Duke University Alumni Magazine

Adding New Dimensions To Volunteerism
Service Learning
by John Manuel
Illustration by Andrea Cobb

What if we were expected to perform public service as part of our formal education? What if in the process of performing that service, we found that we learned as much as we taught?

eorge Bush says it. Colin Powell says it. Even Bill Clinton says it. Government cannot solve all of society's ills. The costs are too great, the instruments of government too blunt. For there to be any hope of curbing such problems as youth violence, these leaders say, ordinary citizens must get involved--lots of them. A literal army of volunteers is needed to engage in such diverse tasks as mentoring at-risk youth, driving meals to home-bound seniors, and building low-cost housing. But is this likely to happen?

     While Americans are known for their spirit of volunteerism, it's also true that the same 10 percent of the population seems to do most of the volunteering. The rest of us simply lack the time or motivation to participate in service activities. And cynics question whether a call to arms, even from the likes of Colin Powell, will change long-ingrained habits.

     But what if at an early age (high school or college), we were expected to perform public service as part of our formal education? What if in the process of performing that service, we found that we learned as much as we taught? Might we not develop a level of understanding and a commitment to action that could lead to some genuine solutions to these problems? That is the hope behind a concept known as "service-learning."

     Service-learning is a term that entered the educational lexicon in the late Sixties. The use of both words is intentional, and is based on the premise that when service and learning are linked, each is enhanced and each enhances the other. In this respect, a service-learning approach is different from traditional volunteerism. The latter carries with it an attitude of superiority--the volunteer gives and the client receives. In fact, most people who have performed volunteer work find that they learn as much as they have taught. Service-learning is a way of formalizing that notion by designing into any provision of service a disciplined reflection. By doing this, providers of service should gain a deeper respect and understanding of those served, and should develop an ethic they will carry with them throughout life.

     Robert L. Sigmon '57 is a long-standing champion of service-learning. He came to his belief through an extensive career of service, beginning in 1958 as a missionary in Pakistan. There, he was challenged by Pakistanis who questioned his authority to preach to them, when they knew people of color were being denied equal rights in the United States. Sigmon found himself "torn by the idea of going and inflicting something on someone else before I had dealt with stuff at home."

     He returned to the United States and earned a master's of divinity from Union Theological Seminary. He spent the next forty years working for various service and educational organizations, refining his notion of service-learning and incorporating it into his employers' program designs. In 1994, he was hired by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to work on the largest externally funded program in that organization's history--on service-learning.

     CIC president Allen Splete is convinced that the nation's independent colleges and universities are uniquely suited by virtue of their missions, histories, and connections with communities to lead higher education to a next generation of service-learning. Splete hired Sigmon to pull together the service-learning experiences of CIC-member faculty and staff. Published as a series of essays in Journey to Service-Learning, the book is intended as both an inspiration and a guide to those interested in incorporating service-learning into higher education.

     "There is in this book...an overarching sense that service-learning works," Splete writes in the book's introduction. "It transforms and enriches student learning. It can have the same effect on faculty development. It can renew administrators' commitments to students, values, and the educational mission as a whole.... Service-learning is a powerful educational movement that speaks to the heart of the mission of most liberal arts colleges and universities today."

     A popular speaker at forums on the topic, Sigmon says he's encouraged by the growing emphasis on the need to perform community service, but he has yet to see serious attention paid to the learning aspect of that experience. "Some colleges have service requirements, but it is not tied to curriculum--it is service without learning," he says. "The challenge for faculty is to develop relationships with communities--listening to their situations, engaging in conversations, and asking for assistance. In other words, what is it that folks in a community can contribute to the learning of students? Once these interests are stated, then the faculty task is to figure out how the academic disciplines of choice can be called upon to respond to the community situation, the student's own interests, and how the disciplines can be enhanced by engagement with the situation."

n March 1995, while most of his classmates were sunning themselves on the beaches of Florida, David Wascha '97 and thirteen other Duke students were dropped off in downtown Atlanta with only the clothes on their backs. Wascha was given instructions to undertake such tasks as applying for food stamps and obtaining free clothing--challenges faced by homeless people in every major city every day. That night, Wascha slept on the street and in a city park, harassed by police who had no idea of his identity or purpose.

