. OUCP, which operates out of the provost's office, has secured millions more in funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

'It's incredibly exciting to see students move from being consumers of education and relatively passive to being active learners during a course.' -Vicki Reitenauer, Portland State University

At freshman orientation, students get a brightly colored, indepth Road Map to Community Service, which unfolds like maps found at gas stations and helps students navigate the many volunteer and extracurricular opportunities, as well as academic courses and internships. "It's a way of getting students engaged in active learning," says Zimmerman. "The best way to make decisions is by doing."

The service learning courses at Emory span the academic disciplines, starting with freshman seminars such as "Reading, Viewing, Exploring Atlanta" and "Education in Georgia in Black and White." Advanced courses include "Nonprofits in Urban America" and "Environmental Policy."

Each year, 15 Emory undergraduates proceed to a full-time local immersion experience, the Community Building and Social Change Fellows Program. Along with 12 interdisciplinary course credits, fellows work on projects proposed by community partners, from increasing affordable housing to improving public health.


Emory's service learning curriculum is largely the product of OUCP's aggressive efforts to solicit faculty participation, a process that begins with $2,500 mini-grants and the services of an assistant to develop new courses, and additional $5,000 grants for pilot research projects that could benefit parts of Atlanta. Some recent projects, according to OUCP Director Michael Rich: an anthropologist studying the nutritional intake of elderly immigrants and refugees, a business professor who examined the dot-com demise and its Atlanta area impact, and an English professor who had students conduct oral histories of new American residents in the community.

The pronounced turn to service learning also has been steered by students. "They are demanding that those experiences exist at the university level, and provosts and deans are saying, 'We need to answer that need and take it to the next level,'" observes Frankel at The Princeton Review, who says that purchasers of <em>Colleges with a Conscience</em> are a case in point. "The shift to bring this kind of learning into the classroom and make it a compulsory part of the curriculum was a savvy move by schools that realized that summer semesters or senior internships were not enough to satisfy today's student body."

More students coming to college have done service learning in high school and want to continue, notes Rich.

Some of today's undergraduates are even becoming "social entrepreneurs," says Campus Compact's Curley. Feeding the hungry is of interest, "but they're also pursuing the social change that would eliminate hunger. Besides organizing a food drive, they're asking the causal questions."

Curley recalls one group of college students who organized a Friday night drop-in at a homeless shelter. "Besides dishing out soup, they are coming up with better, more efficient ways to serve the homeless," she points out.

While groups of undergraduates from across the nation continue to take "alternative spring breaks" on the Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding post-Katrina, Tulane officials have taken a larger cue from the storm and its sobering aftermath-making community service a permanent graduation requirement, starting with the class of 2010.

"Immediately after Katrina, the university decided it would be one of the big components of our renewal program," explains Ilustre, who is part of a staff of 18 at the two-year-old Center for Public Service. By the end of sophomore year, undergrads must take one service learning course from the nearly 100 offered each semester and spread across the school's 16 departments. Those courses range from "Organizational Communication" and "Social Justice" to "No Child Left Behind" and "Nonprofits and Katrina." Upperclassmen must submit an additional project built around an internship or original community-based research.

The long-term impact of Katrina has created no end of service opportunities around the city, Ilustre points out, adding that the new program has contributed to a surge in freshman applications that exceeds pre-Katrina levels. "Our surveys indicate a lot of students came not just because of the educational benefits, but because they could be part of the rebuilding and because we had a service learning requirement," he says. (Ilustre notes that even Tulane's current juniors and seniors, who are not subject to the requirement, are volunteering in unprecedented numbers.)

Tulane faculty have also been motivated, says Illustre. Many have taken a 10-week seminar on how to create a service learning curriculum, which culminates in doing just that. Participants receive stipends, and planning grants are available to departments for help in integrating service learning into various disciplines.

"It wasn't easy, to say the least, to do these kinds of connections," Ilustre admits, explaining that while courses such as "Educational Psychology" always provided segues into volunteer tutoring, the post-Katrina version of "Physical Geology" had to be retooled. "Nowadays, students in the course not only learn geological techniques in the laboratory, they're working with one of the coastal restoration groups to collect data around the state."

The results of Tulane's effort have been dazzling, says Ilustre-and helpful to the local community. A new women's studies course, "Sophie the Riveter," covers the history of women in the building trades and connects students to rebuilding-related activities. The Latin American Studies and Spanish departments, meanwhile, have transformed several courses so students can act as ESL volunteers.

"There are a lot of migrant workers coming to do the rebuilding," Ilustre points out, adding that Tulane provides the classroom space for ESL instruction. Another course, "Spanish for Health Services," places students in positions to translate conversations between Hispanic newcomers and health care providers at clinics and hospitals.

Tulane's approach has meant changing the perceptions of how student volunteers can contribute. "We need to educate our community partners about what students are capable of doing," Ilustre says. "We need to make sure they know we exist and how we can be utilized."

<b>Portland State University</b> (Ore.) had to similarly educate its neighbors when the school began its Senior Capstone requirement in 1995. Graduating seniors must complete a six-credit, hands-on course built around the community. "We had to get community organizations to think creatively beyond normal activities like envelope stuffing and to put students in more sophisticated roles," says Capstone Coordinator Seanna Kerrigan.

Three thousand seniors choose from 220 Capstone courses, 80 percent of which are taught by adjunct faculty and the rest by tenured and tenure-track professors, who are learning to link their research to their surroundings. "It makes perfect sense for a professor teaching 'Public History' to link to the YWCA here and to its 100 years of archived material," Kerrigan says. Students in that course gather oral histories to supplement those holdings. Likewise, physics professors are steering students to hands-on experience in "low-carbon" communities that they are researching.

Vicki Reitenauer, who has taught 55 different Capstone courses, emphasizes that what students produce has to meet a real need in the community. In her "Grant Writing" course, for instance, student teams work with clients such as community theaters to target multiple funding sources and adapt grant proposals accordingly.

For Reitenauer's "Educational Equity" course, Portland State seniors run the gamut from tutoring in elementary classrooms to organizing a weekly book group during lunch hour for eighth-graders. "It's incredibly exciting to see students move from being consumers of education and relatively passive to being active learners during a course," she says. "And the community benefits, whether it's grants being funded or a kid who is failing math getting a B-so he can get into college."

Portland State was one institution recognized in <em>Colleges with a Conscience.</em> According to The Princeton Review's Frankel, the school belongs to a larger trend of urban universities-which once faced a tough sell as students gravitated to less busy and gritty environments-that have reinvented themselves by featuring "service in their backyards." He explains, "They said, 'We have a duty to engage the local community, and what place has more contagious energy than a university, and why can't we harness that energy?'"

Capstone's Kerrigan points out that the program is helping to attract students to the university. "They certainly report it was a selling point to them," she says. "They were looking for their education to be relevant, and to be with other people who want to make connections to the community."

Those running service learning programs say that students' experiences follow them into their future careers. "They're now thinking about the community," says Tulane's Ilusture. "And they're more likely to be engaged with community service after college."

Emory's Rich knows of a former community fellow practicing poverty law in Durham; another student went on to organize migrant farm workers. Some of Reitenauer's former students have returned after graduate work to teach Capstone courses.

Portland's Kerrigan emphasizes that getting serious in college about community service can have other benefits to future graduates. "Being involved in community service brings added relevance for students, whether they want to enter corporate America or a citizens action group," Kerrigan reasons. "We don't have a motive that they should all go into nonprofits. They can bring more ethical and responsible thinking to the private sector."

<em>Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer who went on location in Atlanta for this story.</em>