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2011 March 7 - 12:00 am

POV: Service Learning Can Bridge Success Course Gaps

Donald Generals

Most colleges offer an orientation course or seminar to help new students transition to the experiences and expectations of college life. The course goes by many names and takes many forms. For example, some colleges offer it for credit while others do not. Some refer to it as the First Year Experience or Freshman Orientation and others refer to it as the College Success Seminar. While the form varies, the aim is fairly constant. The course is designed to help students make the academic, personal and social adjustments necessary for their success in college.

The college success course is not new, but — particularly in community colleges — there continues to be a lingering debate about its credit-worthiness. Should the course be for credit and required for all students? Or should the course be a non-credit course with a soft requirement? Should it be a requirement for students with remedial needs only? And, if so, what about those students with college-level language and math skills who lack the personal and emotional skills so important for their adjustment to a college environment? If you require all new students to take the course, do you create separate sections for the students in need of remediation versus those without the need? If not, how do you teach content to a class with such diverse language and formal academic skills? Finally, there is the ongoing concern about the transferability of the course credit. That is, should it be part of the graduation requirement and, if so, will it transfer to four-year institutions?

Too often, this divide runs down the middle of the college with the faculty on one side and the student affairs professionals on the other. If the course is offered for credit, then the faculty expects ownership and, they expect the rigor to match that of any discipline offered by the college – with strong demands in reading, writing and critical thinking. This makes it difficult for those students who have yet to develop those skills and, more importantly, fails to consider the psycho-social dynamics advocated by the student affairs professionals. The course content is designed to change bad behaviors while creating and modifying good ones. It assumes that mastery of the content as demonstrated by verbal or literary expression constitutes changed behavior.

But verbal expression does not translate into a commitment to values or changed behavior. We know that behaviors are attached to values, attitudes, beliefs and personal experiences — none of which are easily taught, or assessed, using the traditional structures of a content-based curriculum, which is dependent on verbal knowledge and facility. Rather, the values and emotional attitudes essential for college success are intrinsic and much more likely to evolve through personal experiences and insight.

Adding a service-leaning component to the college success course is a way to tap into those hard-to-reach internal values. Through personal experiences and reflection, students exposed to real-life social problems will have their moral and ethical sensibilities stimulated in a way that enhances their self-esteem and reinforces the importance of education and community service. They will come to understand the importance of their education given the roles they will play in the improvement of their communities and the greater society. Serving as a critical foundation to their academic success, the college success course can provide an early opportunity for students to strengthen their sense of identity and purpose.

A college success course can be customized to align the service-learning project with the student’s career and personal interests. Nursing students can volunteer for community health centers; liberal arts students can volunteer in homeless shelters; students studying science can help to clean up the banks of a city’s rivers and waterways while gaining an added understanding of the environment’s impact on community living.

For the student in remediation, the personal and career-related relevance will add meaning and restore confidence damaged by the news of their placement scores and remedial needs. Developmental students volunteering for a homeless shelter will rely less on their literacy skills than on their emotional and social intelligence.

With a tightly organized service-learning component added to the curriculum of college success courses, students will be reminded of why they should be successful students in addition to how they can become successful students. The service-learning component will add depth to the course and require students to reflect on their experiences as a way of clarifying their goals and aspirations.

I believe a college success course which carefully integrates an experiential learning component will gain the full support of both faculty and student affairs professionals.

Donald Generals is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Mercer County Community College

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