When I began my master’s degree, I would tense up at the question, “What are you going to do with your degree?” Like many graduate students, I knew I wanted to continue my education, but I had begun the journey with an idea that did not end up working out.
An opportunity to engage in service learning (SL) gave me a new perspective. It took me out of my crime prevention class and into the community, working with an organization that helped youth graduate from high school through tutoring and mentoring. It gave me an opportunity to apply theory to practice, while building soft/core skills and making community connections. This placement ultimately led to full-time work with the organization and, later, an opportunity to instruct the course that started me on the SL path.
Through my own experiences, I realized first hand that the benefits of SL are not restricted to students, but extend to communities, faculty, and the academic institution as well.
The fourth dimension
Work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities are growing in popularity across the country, with governments also responding. In 2016, the Ontario government called for work-related learning for all college and university students and the Nova Scotia government has been exploring how to make experiential learning more widely available at post-secondary institutions.
In working to build faculty-wide support for the administrative, logistical and relationship-building aspects of course-based service learning, I have learned about the importance of building a strong and supportive foundation. I believe that as our institutions continue to develop and advance experiential and work-integrated learning opportunities, they need to be mindful of building a strong and supportive foundation, which includes stakeholders’ perspectives. Here are my top five considerations for building a strong foundation for service learning (and other experiential learning) opportunities:
1. Develop a definition
Since there are multiple definitions of service learning, I realized early on that Saint Mary’s would need to define how SL was distinct from other forms of experiential and work-integrated learning and create guidelines for implementing and supporting new SL opportunities for all stakeholders. I would recommend collaborating with faculty, staff, students, and community partners to develop a definition and guidelines for your campus, which will help to ensure multiple perspectives and experiences, are included.
2. Be a master planner
It is a tall order (thankfully, I stand 6 feet tall), but organization and planning are essential. I am a visual learner, so I obsessively use whiteboards, Post-It notes, and visuals to plan and organize every detail of the SL program, from my daily to-do list, to designing how SL will fit within the layout of the semester, to how to organize SL students within their SL experiences.
This method has also allowed me to develop required forms, documents and processes, and determine best practices for delivering these materials.
3. Build and nurture relationships
A large part of my role is acting as a connector between multiple stakeholders, including, faculty, community partners, students and other staff. SL would not be possible without strong relationships based on trust, open communication, and mutual respect.
I realized early on, that I had underestimated my own networks and that the little things matter. Small actions can go a long way in building and nurturing relationships. You might be surprised at the impact of taking time to handwrite thank-you cards to community partners, recognizing faculty and colleagues with homemade treats, and communicating face-to-face when possible.
4. Be open to blended learning
I have been passionate about taking things online and facilitating materials through a blended learning environment. This was key to integrating SL into two of our online courses. A blended learning environment also provides opportunities for students to have access to all SL materials throughout the term and interact with peers engaged with the same community partner. We promote online engagement through our student learning platform Brightspace (D2L), video modules containing orientation materials and Typeform, which facilitates the sign-up process and feedback surveys. Additionally, by Fall 2019, we will be launching our new student engagement platform that will allow Career Services, Service Learning, Co-Curricular Record (CCR), and Co-operative Education to merge onto the same platform.
5. Reflection: not just for students
Reflection is a huge aspect of experiential and work-integrated learning, bridging the gap between service and learning, so coordinators have to be willing to reflect, have difficult conversations, gather feedback from all stakeholders, evaluate what worked well and what needs improvement, and then be prepared to adapt and pivot when something is creating a barrier or not working. This is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of my position, and I still have much to learn and reflect on.