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Implementing the ABCD Model of Service Learning at the University of La Verne

A few weeks ago I wrote for this blog about changing approaches to service learning in higher education. That post explored the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) model, which is mindful of cultural sensitivity and shifts the focus from neighborhood deficiencies to community assets when approaching community revitalization.  I also addressed the need to go beyond episodic service learning – short-term connections with community partners— to partnerships that are sustainable, meaningful, and impactful.

Below, I offer some examples of how this changing model of service learning is applied at the University of La Verne.  

“The Learning Connection” with Pomona Unified School District

The University’s partnership with nearby Pomona Unified School District involves University of La Verne federal work-study eligible students mentoring K-12 students through after-school tutoring. These young students receive guidance in literacy, math, science, and fitness from college students who are generally closer to them in age than their teachers. The enrichment goes both ways. Many of the university student tutors/mentors are from the City of Pomona, giving them a sense of ownership in assisting the underserved children who live there. Ultimately, the participating university students complete these months of tutoring and mentoring with a deeper understanding of service learning and take away skills they will continue to use long after they complete their college education. 

Additionally, the University of La Verne is working with the Pomona’s Promise program on ways to help students traverse the path from cradle to career. The initiative is part of the City of Pomona’s Youth and Family Master Plan, a collective impact approach that also addresses issues such as health, economic development, and crime prevention.

The La Verne Experience

The La Verne Experience is a university-wide cocurricular/curricular/values-based program threaded throughout all four years. Students participate in community engagement activities that are connected to the university’s values. Students enrolled in the FLEX (First Year La Verne Experience) learning communities and in SoLVE (Sophomore La Verne Experience) are required to participate in service learning opportunities that take into consideration elements such as diversity, interfaith cooperation, and career planning.

One example is FLEX 7, “Markets and the Good Life,” which combines microeconomics and philosophy. Taught by professors Kevin Marshall, Richard Rose and Cathy Irwin, this FLEX exemplifies the connection between learning within the classroom and learning in the community.  As part of this FLEX group, eighteen students explore what it means to have the good life.  Through microeconomics, philosophy, and expository writing, students examine the economic, philosophical, and ethical implications of markets, free will, and the choices humans make. 

Throughout the semester, the FLEX 7 group works with women and children at Prototypes, a local transitional facility for woman and their families that provides protection, recovery, rehabilitation support,  and professional training opportunities. The semester begins with a one-day service-learning activity where students and faculty work together to clean the common spaces of Prototypes and interact with residents and children living there. The professors then follow up with a shared reflection in which students and community partners illustrate their interpretation of the good life in an artistic medium.  The two groups then come together and share their work with each other. The semester ends with a shared holiday celebration, where FLEX 7 students and faculty raise money to purchase presents for all the children living at Prototypes. 

Annual Community and Civic Engagement Days

The University of La Verne faculty, staff, and students participate with community partners during annual community engagement days. While campus is officially closed on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, scores of students, faculty, and staff honor this day by working together in organizations such as homeless shelters, community gardens, and not-for-profit community agencies.  This year, the university’s MLK Day of Service centered around the theme of sustainability, highlighting the shift from episodic to sustainable service learning. Participants reflected on how resilient communities can create opportunities for sustainable environmental, economic, political, and cultural resources. The January event drew 245 volunteers, who contributed 1,225 hours of service with an economic impact of more than $28,000 to nine community organizations.

The university also takes a theory-to-practice approach with its FLEX Community Engagement Day.  This event is held the weekend before fall classes begin and allows all first year La Verne students to volunteer in the community by participating in a range of activities, from washing cars for senior citizens to conducting maintenance on local and regional hiking trails.  The day is also an opportunity for students to establish relationships with each other, with their professors, and with community organizations where they may wish to continue to serve throughout their college careers.

The Annual Latino Education Access & Development (LEAD) Conference

The University of La Verne broadly engages the Latino community during the annual LEAD Conference, where University students serve as role models for middle and high school students by sharing their college stories and showing them the benefits of higher education. Several years ago, the annual event was created to increase college access to underserved populations, and to engage prospective and current students. To bolster student participation in this event, the university has expanded LEAD beyond the one-day conference to include follow-up community interaction and programming throughout the academic year. For example, during the month of February, university students attended a workshop addressing how to be a successful mentor and recruit other students to become successful mentors. These workshops continue to expand and grow in a systematic and sustainable way.

First-Generation Student Success Program

In another effort to increase college access to underserved populations, the University of La Verne introduced the First-Generation Student Success Program in 1995 for students who are the first in their families to attend college. The program assists students and their families with the college and scholarship application processes, while also connecting every student and their families with campus-based mentors. The campus-based mentors serve as personal coaches, guiding students through the steps they need to take to make a successful transition into college, apply for financial aid, and enhance their learning skills. The graduation completion rate for these first-generation full-time students has increased 15 percent since the program was introduced.

Whether we are opening our federal work study program to more community partners, planting a new crop at a community garden, or helping a child to pass a test as a result of math tutoring, it is most rewarding to see the results of our community-university partnerships. It is equally rewarding to know that these partnerships are fluid entities with a lasting impact and the potential to affect multiple generations. However, the University of La Verne is not stopping there.

Every year, the university takes advantage of unique opportunities to showcase and participate in civic and community engagement. This year, for example, the university is serving as a co-host in the Host Town Program for the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games. The University of La Verne will be housing athletes from the US Virgin Islands and Pakistan, and helping them prepare for competition in our facilities. In addition, university students are currently exploring opportunities to volunteer during the games in Los Angeles this July, including the possibility of having the University’s modern language students provide translation services during the games.

The University of La Verne is committed to establishing sustainable, meaningful, and impactful partnerships. These partnerships are grounded in recognizing the existing assets of the surrounding region and will continue to serve both the community and the University. The faculty, students, staff, and community partners work collaboratively to concurrently enhance community assets and further student learning.


Devorah Lieberman is the eighteenth president of the University of La Verne.  She has broadly published books and articles in higher education literature on the topics of intercultural communication, faculty development, diversity, community and civic engagement, and institutional transformation. She earned her PhD from the University of Florida, her MA from San Diego State, and her BA from Humboldt State.