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Lorie WitkopEnhancing Education: The Benefits of Service Learning

by Lorie Witkop

I'm sure we're all familiar with the concept of volunteering. Just thinking about the topic brings up images of serving dinner at soup kitchens or picking up trash in a neighborhood park. But what if the volunteers at the soup kitchen were hospitality business students who were also researching the best ways to cook large amounts of food without sacrificing taste? Or what if the volunteers on trash detail were civil engineering students who later designed a community recycling center to help alleviate the amount of waste produced in the area? Those are the moments when volunteering becomes service learning.

Service learning is broadly defined as community service with an element of learning. Those receiving the service gain valuable volunteer efforts while those performing the service gain hands-on experience, concrete examples of abstract concepts presented in class, and a deeper understanding of societal issues.

A major component of service learning is reflection. You don't just go to the soup kitchen, serve the meal and then go home and flip on the television or start in on your homework. You take the time to reflect on the experience. A journal is a good place for this, although it can be less formal. If you're volunteering as part of a group, it's relatively easy to make reflection a regular part of your routine. Take a few moments in the back room or in the car on the way home to talk about what you've learned from the day's volunteering and what it made you think about.

Why Take Part in Service Learning?
As a returning student balancing school with all the other obligations in your life, you may think that you can't afford to devote any time to volunteering. I offer that you can't afford not to.

Through service learning you can grow as a student, as a professional and as a person. If you're looking for more concrete benefits, service learning experiences are great resume builders while also giving you relevant career experience.

As a returning student, you also offer something that the average undergraduate often doesn't: maturity and life experience. These community organizations need your perspective and abilities for a mutually beneficial relationship.

If you're concerned about taking time away from other obligations to volunteer, don't be afraid to involve the whole family. Your kids can take part in service learning, too, hopefully leading to a lifelong habit of service.

How Can I Find Service Learning Opportunities?
Many schools have an office specifically set aside to take care of student volunteer interests. For instance, California State University Long Beach funds the Center for Community Engagement, Michigan State University has the Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement, and Bentley College near Boston offers a similar Service Learning Center focusing on offering opportunities to business students. If you're unsure about the existence of such an office on your campus, the Student Services office or Career Services department should be able to direct you to the appropriate resource.

What will you find when you go to a student volunteer center? The biggest benefit they offer is a compiled listing of volunteer opportunities. Sometimes they will have one-day, one-shot opportunities. Other times, they will have organizations looking for a steady commitment. They can also sometimes offer perks like bus tokens to visit your volunteering site or a transcript of your volunteer activities when you graduate.

Sometimes a service learning component is included as part of your class. For instance, I once took part in an introductory teacher education course that required us to spend a few hours a week volunteering in a tutoring program. By tutoring a young girl from a local middle school, I was able to gain hands-on experience in teaching strategies while also reflecting on how this experience related to my future as an educator.

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