Enhancing Education: The Benefits of Service Learning

by Lorie Witkop

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the concept of volunteering. Just thinking about the topic brings up images of serving dinner at soup kitchens or picking up trash in a neighborhood park. But what if the volunteers at the soup kitchen were hospitality business students who were also researching the best ways to cook large amounts of food without sacrificing taste? Or what if the volunteers on trash detail were civil engineering students who later designed a community recycling center to help alleviate the amount of waste produced in the area? Those are the moments when volunteering becomes service learning.

Service learning is broadly defined as community service with an element of learning. Those receiving the service gain valuable volunteer efforts while those performing the service gain hands-on experience, concrete examples of abstract concepts presented in class, and a deeper understanding of societal issues.

A major component of service learning is reflection. You don’t just go to the soup kitchen, serve the meal and then go home and flip on the television or start in on your homework. You take the time to reflect on the experience. A journal is a good place for this, although it can be less formal. If you’re volunteering as part of a group, it’s relatively easy to make reflection a regular part of your routine. Take a few moments in the back room or in the car on the way home to talk about what you’ve learned from the day’s volunteering and what it made you think about.

Why Take Part in Service Learning?
As a returning student balancing school with all the other obligations in your life, you may think that you can’t afford to devote any time to volunteering. I offer that you can’t afford not to.

Through service learning you can grow as a student, as a professional and as a person. If you’re looking for more concrete benefits, service learning experiences are great resume builders while also giving you relevant career experience.

As a returning student, you also offer something that the average undergraduate often doesn’t: maturity and life experience. These community organizations need your perspective and abilities for a mutually beneficial relationship.

If you’re concerned about taking time away from other obligations to volunteer, don’t be afraid to involve the whole family. Your kids can take part in service learning, too, hopefully leading to a lifelong habit of service.

How Can I Find Service Learning Opportunities?
Many schools have an office specifically set aside to take care of student volunteer interests. For instance, California State University Long Beach funds the Center for Community Engagement, Michigan State University has the Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, and Bentley College near Boston offers a similar Service Learning Center focusing on offering opportunities to business students. If you’re unsure about the existence of such an office on your campus, the Student Services office or Career Services department should be able to direct you to the appropriate resource.

What will you find when you go to a student volunteer center? The biggest benefit they offer is a compiled listing of volunteer opportunities. Sometimes they will have one-day, one-shot opportunities. Other times, they will have organizations looking for a steady commitment. They can also sometimes offer perks like bus tokens to visit your volunteering site or a transcript of your volunteer activities when you graduate.

Sometimes a service learning component is included as part of your class. For instance, I once took part in an introductory teacher education course that required us to spend a few hours a week volunteering in a tutoring program. By tutoring a young girl from a local middle school, I was able to gain hands-on experience in teaching strategies while also reflecting on how this experience related to my future as an educator.

But don’t worry. While the field of education lends itself naturally to volunteer opportunities, you don’t have to be a future teacher to take part in service learning. Advertising students can work on ad campaigns for community groups that otherwise couldn’t afford professional media services. A writing instructor can add a service learning experience to an introductory class by asking students to interview senior citizens and write stories based on their experiences. If your professor hasn’t already included service learning in a course, think of a way to use an existing project or paper for community-minded purposes.

Service learning doesn’t have to be related to a specific class. If you join a student professional organization on your campus you can enjoy networking opportunities and career-related learning while also taking part in volunteer activities that are tailored to your professional interests. That’s half the service learning equation right there. Take the lead and ask to include some time for reflection at the end of each project.

If you’re attending school online or through distance learning, then these methods aren’t going to be as useful. You’ll need to look to your local community for inspiration. Check out online databases like VolunteerMatch, the “volunteers” sections of Craigslist, or local equivalents for quick searches. Keep your eyes and ears open, and keep an open mind. If you read the local paper, look at fliers that are posted on bulletin boards, and ask around, you’ll find community dinners, non-profit organizations, charity walks and any number of other chances to volunteer while learning.

How Can I Use My Service Learning Experience After College?
So, you’ve spent some time during your college years volunteering and taking part in service learning; now how can you capitalize on this experience during your job search?

Employers love well-rounded employees. While they realize that not everyone has time to take a full load of classes while chairing the homecoming committee and single-handedly building a local soup kitchen, they do like to see that candidates for a job are willing to move outside of their comfort zones and give back to the community. They’re also looking for candidates with job experience, and if you planned your service opportunities carefully, this could be the biggest personal benefit from service learning.

When it comes to creating a top-notch resume, highlighting your service learning experience is usually a matter of wording and organization. Don’t lie about your responsibilities or job titles, but also don’t shortchange yourself because you think it’s “just” a volunteer job. If you planned a successful public relations campaign for a non-profit organization, your future employer is going to be more interested in the outcome than in whether you were paid for the job.

When organizing your resume, don’t be afraid to combine volunteer and paid jobs under catch-all headings like “Desktop Publishing Experience” so that you can include your time as an administrative assistant and your service learning experience creating newsletters for a charity side by side. Consider creating a skills-based resume that allows you to list relevant experience and abilities more easily than the standard chronological resume.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the various versions of “Tell me about a time when you…” you’re going to hear during job interviews. Your service learning background should provide you with concrete, specific, career-related examples of your skills and experience that you can call on at a moment’s notice.

Also, if you are in a career where a portfolio would be appropriate, let your service learning experience shine when creating it. Think about concrete examples of your work, like newsletters or spreadsheets. Since service learning focuses so much on reflection, select journal entries you would like to share, or write an essay detailing your growth during a service learning experience. Even a certificate of participation would be a nice touch since it helps paint a picture of a well-rounded individual who didn’t just spend his or her school days studying. Think about this end product while you’re volunteering so that you’re not left with blank pages in your portfolio. A little forethought will let you save important documents and ask for letters of reference or official documentation of hours volunteered.

What Are You Waiting For?
With all of the benefits service learning offers, it’s easy to see why I feel that it should be an integral part of any college experience. Why not make service learning a part of your educational plan this semester?

Lorie Witkop completed an MA in Education from Michigan State University in 2003.

Service Learning Awards and Scholarship Opportunities

bluearrow-6361479Upon successful completion of service, students can receive an AmeriCorps Education Award, which can be used for college tuition or to repay student loans. Learn more on the Corporation for National and Community Service Website.

bluearrow-6361479Learn and Serve America and the Corporation for National and Community Service offer many awards and scholarships to students involved in service learning. Visit the Service Learning site for additional information.

bluearrow-6361479Community service is also an influential factor in winning scholarships to help fund your education from private and professional sources. For example, the Tylenol Scholarship program offers ten $10,000 scholarships and 150 $1,000 scholarships for excellence and leadership in community service.