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
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
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
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
How Can I Find Service Learning
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.