     After getting a taste of homeless life, the students were put through a brief training program and sent to work in Atlanta's soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Their life on the streets gave the students a whole new outlook on the people they dealt with.

Robert L. Sigmon '57 is a long-standing champion of service-learning.
Photo: Roger Manley

     "I started out carrying a lot of cultural stereotypes about homeless people as being lazy and more or less deserving of their fates," says Wascha. "I found out that while a lot of the people are at shelters because of drug and alcohol problems, others are there because of bad luck. I realized that a lot of decent people in this country are living one bad break away from homelessness."

     Wascha's immersion in the lives of the down-and-out was sponsored by Break For A Change, one of a small but growing number of service-learning programs at Duke. Private universities, particularly research universities such as Duke, have not historically perceived community service as part of their mission. But deteriorating socio-economic situations in the surrounding neighborhoods and their impacts on university life are forcing many schools to recognize an interdependence with the local community and to offer help where they can (see "Pivotal Partnerships," Duke Magazine, March-April 1997). Apart from being a matter of self-preservation, educational institutions increasingly see community service as a vital, if not necessary component of intellectual and ethical growth. Interestingly, that conviction seems to be coming as much from students as from faculty and administrators.

     According to Elaine Madison, director of Duke's Community Service Center (CSC), 80 percent of Duke undergraduates volunteer for some form of community service over their four years in college. That's an impressive number given that community service is not a requirement at Duke. As the clearinghouse for nearly all undergraduate service projects, CSC maintains contact with nearly 300 local agencies and organizations for which Duke students can volunteer. There is no formal learning component involved in these activities, but Madison says she would like to see it move in that direction. "Our goal is to have in-service training and education throughout the year. We are not an academic department, but we do understand that reflection is important." She says the CSC is looking forward to working with the Kenan Ethics Program to integrate service, learning, and ethics more actively.

     In addition to these individual service opportunities, there are half-a-dozen on-campus service groups that have varying degrees of learning designed into them. Duke supports a chapter of the North Carolina Student Rural Health Coalition, which has long been a model of service-learning in this state. The coalition sends volunteers out to rural areas of the state to assist doctors in clinics and encourage community youth to pursue health careers.

     The Service Learning Project (SLP) encourages Duke students to get involved in community work, while helping them meet their summer expenses. Students develop their own ten-week, full-time community service program, for which they receive up to $2,300. Interns have worked in law firms, soup kitchens, public schools, hospitals, and with homeless adults and unemployed youth. Following this experience, participants write a reflective report and describe how it ties in with their studies.

     Break For A Change was formed by students in 1995 to promote community involvement and social action through alternative spring-break activities. Each trip is part of a student-led house course focusing on a particular issue such as Native-American rights, AIDS, women's empowerment, race and religion, housing and homelessness, and child advocacy. While in the host city, participants learn about its culture and history and volunteer with local agencies to discover the contemporary challenges the community faces.

     In two years, Break For A Change has grown from one trip involving fourteen students to six different sites involving 120 students. In 1997, more than 250 students applied. There are now six student-taught house courses associated with the program. Last year, Break For A Change was honored at the National Breakaway Conference in Nashville as the best curriculum-based, alternative spring-break program in the nation.

     "We knew we were going to take over the world; we just didn't know it would happen so quickly," quips Wascha, who was the group's co-director before he graduated. "There has been a dearth of these types of opportunities at Duke, and now that the word is out, all sorts of people want to get involved."

     It's one thing for students to learn from their exposure to the less fortunate in society, but do the less fortunate also benefit from the experience? Program organizers are quick to admit that students are often the primary beneficiaries of service-learning arrangements. They say it's essential for organizers to work with sponsoring agencies to ensure that students are properly trained in advance and perform work that is genuinely needed. A random survey of Durham community organizations that accept Duke students as volunteers indicates that most do value the students' work. "A lot of our clients don't have anybody in their lives other than professional staff," says Elizabeth Scott, Durham's host site coordinator for the Best Buddies program, which matches student volunteers with retarded persons. "For our clients to see just one person who is not paid to be with them is great. They talk about the Duke students as their best friends."

