A Deeper Kind of Service

Focusing more on conveying an understanding of social problems, Warren Wilson College updates its required service learning program.

April 18, 2012

Seeking to emphasize the second word in “service learning,” Warren Wilson College updated its longstanding requirement that students spend 100 hours helping in the region.

Before, Dean of Service Cathy Kramer said, students could spend every second of that pulling the invasive kudzu plant off trails near Warren Wilson’s rural North Carolina campus. A worthy cause, for sure, but one sometimes done with tunnel vision.

“You could go out, and they say, ‘Pull out the kudzu,’ and you would never know why kudzu is bad,” Kramer said. “And that’s a problem."

Kudzu-pulling enthusiasts can still attack the weed -- just not without an understanding of the bigger picture issues beyond the service.

Designed by students, college employees and community partners and approved this spring, the new program asks students to reflect more on the root causes of the problems they address. They must also formulate a plan for continuing their service after graduation.

Service learning programs -- in which involvement with local groups or civic activities is linked to academics -- are widespread throughout the United States. But Warren Wilson's reforms of its program are notable because the 1,000-student college has been in engaged in service learning for decades and, as a work college, is no slouch about asking students to make meaningful contributions.

Starting this fall, new students can count social activism or policy work toward their 100-hour requirement. Those efforts wouldn’t qualify under the current rules.  But the real value of the new requirements is that ability to transfer classroom experience into meaningful involvement, said Freesia McKee, a senior who helped design the program.

“I think that’s actually what service learning is -- to connect the work you are doing with the community partners to the content in your academic courses,” she said.

McKee, a four-year member of the service learning advisory committee, has logged more than three times the mandatory service hours during her four years at the liberal arts work college, which requires its students to take on a campus job in addition to their studies and service. She has been part of group service trips to Detroit, where she worked in urban agriculture, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

But some students, McKee said, tend to concentrate their service on one project without delving into the larger issues. The new community engagement requirement requires 25 hours of direct service (think kudzu-pulling), 25 hours of specialized work on one issue (perhaps using advanced mapping technology to see how kudzu spreads) and even deeper engagement with a partner organization that might involve an internship or service-based research imbedded in an academic course.

Students can complete that work at any time over their four years, but at the end are expect to reflect on their work and make plans to incorporate that service into their life.

“I think it’s a much more holistic approach that’s really been updated into the way that people are leading their lives now,” McKee said. “It’s not a box to check off – it’s part of the college experience and, we’re hoping, an experience students will carry with them after they graduate.”

Madeline Wadley, a senior who hopes to parlay her service learning experience into a job, agreed that the new requirements require a much-needed culture change. Wadley mentored grade school students, interned at a homeless shelter and led service trips to Alabama. She passed the 100-hour threshold long ago, but continues service work. Others are less gung-ho about helping out in the community.

“The issue with the current method is that students come in and say, ‘I have to get my hours done, what trip can I go on?’ ” she said.  “Once they have the 100 hours, a lot of students say, ‘I’m done.’ And that makes me cringe, because you’re never done with service.”

The new requirements only make students track 50 hours of community work, but gives them the freedom to get more deeply involved in projects they find interesting and encourages them to keep volunteering after passing that requirement.

“I think the strength is that it gives students the freedom to actually do something they care about instead of just going through the motions,” Wadley said. “We’re fostering that passion and we’re fostering a commitment to service that will hopefully last beyond Warren Wilson.”

The college started requiring service learning in the 1960s and gradually increased the number of required hours until stopping at 100 in the mid-’90s.  Over the years, the focus shifted from the college using its resources to do volunteer work to Warren Wilson partnering with community agencies to develop mutually beneficial experiences for students. Kramer, the service dean, pegs the new requirements as the next step in that evolution.

Students should be asking, “What are the root causes of hunger in an area where food is abundant?' ” she said. “ 'How is that connected to issues of poverty and issues of a fair living wage?'

“This isn’t, students put in their 100 hours and graduate. This is students understanding some of our most pressing social issues.”


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