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Rethinking How We Perceive and Approach Service Learning

By Devorah Lieberman, President, University of La Verne

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote that “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Those words ring especially true for service learning over the last three decades, as many universities have shifted from the original intent of service learning—preparing students to become engaged citizens by introducing them to the challenges experienced by underserved communities—to connecting students and communities in mutually beneficial ways that are deeper, more sustainable, more committed, and more meaningful.

The original intention of service learning was never just to take college students into underserved neighborhoods to improve them one project at a time. Campus leaders envisioned their students would become inspired by their service-learning experiences, graduate, and perpetuate the practice by continuing to give back to society. However, the swiftly changing demographics of college enrollment have impacted this model and revealed to us that, in order to impact the lives of students and their community partners as we intended, the scope of service learning must evolve.

The Intersection of “Service” and “Learning”
We start by asking, “Where is the intersection of benefits both to the students and to the communities during the ‘service-learning’ experience?” Tools such as AAC&U’s Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric can be used to identify the benefits students receive from service learning.  We must continue to explore multiple tools and approaches for documenting how, where, when, and why “service learning” benefits our communities.  It is encouraging to find more and more community leaders and policy makers eager to take a long-term strategic approach that balances and recognizes the benefits of the community-university partnership between learning and service, both for students and community partners.

Sustainable or Episodic Service Learning Experiences

Community leaders have long expressed concern over the episodic service-learning projects or experiences that seem to come and go each semester.  Episodic service learning has been articulated as individual students, classes, or universities engaging with a community partner without a commitment to a long-term, sustainable relationship between the university and the community partner.  Additionally, service-learning activities have traditionally been guided by the particular interests of a faculty member or a student, not necessarily the expressed long-term needs of an agency or the community. The evolution from service learning to civic and community engagement is shifting this focus. At the macro level and through a national shift moving from episodic to sustainable, colleges and universities are forming partnerships with entire communities surrounding their campuses. Teams consisting of representatives from city government, education, business, and nonprofit agencies, and those of faculty, staff, and students, meet to set strategic objectives for the partnership as well as how these identified outcomes will be assessed and how issues that emerge can be resolved.  These are projects that continue on term after term, year after year, connecting to universities and enhancing communities.

Shifting Demographics and Shifting Approaches to Civic and Community Engagement

The core challenge of service learning and civic engagement remains the same.  The communities with the greatest needs— and thus the greatest opportunities— are often economically stressed and racially and ethnically diverse, mirroring the emerging “new majority” of US college students, many of whom are the first in their families to pursue undergraduate degrees. These communities reflect America’s evolving demographics.

For example, college attendance amongst Hispanic/Latino students increased by 58 percent from 1990 to 2012. In that same period, African American student enrollment increased by 30 percent and white student enrollment increased by 16 percent (Digest of Education Statistics 2014). In addition, approximately two-fifths of first-generation students in college are from traditionally underrepresented populations (Strand 2013). The student population will continue to become more diverse, both ethnically and socioeconomically. Such continued changes in demographics suggest that a significant percentage of students will be returning to their home neighborhoods to participate in service-learning projects.

Assets-Based Community Development- ABCD

The traditional model for service learning/civic engagement tends to focus on what needs to be “fixed” or what is “broken” within a community; what is missing rather than what exists. If we continue with this approach, we risk disrespecting our own students who come from these very neighborhoods.

After all, these communities are interwoven with multiple ethnicities, socioeconomic strata, cultures, nationalities, religions, and languages. These students attending colleges and participating in service learning courses do not view their neighborhoods as “broken.” Instead, they respect and admire their families and friends, their schools and places of worship. As institutional leaders, we must be respectful as well.

John Kretzmann and John McKnight developed “Assets-Based Community Development” (ABCD) and founded the Asset-Based Community Development Institute in the mid-1990s. This model changes the way we view the communities we serve. Rather than focusing on the needs and deficiencies of a neighborhood, the ABCD approach allows us to look deeper into a community’s assets. An increasing number of higher education institutions are implementing this approach within their service learning programs, and for good reason.

The ABCD perspective is founded on four core components (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; Mathie & Cunningham 2003):

  1. It focuses on community assets and strengths as well as problems and needs.
  2. It identifies and mobilizes individual and community assets, skills, and passions.
  3. It is community driven – ‘building communities from the inside out’ (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).
  4. It is relationship driven.

According to a study by the Council of Independent Colleges, about two-fifths of first-generation students are individuals of color. Research suggests it is critical that from their very first days on our campuses, we must strategically and respectfully assist and support them and their families to ensure they persist through graduation. In order to best serve these students, we need to look at our curricular and cocurricular college experiences and determine whether we are providing the “connection” between campus and community that these students need.  Additionally, children in the communities served are exposed to college students with similar backgrounds, possibly from the very same community, and are given role models and real-life examples of the opportunity and access to higher education that are available to them.

The ABCD perspective helps identify assets in such communities, including

  • leaders of vision, determination, ethics, and broad respect with the goals of expanding educational, health, safety, and economic opportunities for residents;
  • cohesiveness of ethnic and religious communities; and
  • government, educational, health, business, and nonprofit organizations willing to collaborate in that location and increase their ability to attract new resources.

Through the ABCD model, institutions not only help strengthen the communities in their neighborhoods, but simultaneously remove barriers to civic engagement for students and enhance the educational experience for all members of the academic community. In a forthcoming post, I’ll elaborate on how we are meeting this challenge at University of La Verne.

Dr. 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 University, and her BA from Humboldt State University.



Digest of Educational Statistics 2014 (table 306.02), National Center for Educational Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, Washington, DC.

Kretzmann, J., & McKnight, J. 1993. Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications.

Mathie, Allison and Cunningham, Gord. 2003. From Clients to Citizens: Asset-Based Community Development as a Strategy for Community Driven Development. Development in Practice, Vol. 13, No. 5 (Nov. 2003).

Strand, K. 2013. Making Sure They Make It! Best Practices for Ensuring the Academic Success of First-Generation College Students. Washington, DC: Council of Independent Colleges.