Soundings: Service-learning: Students use their skills to serve the community

Submitted by gallagm7 on Fri, 08/22/2014 - 3:36pm

By Jordan Whitford
University Communications and Marketing Intern

As a student at Western Washington University, one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences that I took part in was service-learning.

In one of my journalism classes, I am working with a nonprofit organization called LAW Advocates, which provides legal assistance to low-income residents of Whatcom County. My group and I are producing promotional videos and fliers for LAW Advocates.

What really sold me on the practice was the feeling that I was making a real contribution to a nonprofit organization. Not only am I creating content for a grade in my class, but I am creating content that could help someone find the legal help they need.

The feeling of working in the real world also made me feel like my education was being wrapped up nicely as I make the transition from college to the workforce. Western is a great place for service-learning, as more than 100 public and nonprofit organizations partner with more than 3,900 students each year.

Service-learning is an experiential teaching method that takes everything the students have learned and gives them the opportunity to apply that learning to a project for a local community partner. With the help of faculty members and Western's Center for Service-Learning, students are working on a wide variety of projects in Whatcom County. Here are a few:

Anthropology students working to show off Western to renowned social organization

Senior Instructor Kathleen Saunders of the Anthropology department partnered with Western's Ashoka U Change Committee, which is leading the effort for WWU to become and Ashoka Changemaker Campus. Ashoka is an international program that invests in programs they believe can be a leader of social change. Seeking out Ashoka certification meant that Western had to have the leadership and political and cultural climate ready to make the most of support from Ashoka.

That’s where Saunders’ class stepped in. The class asked fellow students about what strategies, concepts, and ideas could help meet social needs and how they viewed themselves as agents of change.

“Students learn so much better when they are doing a real project and gathering real data,” Saunders says. “It matters what they find because it’s really going to be used.”

Her students conducted hour-long interviews and ran focus groups, all of which got transcribed, coded and analyzed. Instead of a final, the class presented their findings to members of the Ashoka committee for incorporation into the materials for review by Ashoka.

English students volunteering to help volunteers

Assistant Professor of English Jeremy Cushman had a group of students who partnered with The Volunteer Center of Whatcom County. The center was concerned about losing its identity -- volunteers were being connected with community partners without knowing how they were assigned. Cushman’s group produced a manual for volunteers, including where past volunteers were placed and what was expected of them.

Cushman says service learning gives students a chance to step outside the safety of the classroom wall to practice what they’ve learned. Students can also see their work come alive, he says. Rather than just be inside a classroom for a couple of hours a week, students are working hard to make a quality product that will last, Cushman says.

Managing change

Assistant Professor of Management Glenn McEvoy teaches students how organizations change to become more effective. McEvoy’s students are assigned to work with small, local nonprofit organizations that are going through any change, large or small.

Some of McEvoy’s students were paired with the Heritage Flight Museum, which was moving from the Bellingham International Airport to the Skagit Regional Airport. The students came up with data showing how similar organizations had changed locations and base operations and how successful they were afterward.

Creating visually compelling material for nonprofits

I was one of Associate Professor of Journalism Sheila Webb’s students who were paired with nonprofit community partners to combine everything we have learned from past courses to create a suite of media products for a target audience. Typically, Webb’s visual journalism students create logos, brochures, flyers, Facebook ads, websites, video – any visually oriented material. My group, for example, created case statements, a Facebook ad and an annual report with statistics and information about LAW Advocates.

Webb believes that the best partners to work with are those who really know what is needed for their organizations, and with those who really love working with students and respect and honor what the students have to contribute to their organizations.