Diversity and Democracy

Socks, Trains, and Wheelchairs: Service Learning as the Vehicle for Teaching Diversity

I first encountered service learning when a member of APPLES (Assisting People in Planning Learning Experiences in Service), a student-initiated service-learning organization at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), knocked on my door to ask if I would consider incorporating community placements into a class. After reading Robert Sigmon’s work about the potential of this reciprocal pedagogy to transform educational outcomes (1973, 1979), I said “yes” and began offering service learning as an option in my course Women and Economics. Thus began a journey that propelled me and my students from the classroom to child-care centers in sock factories, to trains in metro systems around the world, and into wheelchairs throughout the sixteen campuses of the University of North Carolina.

Nearly two decades after my first encounter with service learning, I incorporate the pedagogy into nearly every course I offer. Having embraced the principles Ernest Boyer laid out in Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), I found that service learning enabled me to move from the “scholarship of integration” I had practiced in the classroom to a “scholarship of application” in the community and a “scholarship of teaching” in the classroom. My students and I discovered a diverse range of experiences both inside and outside the classroom that transformed the way we understood our place in the world and how we might contribute. I never could have imagined that service-learning placements with socks, trains, and wheelchairs would be the “vehicle” for teaching us to better understand and value diversity in education—and in the communities around us.

Launching the Journey Toward Improved Learning Outcomes

I had already taught Women and Economics three times before the APPLES student knocked on my door. Quantitative measures of my students’ learning outcomes indicated that the course was very successful. My students were experts at analyzing and communicating the relationship between gender, labor force patterns, household formation, and socioeconomic trends. They demonstrated their knowledge and expertise time and again on examinations and in class projects.

Still, I had to admit that I hadn’t yet found a way to bring the true complexity of real life into the classroom. My students had difficulty understanding how decisions related to time allocation between work and home were made in practice. They could analyze the impact of education, family formation, and employment decisions with expert ease. But they struggled to appreciate how the more complex and conditional factors of wealth, chance, and sequential decision-making—much less discrimination, divorce, or death of a partner—could impact a person’s lifetime economic prospects.

Bright, hard-working young adults at a very competitive academic institution, my students represented a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, cultural identities (including the occasional international student or student with a physical or learning disability), and even socioeconomic statuses (students came from both privileged backgrounds and less-affluent rural and urban high schools). But despite these differences, they tended to share one thing in common: they were almost always traditionally aged students without ongoing child- or elder-care responsibilities. Thus as a group, they had limited experience in making the complex decisions required when “life happens.” They generally attributed their achievements to hard work and good fortune, and they optimistically expected that the same work and fortune would continue to propel them along their chosen paths. This wasn’t arrogance—it was a simple lack of experience with a world full of uncertainty and imperfect information.

Textbook approaches, exams, and even research papers were inadequate teaching tools to help my students understand the complex external factors that affect people’s opportunities, decisions, and incomes. I felt a pressing need to teach my students how unforeseeable circumstances and choices could affect their own future prospects and those of the communities where they would work and live. So when the APPLES student offered me the opportunity to “bring the real world” to my classroom, I was more than willing to try.

Unexpected Paths to Diversity Learning

My first service-learning students assisted low-income parents with filing income tax forms, conducted quantitative research to document how gender affects work experiences and compensation, and collected and communicated data that could be used to improve working conditions for women in North Carolina. These initial projects had two explicit goals: (1) to help students develop a deeper understanding of textbook models and (2) to serve the community in tangible ways. We met these two objectives over and over again in each course and with nearly every placement.

Even as we fulfilled our two objectives, I saw a third extraordinary result emerging: service learning clearly enabled my students to more fully understand the value of diverse perspectives. I first saw evidence of this newfound appreciation in their journal entries, where students related moments of epiphany about the effect of gender differences on economic outcomes. By listening to perspectives different from their own, they came to appreciate the impact of “stochastic variation” (i.e., luck) and gender-based circumstances that they had seen play out in the disaggregated economic data.

Some students, amazed at the persistence of clients who struggled to achieve better access to work or school, found their assumptions about people of certain socioeconomic backgrounds challenged. Others, frustrated as they observed unjust resource allocation, came to understand the systemic inequities that limited even their own abilities to offer service. Many students related compelling narratives about the complex relationship between identity (social, economic, physical, legal, and geographical, to merely scratch the surface) and access to the benefits of community. Through their service-learning placements, my students came to understand that their assumptions about agency and responsibility had been misinformed and misplaced.

Over and over again, my students pointed out that the theoretical models available were inadequate in explaining behavior, that information can be prohibitively costly for those who most need it, and that “access to work” hinges on a far more complex set of factors than they could have imagined. My undergraduates were learning to apply tools of analysis developed in the classroom to the diversity they encountered in the community, while serving the community at the same time. Their deepened level of critical analysis challenged me to consider how I could more thoughtfully and intentionally incorporate diversity education into my teaching. I wanted to effectively prepare my students for the complicated world where they would work and live after graduation.

