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Service learning as public work

February 11, 2010

This post was written by Ellen Tveit, communications and partnership coordinator for the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

“In the past, I have struggled with the way we characterize our work in relationship to service learning,” says Elaine Eschenbacher, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. “At times we’ve implied that public work is farther along the spectrum of civic engagement than service learning,” says Eschenbacher, “but I think that’s inaccurate.”

“If we define service as anything ranging from one time volunteer activities (usually charitable in nature) to ongoing activities (still most often charitable, but with greatly increased opportunities for reflection and learning)” we find overlap between public work and service learning,” says Eschenbacher. “The best Public Achievement work, for example, exists in that overlap.”

With public work in mind, I talked with service learning coordinators at our home institution, Augsburg College, and at St. Catherine University. Both schools are in the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities consortium.

Community Engagement at Augsburg College

“I think the term service learning is too narrow” to describe what we do, says Mary Laurel True, director of service learning and community engagement at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Students working in community garden at Augsburg.

“We work in a grassroots, reciprocal way with the community,” says True. All of the staff in the Sabo Center for Citizenship and Learning—which coordinates Augsburg Reads tutoring program, Bonner Leaders program, Campus Kitchen and community garden, as well as course-based service learning—are directly involved with partners in the neighborhoods surrounding campus, from the Confederation of Somali Communities to Bedlam Theatre to local schools.

It is through those community relationships that Augsburg is able to offer students myriad experiential learning opportunities where they can apply academic knowledge to address genuine community needs.

There’s no question that Augsburg is committed to making service visible and integrated across the institution. Beyond all the opportunities for students, staff are given two days of community service release time every year, and everyone from the president to support staff are encouraged to — and often do — participate in campus-wide events designed to strengthen connections to the surrounding community through service.

But do public work and service overlap at Augsburg?

With students, the answer is “yes”—at least some of the time. “We need to be more direct and concrete with students about what we’re doing with them” to reinforce all of the skills and knowledge they gain through their service and community engagement experiences, says True. A new program starting with the class of 2014 attempts to do just that, says True. “The Engaging Minneapolis program will place students in a cohort connected to a particular neighborhood and help them see connections between their academic discipline and community and civic engagement over the course of their college experience.”

St. Catherine University

At St. Catherine University, service learning is incorporated in many of the disciplines and degree programs as a way to help students connect theory and practice and to put into action the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelt’s commitment to social justice. St. Kate’s is intentional about creating campus-community partnerships, says Martha Malinski, director of the Center for Community Work and Learning. The center has made strategic investments in sites, many of them because they share the university’s mission to develop women leaders.

Beyond course-based service opportunities, St. Kate’s offers paid positions through its America Reads program and through its Community Leadership Program.

This year, 90 students are participating in St. Kate's America Reads program.

This year, 90 St. Kate’s students were placed at 8 Twin Cities sites through America Reads. They engage in regular on-going reflection and training about their literacy work, and at one session last fall they met with a trainer from the Center for Democracy and Citizenship to learn one-to-one relationship building as a strategy for doing public work.

The Community Leadership Program is similar to the Bonner Leaders program at Augsburg. It brings together a cohort of students to do paid work with a community partner over the course of the academic year. The student community leaders write a work and learning contract at the beginning of the year, develop a plan with their site supervisor, write reflection papers, and meet monthly as a group. Currently, there are 13 students at 11 sites, including two at the Jane Addams School for Democracy.

“It takes a lot to prepare students, and to prepare sites to do reflection and evaluation,” says Malinski. “The threads that run throughout [our programs] are preparation, evaluation, and reflection.”

At both Augsburg and St. Kate’s, service learning or community engagement programs create a bridge between the college community and the neighborhoods that surround it so that a diverse mix of people can engage in serious work. Although students come and go, both schools are intentional about understanding and establishing trust with their community partners so that those relationships have the potential to be reciprocal and not simply charitable. And both schools do, to some extent, create space for students to reflect on their service and learning in a way that helps them build public work skills.

In the end, a more relevant question may be “are institutions of higher education responsible for engaging students in public work?”

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