May 27, 2020

“S” is for service-learning

Illustration Michael Uribes / The Collegian

As the number of service-learning courses increase on campus and across the California State University system, students enroll in them for a variety of reasons.

For many students, the “S” that follows a course number is a mystery. That was the case for sociology student Maggie Simms when she enrolled in Sociology 130WS and Gerontology 10S her sophomore year at Fresno State.

“At that point I didn’t even know what the ‘S’ meant,” said Simms, who found out the “S” indicated a service-learning course when she was required to complete 35 hours of community service for her classes that semester.

Academics in action, is how Chris Fiorentino, director of the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning, defines service-learning.

“It’s taking the theory you’re learning in a class and allowing students an opportunity to apply that theory to real community need through service,” Fiorentino said. “That service, then, is going to help students understand the academic content better.”

In a service-learning course, Fiorentino explained, students are required to complete a number of service hours or service projects. Throughout the semester, students participate in reflection activities such as class discussions or writing assignments. This helps students relate the theories and content they’re learning in the classroom to their service, Fiorentino said.

The emphasis on service-learning is seen throughout the California State University (CSU) system as evidenced by the “Cornerstones Implementation Plan,” adopted by the CSU Board of Trustees. Principle three in the document states that “the CSU system and each campus will provide opportunities and arrangements for students to engage in community-service learning experiences.”

In the 2008-09 academic year at Fresno State, 77 service-learning courses and a total of 191 sections were offered, Fiorentino said.

After completing the gerontology and sociology classes for her major and minor, Simms enrolled in American Humanics, a certificate program for specialized training in nonprofit management. Simms completed the required 300 hours of field work with Animal Rescue of Fresno, while maintaining a full-time school schedule and working at least two jobs.

“It was important to me so I made it work,” Simms said.

One common misconception about service-learning, Fiorentino said, is that it only applies to classes that end in an “S.”

“There are lots of classes on campus that meet minimum service-learning requirements and have not gone through the formal ‘S’ designation process,” Fiorentino said.

For a course to receive the “S” designation it must meet five standards as outlined in the Service-Learning Course Approval Process and Criteria, approved by the Service-Learning Committee. “Justification that the service-learning component is integral to and supportive of the academic focus of the course,” is the one of those qualifications.

“It has to make sense with the course and it has to be really tied to that curriculum,” Betsy Hays, a member of the service-learning subcommittee, said.

As an assistant professor in the mass communication and journalism department, Hays is in the process of converting several public relations courses to the “S” designation. Hays said her decision to convert the classes is a result of feedback she’s received from students who wished they had known the classes were service-learning ahead of time.

“If it’s an ‘S,’ in my opinion, it should be labeled as such, so the student has more disclosure on what they’re getting into,” Hays said. “Because obviously it’s more work outside for the student.”

A total of 5,125 students enrolled in service-learning courses last year and provided 161,281 hours, Fiorentino reported. He said service-learning has virtually spread across all eight colleges. Fiorentino added there were 31 different academic departments that had service-learning classes during the 2008-09 academic year.

One such course is CFS 133S, Child and Family Crisis, taught by lecturer Barbara Christl. Students in the class are required to complete 10 hours of service, as well as write a research paper on a crisis topic.

Many students who take the class are planning to teach, said Christl, who encourages future teachers to volunteer at local schools. Due to alcoholism and the high concentration of methamphetamine use and poverty in surrounding areas, Christl said, her students often find kids to work with who are traumatized in elementary school.

Overall, Christl said, many students enroll in the “S” class because they need it for their major and are not always happy about the outside work.

“They do service-learning because it’s required,” Christl said. “They see it as a stretch of time – it seems like it’s going to be too much. By the end of the semester, I hear the complete opposite. I hear how much they loved it.”

Senior and psychology major Melissa Watkins’ first service-learning class, though, was not for her major, but to find a place to belong at a new school.

“Going from high school, where I was pretty involved, to a campus with 20,000 plus students, I was trying to find somewhere that I fit in,” Watkins said. “Community service was something that I knew very well.”

She’s taken four service-learning courses and completed the American Humanics program, while being a full-time student and working two jobs. Watkins also received the Community Service Scholarship, earning $1,500 for 150 community service hours, one of three service-oriented scholarships offered through Career Services.

In the end, Watkins said, the experience meant more than finding a place to belong.

“It was meeting new people; it was giving back to the community, seeing something grow,” Watkins said. “All of those things just kind of contributed to my continued involvement in it.”

HandsOn Central California is a partner organization with Fresno State that helps place students in volunteer opportunities. Executive director Cathy Caples said she’s noticed an increase in volunteering from ages 16-24. Typically, Caples said, students prefer to work on day-service projects, or activities related to their classes.

“We get a lot of requests for positions requiring 15 hours,” said Caples, who added she wished students committed to longer projects to gain a better view of an organization or issue.

The 2008-09 annual report “Walking the Paths of Progress” from the CSU Center for Community Engagement found that more than 194,000 students performed community service totaling 32 million hours of service. Likewise, more than 2,575 service-learning courses, a record number, were offered.

In an effort to increase “S” course offerings, the Richter Center offers grants to convert existing general education or required courses to incorporate service-learning. When funds can be accessed from a service-learning grant or funding source, Fiorentino said, they’re used to train faculty, work on projects and to develop “S” courses. Fiorentino added the Richter Center has about $15,000 available to provide to departments for converting classes for next fall.

Graduating at higher rates and achieving better grades are two of the characteristics that Fresno State’s Service-Learning website lists as benefits to students who participate. According to the report “Does Service Learning Help Students Succeed?” by Fresno State’s Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning (IRAP) these assertions are partly correct.

Freshmen who took a service-learning class had higher four-year and five-year graduation rates than freshmen who did not take a service-learning class, the report found. Comparing data for fall 2003, 19.3 percent of students graduated within four years of taking a service-learning class, and 37.7 percent graduated within five years of taking a service-learning class. While only 17.6 percent of students who did not take a service-learning class graduated in four years, and 30.9 percent did so in five years.

In determining if service-learning affected students’ grades, courses with service-learning and non-service-learning sections offered in the same semester were analyzed. Based on the IRAP report, this comparison showed no overall difference in the average grade earned by students in service-learning and non-service-learning sections.

“Only over time, through what students do long after they graduate, can we know whether service-learning at Fresno State fosters career advantage or cultivates a lifelong civic and service ethic,” the report read. However, the report concluded, “service-learning helps students succeed.”

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