Traversing Divides: Service Learning in the Writing Center

Every Wednesday evening for the past five years, students enrolled in Writing Center Practice and Theory at Loyola University Maryland have tutored Baltimore City public high school students at the university’s writing center. The Loyola students are fulfilling the course’s mandatory service-learning hours, while the Baltimore students are participating in an educational support program called Bridges, sponsored by St. Paul’s School, a local private school. Loyola’s modest role in the comprehensive Bridges program is to provide tutoring to students whose academic, behavioral, and personal challenges impede their chances of college acceptance and readiness. Bridges students and Loyola students pair up for the semester for subject-based tutoring and workshops on SAT prep and the college application process. To date, fifty-seven Loyola students have tutored forty-three Bridges students.

Service learning connects course content to the community in tangible, experiential ways. When college students apply and reflect on their course content in community-based contexts, they become more deeply engaged, and their academic, social, and emotional growth is significant. Indeed, empirical research published over the past decade strongly supports the range of benefits that students derive from high-impact practices like service learning (Kuh and O’Donnell 2013). One of those benefits is increased facility with multicultural competence, leading—at least for some students—to civic engagement and social responsibility (Einfeld and Collins 2008).

In a qualitative study of the Loyola/Bridges program (Zimmerelli 2015), I share assessment results that highlight the program’s promotion of cross-racial and cross-class affiliations, leading to more inclusive attitudes among college students. In another publication on service learning as a model for tutor education (Zimmerelli and Brown, forthcoming), my coauthor and I detail specific strategies for sustainability. This work is reflective of most service-learning scholarship, where the college student acquires “real-world” skills and greater perspective and the community partner acquires the ends of service—the built home, the improved résumé, the better grade. In the discussion below, I highlight how both Loyola and Bridges students benefit in tandem, arriving through collective efforts at shared benefits and thus taking a step toward greater educational equity.

To do so, I use Richard Kiely’s Transformative Learning Model for Service Learning (Kiely 2005). Adapting sociologist Jack Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory, Kiely proffers five conceptual categories for exploring “the contextual, visceral, emotive, and affective aspects that enhance transformational learning in service-learning” (18): contextual border crossing, dissonance, personalizing, processing, and connecting.

Dissonance in Border Crossing

According to Kiely, “crossing contextual borders initiates a complex transformational learning process whereby students … increasingly realize how their identity and position in the world are not only defined by nationality and physical boundaries, but also shaped by socially, culturally, politically, economically, and historically constructed borders” (2005, 10). Kiely explains how dissonance or incongruity between students’ prior frame of reference and their service experience catalyzes students’ learning; he describes how students work through a myriad of powerful emotional reactions (personalize), dialogically and discursively reflect (process), and develop deeper relationships with members of the community (connect).

Traditionally, college students go into a community to complete service-learning requirements. In the Loyola/Bridges program, the Bridges students weekly cross what is euphemistically known as the “Loyola Bubble” to be tutored in the writing center, arriving on a bus driven by an Americorps intern. The literal border crossing from a disadvantaged, disenfranchised environment to a well-resourced one creates more dissonance for the Bridges students than it does for Loyola students.

The dissonance for Loyola students comes secondhand and accumulatively, as the Bridges students share assignments and stories from their classes and neighborhoods. Loyola students do not process the Baltimore community through their own lens—a lens often distorted by stereotypes and misconceptions. Rather, their border crossing is controlled by the Bridges students, who decide what is shared and what is held back, both in terms of actual information and in divulging their feelings. In short, the Bridges students—not the perception of a “damaged” or “deficient” community—are positioned as the agents of dissonance for the Loyola students.

Transformation in Connecting

To help reconcile dissonance for both groups of students, and thus catalyze transformational learning, the Loyola/Bridges program primarily relies on connecting: “learning to affectively understand and empathize through relationships with community members” (Kiely 2005, 8). Connecting is also central to writing center praxis, which emphasizes peer collaboration. In addition to the sustained tutoring partnership, the writing center provides opportunities for informal interaction. The little things—sharing pizza each week, doing icebreakers, attending sports games on campus—pave the way for deeper moments of connection over shared fears about a parent’s job or roommate problems. Conversations become confidences, jokes become inside jokes, and the students comment—sometimes with surprise, always with relief—that the other student “is so much like me.”

For Bridges students, the Loyola students help demythologize the liberal arts college experience, demystify the college application process, and destigmatize the need to use services and resources (like tutoring and counseling). Because the Loyola students represent our student body, they are racially, socioeconomically, and sexually diverse. To date, all Bridges students have been African American and from lower- to middle-income families. Bridges students are shocked to learn that many tutors are on financial aid, or that some manage learning disabilities and anxiety or depression. Consequently, Loyola students come to represent not a monolithic “kind” of college student, defined by race, class, and privilege, but rather individuals who have learned certain behaviors of success—self-reliance, self-advocacy, discipline, and confidence—in the face of various challenges, some similar to and some very different from the challenges faced by Bridges students.

For Loyola students, the Bridges students help demystify tutoring and demythologize the stereotypical black urban experience. Loyola students are just beginning their tutor education, and their journal entries reflect anxiety over their lack of experience. They worry that they will “fail” the Bridges students as tutors. The Bridges students, however, have been tutored for years and thus serve as experts of a kind. As one Loyola student put it, “She became more confident in her writing abilities … and I became more confident in my tutoring abilities.” Moreover, early class discussions reveal that few Loyola students have had experience in an economically disadvantaged black urban community. As my research essay indicates, sustained conversations about the Bridges students’ families, neighborhoods, and classrooms lead to an important transition from blaming individual parents or teachers to blaming systemic problems like poverty and a defunded educational system (Zimmerelli 2015).

Opportunities for Growth

Opportunities for personalizing and processing are uneven in the program. Loyola students’ course-based mechanisms—supplementary readings, class discussion, research and reflection assignments, chance meetings in the halls with me or other tutors—help them process their service learning. Kiely’s research indicates that processing is a critical category in terms of “problematizing, questioning, analyzing, and searching for causes and solutions to problems and issues” (2005, 8); in short, processing enables the thoughtful critique of systemic injustice. Starting in fall 2015, Bridges students also journal weekly, and Loyola students interview Bridges students for their final researched reflection papers. The next phase of our partnership will be executing a comprehensive plan to ensure equitable transformative learning for both Bridges and Loyola students.

The Bridges students may only travel a mile, but over the course of a semester, Bridges and Loyola students together traverse a wide span and divide. I am not naive. The walls of an expensive, prestigious liberal arts university can be perceived as, can be in reality, too tall to scale for some. But I hope that our small program begins to make visible the outlines of a door in that wall, out for the Loyola students and in for the Bridges students.


Einfeld, Aaron, and Denise Collins. 2008. “The Relationships Between Service-Learning, Social Justice, Multicultural Competence, and Civic Engagement.” Journal of College Student Development 49 (2): 95–109.

Kiely, Richard. 2005. “A Transformative Learning Model for Service-Learning: A Longitudinal Case Study.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 12 (1): 5–22.

Kuh, George D., and Ken O’Donnell. 2013. Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Zimmerelli, Lisa. 2015. “A Place to Begin: Service-Learning Tutor Education and Writing Center Social Justice.” Writing Center Journal 35 (1): 57–84.

Zimmerelli, Lisa, and Victoria Brown. Forthcoming. “Service-Learning Tutor Education: A Model of Action.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship.

Lisa Zimmerelli is assistant professor of writing and writing center director at Loyola University Maryland.

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