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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 April 4 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Feeding Academic Success

Photo Courtesy North shore Community College

North Shore Community College service learning students teach the basics of economics at a local elementary school.

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Feeding Academic Success

Service Learning Promotes Learning by Doing

By Paul Bradley

Use the term service-learning in a community college setting and it usually conjures up images of do-gooders doing good things — students helping out at a homeless shelter, perhaps, or traveling to an elementary school to help youngsters with their reading.

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Carnegie Community Engagement Classification

But when Delta College launched its most recent service-learning initiative last October, it needed to look no further than its own Michigan campus, and at its own students, hard-hit by the economic downturn. .

Since it opened its doors, the Delta College Student Food Pantry has given free food to up 30 students each month. The pantry collects donations of food from faculty and staff across campus and distributes it to students who need it. The pantry even gives bagged lunches to hungry students who can’t afford to buy one themselves.

“We are the first community college in Michigan to open a food pantry,” said Sharon Lindhorst Everhardt, a sociology instructor and director of the food pantry. “As the first community college to have a food pantry, our hope is that we can become a model for other community colleges to do the same.”

The pantry emerged from the college’s service learning arm, headed by Michelle L. White, manager of cooperative education and experiential learning, and Nancy Vader-McCormick, faculty director of academic service-learning, cooperative education and experiential learning. From the start, it was a plan to help students do well by doing good.

“We both had the idea and we threw it out as a challenge to our faculty and staff,” said Vader-McCormick. “The economy of Michigan had really been hit hard. We wanted to something we could sustain. The response was overwhelming. People who had never been donors before were giving.”

As the economy slowly recovers, and policy leaders focus on cutting spending at all levels, the need among those hard-hit by the recession persists.

Since the beginning of the year, the pantry has collected better than 4,000 pounds of donated food and helped more than 100 needy students.

Rachel Lambert is a 19-year-old sophomore who has both volunteered at the pantry and worked there as part of a food ethics class.

“A good majority of the individuals attending school at a community college make the decision based on the affordability,” she wrote in an email. “However, though it is more affordable, the costs of college and living are financially straining. The food pantry allows the struggling students, ranging from teenagers to grandparents, to feed themselves and their families. This organization supports and provides for the people who are in need of help.”

Said Vader-McCormick: “The economy is bad here. Community college students are not living in a dorm with mom and dad footing the bill.”

Delta has a long history of providing students with service learning opportunities. Dental students perform routine examinations at a free dental clinic; students in editing classes assist non-profit agencies with proofreading projects, political science students work on political campaigns or in government offices. Vader-McCormick said that one-third of the college’s 200 full-time faculty embed service learning components in their courses.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to foster service-learning opportunities for their students. Most of their students hail from their college’s immediate service area and are intimately familiar with its challenges and its needs.

Across the country, hundreds of community college offer service-learning opportunities. They give students the chance to earn academic credit by combining meaningful community service with critical, reflective thinking. Students can gain both an enhanced sense of civic responsibility and deeper understanding and application of course content.

But as colleges are called upon for more accountability, they are also challenged to assure that service learning results in meaningful learning. This is not volunteer work. It has to be something more, said Courtney Anstett, who has been service-learning coordinator at Norwalk Community College (Conn.) for the past four years.

Not Volunteerism

“I don’t use the word ‘volunteer,’” she said. “I call it community service. We want to meet a need in the community, but it also has to be a learning experience. It really has to be reciprocal. Students can’t be just stuffing envelopes. They need something that is directly related to their coursework.”

Earlier this year, Norwalk became one of six community colleges selected by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for inclusion in the foundation’s 2010 Community Engagement Classification. Started in 2008, the classification is intended to recognize elements of a college’s mission not captured by traditional national data on colleges and universities. Colleges that applied for the classification were measured on two basic criteria: the extent to which the schools embed service learning into their curriculum, and the quality of their partnerships with the community.

The foundation praised colleges for the community engagement, but also noted that challenges remain. Colleges need better systems for assessment and tracking of service-learning courses, and need to pay more attention to building reciprocal relationships with community partners. Too many colleges follow the charity model, with one-way application of resources, with too little time devoted to community assets, expertise, knowledge and resources, the foundation said.

“Building reciprocity into a partnership with a community requires intensive development of mechanisms for mutual understanding, ongoing feedback and time and attention to a relationship of respect,” said Amy Driscoll, a consulting scholar with the Carnegie Foundation.

That can be painstaking work for community colleges, which are characterized by part-time students who have other commitments and may not stick around for more than a semester or two. Colleges can also be hampered by the semester system; community organizations generally seek more than a 15-week commitment when welcoming a student into their midst.

“We’re not where we want to be yet,” Anstett said. “Sometimes it’s like reinventing the wheel every semester. In the course catalogue, service-learning courses are not designated as such, but we are working on that. It would be great to get to the point where it is a system with few variables.”

Still, the college has designed service-learning opportunities that help students earn credit, burnish their resumes and make a difference in their communities. For example, students work at a senior center in a predominantly Hispanic section of the city. An oral history project with the seniors has been particularly well-received. Students are honing their Spanish language skills, while learning about the culture of people who came to America from distant lands. The seniors get to share a slice of their backgrounds that otherwise might have been forgotten.

“At first, we could barely get any of the seniors to participate,” Anstett said. “Now, there is a waiting list.”

Faculty Buy-In

Persuading faculty to take part in service-learning is another challenge. The Carnegie Foundation said relatively few institutions recognize or reward the scholarship associated with service-learning and community engagement.

Some colleges reward faculty financially for embracing service learning. At North Shore Community College in Massachusetts — which also was one of the community colleges to earn the Carnegie designation — faculty members can earn a one-time $1,500 stipend to offer service-learning in their classes for two straight years, said Cate Kaluzny, the college’s service learning coordinator.

The approach seems to be working. Since the first service-learning courses were offered at North Shore in 2001, the program has grown from three faculty members, five courses and 30 students to 50 faculty, 98 courses and 500 students.

“There is a lot of buy-in from the administration,” Kaluzny said. “Our president strongly supports it. Deans invite me to meetings, so faculty are exposed to what we’re doing.”

The college has sent culinary arts students to homeless shelters to cook up meals for residents. Digital media students have helped non-profit groups design logos and promotional material.

Kaluzny meets frequently with community partners to make sure both they and students are accruing benefits.

“You really need to stay connected to the community-based organizations,” she said. “I visit them all. I take stock of how the projects are working. We get student feedback. We have a conversation to make sure everything is going right.”

For students, there are benefits beyond earning course credit, she added.

Real-Life Experience

“Students really get the chance to have a real-life experience without having to totally rearrange their schedule,” she said. “They can really test the career path they are interested in. They can network with people in their field. It’s a great thing to be able to put on your resume.”

Delta’s Vader-McCormick said that service-learning can touch and motivate students in ways that traditional courses can’t.

“I think it’s something that students respond to on more than an intellectual basis,” she said. “It has so much more depth and breadth. A lot of students are coming from the text message life. If they are in service learning, they need to build relationships. It’s easy to delete a text message. It’s not so easy to delete a relationship.”

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