The University Record, February 28, 1994


AmeriCorps Is Coming!

By Barry N. Checkoway, professor of social work and chair, Task Force on Community Service Learning

“AmeriCorps is Coming!” announces the latest mailing from the Corporation for National and Community Service, inviting institutions of higher education to propose programs that will serve communities and provide tuition benefits to participants.

In response, colleges administrators are preparing proposals for AmeriCorps, President Clinton’s new national service program; Learn and Serve America, designed to strengthen service-learning in schools and colleges; and Summer of Safety, which will involve youth in crime prevention in local communities.

Corporation officials want to “get things done” as soon as possible, and the subsequent proposals will promise short-term impacts in the community. But will these initiatives improve the institutional infrastructure for service-learning, develop durable linkages between campus and community, and have lasting significance?

What are the characteristics of campus-based programs that combine service and learning over the long haul? Institutions with successful programs—Harvard, Brown, Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Michigan, Stanford, for example—address some combination of the following:

  • Systematic planning—Service-learning takes serious planning on campus and in the community: What do we want to accomplish and how will we do it? What resources are available and needed? What are our strategic strengths, and what forces might limit our efforts?

  • Varieties of service—Participants may work in homeless shelters and tutor in the schools, but will they also register as new voters and mobilize grass-roots groups for social change? Will any effort to solve problems or meet needs be acceptable?

  • Capabilities of community agencies—Some agencies meet community needs and accommodate students better than others. Agency capabilities—for example, to fit assignments to students and provide quality supervision—are essential to the learning process.

  • Adequate agency resources—Agencies require time, money and personnel to provide quality learning experiences for students. Does the agency have travel money, office space, and regular hours to consult with students?

  • Orientation and training—Students are unequal in their readiness for service and need planned orientation and specific skills to function effectively and learn from experience.

  • Clear expectations—Service-learning benefits from a written contract nego-tiated by the student and supervisor in conjunction with a liaison from the school. This document establishes a plan for specific assignments, clarifies role relationships and promotes accountability.

  • Meaningful responsibilities—In contrast with “classroom” learning and “routine” volunteering, such as answering telephones and making photocopies, meaningful service has real impacts. It has potential to genuinely challenge students and strengthen their social responsibility.

  • In-service reflection—Service-learning is a process in which people serve the community, reflect critically upon the experience and derive lessons for the future. It takes skilled facilitation to pose awakening questions, analyze root causes of problems, and develop awareness of solutions.

  • Quality supervision—Competent supervisors have knowledge of the community, skills in working with students, and commitment to the learning process. Top practitioners are not always the best field instructors.

  • Program coordination—Service-learning is a professional field that requires qualified coordinators, but they need an institutional infrastructure with sufficient capacity to support this function.

  • Community participation—Community development starts with people assessing their needs, setting their goals and planning programs of their choosing. But how many universities involve the community as true partners in service-learning?

  • Strengthening social diversity—Service-learning can strengthen respect for social diversity by engaging students in activities with people who are different from themselves. Since many students come from homogeneous backgrounds that limit their social contact, special efforts are required to develop their multicultural competence.

  • Evaluation—As a systematic process, evaluation of the student, supervisor, service outcomes and learning performance has short- and long-term benefits for developing capacity on campus and community.

    In short, successful service-learning takes more than a proposal to the Corporation for National and Community Service. The key is not to show results or get a government grant, but to build institutional infrastructure, develop durable linkages between campus and community, and show results over time.

    Corporation officials are anxious to “get things done,” and college administrators want to write winning proposals. But community-service learning is not measured by a semester or summer, but by continuing commitment and lasting significance over the long haul.