     Service-learning advocates commend these extra-curricular activities but say their goal is to include service-learning as part of students' formal education. They say that until educators recognize that service is both a practical and ethical part of the learning process, they have missed the point. But incorporating service learning into college curricula will require a major re-orientation on the part of both faculty and administrators, especially at universities like Duke.

     "Currently, there is no incentive for faculty at research institutions to get involved with community," says Diane Calleson '86, now a doctoral student in education and research policy at North Carolina State University. "Changing that will require a redefinition of scholarship to include more than classroom teaching and publishing. I believe scholarship should involve faculty asking communities how they can support them."

     Duke may not be a leader in working service-learning into its curriculum, but there are a number of faculty who have done so over the years on their own initiative. Perhaps the longest-standing course to take a service-learning approach is "Perspectives on Food and World Hunger" taught by political science professor Sheridan Johns. Organized in the wake of the 1973-74 famine in Ethiopia, this multidisciplinary course combines classroom lectures on aspects of food and hunger with first-hand experience working for related community organizations. Johns requires his students to work two to three hours per week with an agency such as Meals on Wheels. Students must also keep a journal, in which they record the type of work they do and analyze the nature of their organization.

     The Hart Leadership Program, directed by assistant professor of public policy Bob Korstad, gives students several opportunities to combine service, leadership, and experiential education. During the school year, students can work with local community organizations to, as Korstad says, "effect some kind of positive change." During the summer, they can pursue service-learning opportunities in other states or countries through the Summer Opportunities in Leadership (SOL) program. As a prerequisite for SOL, students must take a course dealing with the history, culture, and policies of the region they will visit. Then, working individually or in teams, they travel to their site to engage in some type of project that calls upon their creative leadership abilities. When they return to Duke in the fall, the students enroll in a follow-up course, where they discuss the particular experience they had and describe how it changed them.

     Maurice Blanco '97, now program coordinator for SOL, spent the summer of 1995 in former Yugoslavia teaching Bosnian refugees English and organizing soccer leagues for them. "I can't begin to describe the personal growth I went through as a result of this experience," Blanco says, "from a totally sheltered environment at Duke to a place where people have been subject to war, rape, and all manner of brutality. I came away with an appreciation for the fragility of life, and for the capacity of the human spirit to overcome tremendous obstacles. I realized, too, that you can't hope to understand the complexities of the social situations many people face unless you become immersed in their communities."

     Blanco, who has applied for law school, says that humanitarian or human rights work will be part of whatever field of law he chooses. "I will never again lose touch with the outside world."

     The Bridges Program in the Center for Documentary Studies doesn't employ the terminology of service-learning, but director Tom Kelley says he seeks the same goal--community building--through the documentary form. "One of the great things about combining documentary with service is that the process of documenting forces everyone involved to make connections," he says. "There is a built-in reflective component. How can we make sense of the life story of this community or person?"

     Bridges' "Literacy Through Photography" class, taught by Wendy Ewald, puts accomplished photography students in the role of teacher, helping school children use photography as a way of explaining their worlds. Students are paired with teachers in the public schools and guide them through the process of helping children capture their dreams, families, and communities on film. That program has been adopted by fourteen public schools in Durham.

     Another Bridges program, Community Stories, accepts interns from various colleges and universities (eight of last year's fourteen interns were from Duke) to conduct a summer-long oral history project in one of a half-dozen sites in North and South Carolina. Interns work with middle and high school students in each location, teaching them how to conduct oral history projects of their own neighborhoods.

     Delia Gamble, a graduate of North Carolina A&T; University and now coordinator of the Community Stories program, conducted her internship in a minority neighborhood in Wilson, North Carolina. "I had the opportunity to teach African-American history to a group of students who had never heard of such a thing before," she says. "In addition, I taught the students how to conduct interviews, and challenged them to develop their own oral history projects. They interviewed elders in the community and transcribed the tapes into written reports, which they presented to the elders at the end of the project. I found this a tremendously empowering process for all concerned. The students develop a sense of ownership of their community, and recognize how hard their elders worked to get where they are. And the elders are delighted to learn that their lives are a valid part of history."

