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Learning at the University of Life

Wayne Sneath, left, and Darlene Mills.

Service learning is a 1960s term getting new life in higher education, as colleges seek to make learning meaningful for millennials and medical schools try to make future doctors more compassionate. As West Michigan works to engage the young talent in its midst, service learning opportunities can help retain smart graduates by connecting them to their community before they get their degree. Jobs and Innovation Editor John Rumery traveled to Cuba this summer to get a look at one way local colleges and universities are using service learning to engage millennial students, both far from home and right here in the city.
Compassion. Selflessness. Balance. Character. Social consciousness. Humility. Uplifting. And peace, love and understanding.

With the exception of the reference to the Nick Lowe song (made famous by Elvis Costello), those are all terms that students, faculty and administrators used when describing their experience with service and experiential learning programs, a national trend that's happening quietly but consistently here in West Michigan. (As for the Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello reference, Service Learning (SL) has become a quiet force for good in the world, and maybe it can help with a little peace, love and understanding.)

The term “service learning” was coined in 1967. A definition of SL is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

Initially the concept of learning through service was regarded as “fluff” within academia. But in past two decades, that perception has become a distant memory. SL, often part of other programs broadly defined as experiential learning (EL), is now a well-established pedagogy. And it's gaining popularity as colleges and universities seek to connect students with their communities, often hoping to create experiences that will keep millennials engaged in the cities where they're studying long beyond their college years.

College faculty and staff stress that service learning is both a teaching technique and a process. It has specific learning outcomes that are focused on service, learning and reflection. Students tend to view it as learning from the real world. And the bottom line is, service learning provides a unique experience that a classroom experience can never come close to replicating. Here in West Michigan, several colleges are providing a diverse range of outside-the-classroom experiences for their students and faculty alike.

Joel Maurer, MD, is the assistant dean of admissions at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. He was one of the 11 local volunteers who visited Cuba in August 2014 as part of a trip organized through the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit First Hand Aid.

While in Cuba, the group hand delivered medical supplies to clinics and hospitals. It was Dr. Maurer’s second visit to Cuba, and besides serving as a First Hand Aid volunteer he was also scouting potential service and experiential learning opportunities for MSU medical school students.

Dr. Maurer says the school has long applied a holistic view of candidate’s credentials, going beyond grades and standardized test scores. “A certain level of smartness does not necessarily make a better doctor," he says. Maurer says service experiences play an important role in developing a social consciousness and instilling a compassionate spirit.  

As a veteran of several medical mission trips, Maurer knows first hand what can be learned through service. “It is very humbling for those fortunate to be part of medical missions," he says. "It places a new perspective on what it is like to have underserved needs.”

In the case of Cuba, Maurer says students would develop an appreciation of how health care is delivered in a very different country plus develop an appreciation of the challenges that many health care providers experience on a daily basis outside of the United States. “I’d want them to live with the people of Cuba. Clearly it would be important to visit hospitals and clinics and meet other medical students that are training in Cuba. There would be meaningful dialogue on how they are trained.  Those would be top priorities,” he says.

The majority of service learning programs, however, take place right in the student's own community.

Dr. Wayne Sneath is the program director of experiential learning at Davenport University (DU). In 2013-14, DU had 2889 students involved in some type of credit-bearing experiential learning or service learning activity. As of fall 2014, all new DU students will be required to complete a course-based EL project or a 150-hour internship as a graduation requirement of their degree program.

Sneath views service learning as a win-win-win-win. Students, faculty, school and the community partners all benefit. “It’s a great opportunity for the university to expand its community engagement and service through the process of students gaining real-world experience through their projects," he says.

Darlene MillsDarlene Mills, an accounting information management student at DU, just completed her first service learning project. “I chose to learn why volunteers are needed for Gentiva-Hospice," says Mills, "what impact a volunteer has on a family member and the ill patient.” 

From her perspective, the experience is profound. “Students benefit with hands-on experience in a real life setting that a classroom cannot offer," says Mills. "This experience will be with each student for the rest of their life. It will impact the way they view the world and why giving back to the community is so important."

Mills says her experience has changed the way she thinks and feels about how she spends her time. “Life is too short not to help those you can, while you can. My career path is now looking differently than when I started on the goal of achieving my degrees. I would like to be in a career where I can make a difference in someone's life, instead of just doing my job," she says. "Where this will lead me, I am unsure of. But, I will be continuing to help others and serve my community -- this I am sure of."

Michael Schavey is the director of the department of experiential learning at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC). He points to their school’s Armen Awards, an annual program that recognizes faculty and students for service learning work, as a specific example of GRCC’s commitment to make service learning a significant part of the student experience.

“The Armen Awards was created as a way to showcase best practices in service learning as an innovative teaching pedagogy,” Schavey says, adding that program growth is only limited by awareness. “The biggest challenge is helping students to become aware of courses with a service learning experience. The Association of American Colleges & Universities has stated that service learning is a high impact practice – a practice that is proven to positively impact retention, persistence and completion.”

GRCC faculty Melanie Schiele-Gady, professor of exercise science, says service learning is now second nature for her. “I have been using service learning for approximately 14 years," she says. "My service learning projects are always directly related to student outcomes. For instance, in my yoga classes we learn about a path of yoga called Karma Yoga, which is selfless giving. It is a path of yoga that means to serve others. So we always serve a community partner and this year we served Kids' Food Basket. During and after we talked about selfless giving and what this means and why it is important and we also connected the Wellness Dimensions to class and also the Kids' Food Basket.”

Schiele-Gady says the students are also often very excited to explore career opportunities through service learning. “Students often have great comments: ‘I know this is the profession I want to go into’ or ‘this experience has allowed me to obtain professional contacts in the field and now I have some great references for jobs in the future.'"

Roger Freeman is a GRCC student who participated in a service learning project while in Biology 125. “We researched and prepared meals for the patients and their families at the Hope Lodge Cancer Center," he says. His experience again confirms how when you give back, you receive more in return. “When you are involved in something meaningful to a community it gives the student a very different outlook on why and how interaction on a personal level can affect others, whether in need or not. It also shows them the importance of involvement and its positive outcomes, plus the lasting reminders of how good-natured acts can be uplifting to other people.”

Peace, love and understanding.
John Rumery is Rapid Growth's Jobs and Innovation editor.
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