The Volunteer and Service Learning Center (VSLC) within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement is leading the effort to achieve President William Powers’ goal of offering 100 academic service learning courses across various disciplines at the university.
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VSLC Strives to Help Create Meaningful Academic Service Learning Courses for Students, Community
While fellow students at The University of Texas at Austin were interning in places like New York City or were lounging at the beach, graduate student Rian Carkhum was getting an up-close view of Ghana, an African nation that gained its independence only 52 years ago.
From late May to late June 2009, Carkhum was enrolled in “Ghana—Community and Social Development,” a Maymester course taught by Dr. Dorie Gilbert, associate professor in the School of Social Work. Through volunteer projects with non-governmental agencies, schools, and community-based organizations, students in this cross-listed course not only learn about but also actively participate in community and social development projects focused on education, health care, micro-financing, engineering technology, and youth empowerment. A unique aspect of the course is that UT student groups work alongside Ghanaian university students to carry out the service learning projects, which are short-term, high-impact, and sustainable projects implemented during week three of the four-week program.
A student in UT’s Education Policy and Planning Program, Carkhum (right) was assigned to a youth empowerment group that worked with administrators at Ashaiman Senior High School to create a long-term plan to meet the counseling and career guidance needs for the school’s 600 students. According to Gilbert, “The course content dovetails with the nature of community service in three critical ways: 1) UT and Ghanaian students’ learning is enhanced, 2) small-scale community needs are met, and 3) students are able to critically reflect upon their experience of contributing to sustainable change.”
“It was a life-changing experience,” said Carkhum, a graduate research assistant in the UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence. “Going to Ghana was never about what we could teach them or the projects we could do. In my opinion, my time in Ghana was about listening and learning.”
Life-changing experiences like Carkhum’s serve as the foundation of the university’s academic service learning courses, which integrate community service, academic learning, and civic learning to prepare students for living and working in a diverse world. Topics of the university’s nearly 50 academic service learning courses range from nonprofit consulting to sustainable development to the Texas juvenile justice system.
Dr. Steven Moore, professor of Architecture and Planning, was an early adopter of academic service learning courses—he has taught service learning courses in the School of Architecture for five years. This past summer in Advanced Architectural Studio Design, 15 students participated in the design and construction of sustainable, green, and affordable housing in east Austin through the Alley Flat Initiative.
According to Moore, “Students come to understand their work not as abstract decision making about visual forms, but as concrete problem solving for real people with real names and real problems.”
The Volunteer and Service Learning Center (VSLC) within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement is leading the effort to achieve President William Powers’ goal of offering 100 academic service learning courses across various disciplines at the university. The VSLC established the criteria for “certified” courses.
Academic service learning is “starting to get a foothold at UT. I think it’s a wonderful trend,” said Michele Deitch, an adjunct professor in criminal justice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and one of 50 faculty members involved in service learning. Unlike traditional internships, academic service learning courses allow faculty to be fully engaged in work their students are doing outside the classroom, according to Deitch.
Since the fall of 2008, a handful of graduate students—studying public affairs, law, social work, education, journalism, and community and regional planning—have participated each semester in Deitch’s cross-listed course on the Texas juvenile justice system. Students are placed at understaffed, underfunded organizations such as the Texas Youth Commission and Travis County Juvenile Court to undertake major research projects. Deitch said those students gain a nearly microscopic look at the real-world issues facing juvenile justice in Texas and, in many cases, are able to help change the system.
“I love, love, love this class. It makes all the sense in the world to me,” said Deitch, adding that some students have told her “this is the way graduate education ought to be.”
When Dr. Lanese Aggrey, director of academic service learning at the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, came to the university in early 2008, only three classes carried the academic service learning designation. Her office has worked to establish criteria for the classes and fuel interest in service learning. Aggrey’s office has hosted gatherings four times each academic year for current faculty who are teaching designated courses and those who are interested in creating them. She said her goal for 2009–2010 “is to help solidify and strengthen the existing courses as well as to expand the number of faculty recognized for teaching academic service learning courses.”
With backing from President Powers and encouragement from the academic service learning office, 47 recognized courses were available during the spring semester of 2009. Among the participants were students and faculty in communications, business, engineering, social work, public affairs, and theater.
Academic service learning courses “marry” classroom curriculum and community service, according to Aggrey. In this context, “community” refers to something as narrow as a city neighborhood or as broad as a nation.
“Students come to understand their work not as abstract decision making . . . but as concrete problem solving for real people with real names and real problems.”
— Dr. Steven Moore, Professor of Architecture and Planning
Combining classroom studies with real-life, service-driven opportunities transforms learning into something much more concrete than reading textbooks or completing homework assignments, according to Aggrey.
Each semester, undergraduate students in Professor Kathy Edwards’ two organizational behavior courses in the UT McCombs School of Business volunteer for nonprofit organizations; this academic service learning assignment makes up 20 percent of a student’s grade. The students are divided into five-member teams; each team picks a nonprofit that will receive at least eight hours of every student’s time.
Beneficiaries of the volunteerism performed by Dr. Edwards’ students include AIDS Services of Austin, Austin Habitat for Humanity, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. In October 2008, for instance, a team of students from one of Dr. Edwards’ classes processed 5,000 pounds of food for the food bank.
“They actually get in there, roll up their sleeves and help,” Edwards said. However, the students’ mission goes beyond helping. The primary task: Observe the organizational behavior of the nonprofit where they’re volunteering. Yet Edwards’ students also learn about leadership, teamwork—and themselves. Classroom presentations about the projects, along with group and individual assessments, help determine the grade for each student.
“They really enjoy it,” Edwards said of the volunteer program. “It makes them feel like they’re doing something that matters.”
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