     Service-learning proponents are supportive of these individual efforts, but they say what has been lacking at Duke is a coordinated effort at incorporating it into the curriculum. That is beginning to change. In the spring of 1997, history professor William Chafe, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, formed a committee to identify the various service-learning opportunities that exist at Duke, and to improve and to expand upon them. "I'm a believer in service-learning," says Chafe. "It's always helpful when academic institutions can be linked to practical experience." He says service-learning shouldn't be forced into the curriculum or become a required student activity, but made available as part of the regular curriculum. That way, students who wish to make it part of their educational approach will have that opportunity.

     One area where service-learning may soon be an option is in the writing program required of all first-year students. Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Ethics Program, and Van Hillard, director of the First-Year Writing Program, have received a Hewlett Foundation grant to run a two-year pilot project in ten to twelve sections of the writing program. The goal of the project is to examine the interrelationship of ethics and rhetoric and determine how people in a pluralist society can engage in debate and find common ground. Hillard and Kiss want to incorporate a service-learning component in the second year of their pilot project.

     The Kenan Ethics Program is also promoting service-learning through the hiring this fall of educator and theologian Elizabeth Alden '64 as service-learning coordinator. Alden, who spent the last year on Duke's religious life staff as co-director of the Wesley Fellowship, will develop a campus-wide undergraduate service-learning program. She will also chair Chafe's Advisory Committee on Service-Learning and coordinate a remarkable student-initiated effort known as Learning through Experience, Action, Partnership, and Service (LEAPS).

     LEAPS is the brainchild of Glenn Gutterman '98, who as a freshman became convinced that the various service activities he was engaging in would take on far greater meaning if done in conjunction with a class. Inspired by UNC-Chapel Hill's highly successful APPLES (Assisting People in Planning Learning Experiences in Service) program (the nation's only student-coordinated and student-funded service-learning program), Gutterman developed a proposal for an organization that would recruit professors to incorporate service-learning in their classes. Students interested in taking one of these classes would do the necessary research regarding placement in community service.

     "We do all the legwork in terms of going to the professor with a menu of service opportunities," Gutterman says. "The LEAPS facilitator acts as a liaison between the professor and the students and between the community agencies and the students."

     In the fall of 1995, Gutterman and classmate Dan Kessler '98 talked religion professor Thomas McCollough into being their "guinea pig" by incorporating a service-learning component into his class, "Ethical Issues and Social Change in Public Policy." The first semester, students primarily observed the goings-on at the chosen service agencies, but in subsequent semesters, they have played a more active service role. McCollough considers the effort a success. "Service-learning has proven to be a way of giving students exposure to people and situations they would never have otherwise," says McCollough. "That, in turn, has led to a much more thoughtful discussion of how to address the complex issues we deal with in this class."

     This fall, three other instructors are working with LEAPS to add a service-learning component to their class. These include David Malone's course, "Educational Psychology," John Howard's "Perspectives on the Twentieth Century South," and Elizabeth Kiss' "Human Rights: Theory and Practice."

     Is service-learning the "new idealism" on the part of college students? Smiling, Gutterman says, "You could call it that. Up to now, I feel I have been cheated in terms of my education. Learning has taken place out of context of society. Service-learning makes me feel empowered as a change agent. I think a lot of other students will feel that way, too."

     "I just wrote a paper on what it means to be a virtuous citizen in the twenty-first century," says Dan Kessler. "It comes down to what you believe human nature is. If you think human nature is basically selfish, you will settle for change from the top down. If you believe it's good, you will focus on community change. Give people the right tools and the right support, and they will better themselves."

     How far and how fast will service-learning will be incorporated into the Duke curriculum? Enthusiasts like Gutterman believe this approach can be applied to almost any academic discipline. And faculty need to develop the courage to at least experiment with this component, to expand the realm of learning beyond the classroom and library walls.

     "It's been an uphill struggle for these guys to get faculty such as myself to involve themselves in this kind of endeavor," says McCollough. "We've developed a lifetime habit of theorizing in isolation. Service-learning is a way of changing that."                                                       

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