Intentional Learning in a Diverse World

Inspired by this serendipitous discovery, I found a variety of ways to incorporate diversity into my service-learning projects. In an experimental course on “The Economics of Higher Education,” I deliberately offered diverse placements so students would encounter a variety of experiences that they could then share in the classroom. Some students tutored in ESL programs at the local high school. Others taught adults at a local church’s community center. Some organized college admission and financial aid information programs for students from rural or low-wealth high schools. A few served in higher education administration placements related to increasing access to education. By comparing and contrasting their experiences, my students saw higher education from a wide range of perspectives and came to see the value of diversity in a new light.

True service-learning practice (with a bidirectional hyphen) enables students to understand that people with different resources, characteristics, and backgrounds frequently have much to teach them about the subject of inquiry. My students often found this to be the case. One student found a near-perfect correlation between race and income in the high school where he tutored. The students of color lived in public housing or small apartments and had few resources to prepare them for post-graduation training. My student encouraged his ESL students to go to the high school’s college fair in spite of their protests that the exercise was irrelevant to their futures. He then watched as only technical colleges and military recruiters showed a genuine interested in talking with his students of color. His students had become his teacher and, through his thoughtful reflections, I became his student. 

Service learning also attracted more diverse student groups to my classes. Students of color, nontraditional students, and students with social, economic, or learning challenges recognized the value of the pedagogy and wanted to help their own communities while learning about economics. A student from a rural manufacturing community convinced me to take up the cause of educating workers in her hometown. Our initial efforts evolved into a multiyear, multifaceted project entitled SOCKHELP (Sharing Our Computer Knowledge to Help Educate and Link People), an early Internet resource that offered training, information, and resources for sock factory employees. My students eventually created a resource network to help improve higher education access for factory workers’ children (many of whom are Hmong immigrants), including annual visits to college campuses for first-generation college-aspiring students (www.unc.edu/hsac/).

Another student created a program to teach middle school students about transit alternatives. He quickly discovered that children from lower-income families were more likely to use public transit and understand bus schedules, maps, and the role of land-use planning. In this context, the smartest kid in the class was not necessarily the one with the top grades—and my student saw that this was true of his college classmates as well. His epiphany led him to create a spring break journey for his college classmates to examine transit alternatives along the eastern seaboard. Entitled THINK Transit (Teaching How to Incorporate New Kinds of Transit), the trip exposed participants to new perspectives on transit planning.

A blind student I taught during my first term at Carolina taught me that perspectives of the differently abled were essential to understanding opportunity and access. After serving on the Facilities Planning and University Master Land Use committee, I developed a project where students measured wheelchair accessibility throughout the UNC system. Elon University honors and digital design student Thomas Barnett collaborated with us to create a Web site to educate people about accessibility (http://access.unc.edu/). Thomas passed away due to Friedreich’s Ataxia a few weeks after he was awarded the Elon Medallion for his art and activism. This extraordinary Web site reminds us that by taking diversity into account, we help everyone better navigate their world.


Taken together, these projects on socks, trains, and wheelchairs are preparing my students to live in a complex, global world. Through service-learning courses based in my own public service and research projects, my students have learned to value difference. Service-learning courses can evolve to attract students from more diverse backgrounds, engage all students more effectively in understanding their responsibility as citizens, and increase our collective capacities to value and learn from diversity. Socks, trains, and wheelchairs have all served as vehicles to teaching diversity through service learning. I can’t wait to see what is next.

Creating Diverse Placements

Creating Diverse Placements

  1. Share with others what you teach and how you teach. Learn what they do. You can discover mutual interests for service-learning opportunities.
  2. Talk about your work at conferences, on the bleachers, in car pools, and whenever the opportunity arises. You never know where a connection will develop.
  3. Search e-mail address lists for clues about community organizations and individuals that might offer service-learning placements or projects that relate to your courses.
Recruiting a Diverse Group of Students
  1. Attend cocurricular and extracurricular campus and community events related to the course’s subject matter and introduce yourself to students, faculty, and program leaders.
  2. Advertise the course focus and potential placements through related student organizations and listservs.
  3. Participate in the selection and mentoring of underrepresented students through campus or community service programs and be sure these students know about your teaching interests and pedagogy.

—Rachel A. Willis


Boyer, E. L. 1990. Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Sigmon, R. L. 1973. Service-learning: An educational style. Service-learning in the South: Higher education and public service 1967-1972. Atlanta, Georgia: Southern Regional Education Board.

—. 1979. Service-learning: Three principles. Synergist, 8(1): 9-11.

Rachel A. Willis is the Bowman and Gordon Gray Professor of American Studies and Economics at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

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