Student service a growing part of academic life

Jeannie Curtis wasn’t sure Human Development 205 was her cup of tea, especially when she discovered she’d be working with 21 undergraduates to raise awareness of HIV prevention.

“Normally I supervise 18, 19 and 20 year olds,” said Curtis, 39, a program supervisor in New Student Programs. “This time they were going to be my peers.”

Instead of sitting in the back of class, completing her assignments and going back to work, this time she had to get to know her classmates and work with them to create and implement a community service project.

A skeptic at first, Curtis became a believer once she saw the work her group completed — from health education skits for high school students to information tables at the CUB.

“This (project) could actually save a life,” she said.

In any event, the experience changed Curtis’ life, convincing her that she wanted to do more community service in the future.

“When you live in Pullman you think you are in this safe little bubble,” said Curtis, a 10-year resident of Pullman. But working with HIV awareness made her realize that people on the Palouse have the same problems as the rest of the world, even if those problems are less visible.

“It really opened my eyes,” she said.

Course incorporation
Human Development 205 is just one of many courses on campus that require students to participate in a service-learning project facilitated by WSU’s Community Service Learning Center (CSLC).

Melanie Brown, director the center since 1996, said academic service learning — or service that is a course requirement — is just one component of the program, but a growing component. When she first took over, she said, the majority of placements were voluntary service by students motivated to meet the needs of the local community. Now about 60 percent of placements are academic service learning, with equal concern for the student’s academic learning goals.

Last year, 81 different courses required a service-learning component in subjects as diverse as the aging process to hospitality management. In Christine Oakley’s sociology course in Urbanization and Community Organization, students are required to devote 15 hours to a service-learning project.

“Initially, it’s ‘Oh (groan), I have to do something else,’” Oakley said of her students’ reactions, but most often that feeling goes away.

Not only do students develop empathy for the people they are working with, she said, but they gain a much better understanding of community programs and how they work.

“I think what many of my students find is, yes, they can connect,” she said. “They get involved and they realize that individuals within those agencies … a lot of them know each other.”

In addition to academic service-learning placements, the center also organizes ongoing community placements and one-time group projects for students who want experience in a particular field, or for those who simply enjoy volunteering. Still others are directed to the CSLC as a consequence of a WSU student conduct violation.

130 percent growth
Regardless of a student’s motivation, Brown said, her four full-time staff members and 35 student assistants work hard to make a match that will benefit both the student and the community.

“The reciprocity inherent in the concept of service learning provides the model for our entire program, curricular and cocurricular,” Brown said. “Our goal is for every student to have a good experience so that community involvement becomes a life habit.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that students do continue to volunteer after graduating and leaving town, but Brown has hard evidence to demonstrate the success of the program right here on the Palouse.

In the last three years, participation has grown more than 130 percent, Brown said, with more than 4,000 placements in 2004. This year the center is on track to log more than 4,500 placements. While 4,000 placements does not represent 4,000 different students, it does represent an astonishing number of volunteer hours: more than 26,000 hours at nearly 140 different local community organizations.

The CSLC makes community involvement easy, with online registration at the center website. Two things are striking about that website.

First, opportunities abound, from giving manicures at Bishop Place Senior Living to serving soup at the Community Action Center to chaperoning a dance for Pullman Parks and Recreation to gardening with the Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute.

Second, students are responding. On the first Monday in December, with dead week descending and finals looming, 11 of the 16 projects listed for the month already had a full roster of volunteers.

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