Service Learning Programs

How Service Learning Programs Benefit Students and Build Civic Identity

As a student and researcher, I’ve seen the power of service learning programs to benefit students, school and communities. These powerful experiences also help students develop a positive civic identity, setting the stage for a lifetime of engaged citizenship.

I learned this firsthand as an undergraduate student. I was fortunate to take a service learning class that gave me formative experiences with community service. These experiences stuck with me as I proceeded on my educational journey. At the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), we’re working to study the impact that service learning has on students. Our results suggest that the effects of these programs can have a lasting, lifelong impact.

Studying the Effects of Service Learning

Prior to arriving at CEHD, I was a program administrator at Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity working on the implementation of community engagement and service learning programs. This experience has informed my research and shaped the way I think about service learning and the community engagement projects I partner with.

I’m particularly interested in student outcomes as they relate to community engagement, service learning and building civic identity. I want to understand how students experience service learning and community engagement and how their educations are shaped by their work in communities. This will help us improve the programs and experiences we provide. We’re finding that the environment we create for service learning really matters in how the students and communities are affected. An extremely positive – or negative – experience can have a lifelong impact on students’ sense of engagement.

We’ll be analyzing the elements that make for a successful service learning project with the Syllabus Project, an examination of the syllabi of service learning and community engagement courses around the country. This will help us understand the experiences developed for students – what is being taught and how it is being taught – which will lead to better outcomes in encouraging civic identity.

Good for Students, Good for Schools

Institutions of higher education are intended to benefit the public good. At CEHD, our school’s mission is “Improving Lives” – the lives of our students, our neighbors in the community, and people around the world. Service learning helps us do a better job, both in terms of better serving our mission and creating future leaders who will respond to the needs and concerns of their neighbors. It’s also a valuable tool for putting the resources of the University to work in the community.

Students often enter higher education institutions trying to understand how they can contribute or participate in society. Service learning creates useful moments that help students understand their skills and strengths. For example, if you’re in a service learning class and you are placed as a tutor in a third-grade classroom, you might discover very quickly that you love working with children – but you may also discover that you don’t like working with children. This gives you a good understanding of where you can enter to make a difference and be responsive to the issues, concerns and problems in our communities by understanding how you might best contribute.

To gauge the long-term impact of service, I’m also working on a project that examines the experiences of alumni of service learning and community engagement programs and how these experiences inform their lives after graduation. Are they still involved in the community? Do they vote? Do they know their neighbors? Do they shop local? These choices demonstrate the ways that alumni continue to engage in and with the community after a service-learning experience. We’re also looking at students’ careers and how the type of work they do connects with their service learning experience. For example, we often find that the decision to go into teaching was inspired by the service learning experience they had as an undergraduate student.

Three Principles of Critical Service Learning

My approach to service learning is called “critical service learning,” which focuses service learning on challenging the systems and structures of inequality and questioning the distribution of power. I believe that critical service learning increases the positive impact for both students and the community. These are the three core principles of critical service learning:

  1. Bring attention to social change. Understand the social change opportunities and outcomes that are possible through our work with communities. What are the changes that we are seeing? What are the problems, key issues or concerns that our work seeks to address? Most importantly, does the work we’re doing accomplish these goals? Answering that question is crucial in determining the best way to do this work.
  2. Seek to redistribute power. There’s an often-unnamed hierarchy in the way that higher education institutions approach community service and engagement. If we’re not careful, we end up reinforcing the belief that universities are the centers of knowledge and power, and communities are just there to do what we ask of them. It’s important for us to recognize the expertise within our community and draw on that to solve the problems that we are addressing through community engagement experiences. We need to give community members the opportunity to guide the way that we work and the issues that we focus time and energy on.
  3. Develop authentic relationships. When students can develop real connections in the community, those relationships inspire commitments and actions that last beyond the limited time frame of the service learning experience. Students who can put names and stories to the conditions and concerns that they are engaged with in their service learning experiences often go on to continue work in those areas. They might become school teachers, social workers or the leaders of nonprofit organizations or foundations who strive to affect change on the issues that have been illuminated through their service learning experience.
Tania Mitchell

About the Author

Tania Mitchell

  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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