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Grant provides service-learning opportunities for first-generation students

Students gathered for a group photo.
Students in the Cougs Rise program participate in service-learning at an ecological restoration project managed by the Whitman Conservation District near Potlatch, Idaho.

First-generation students at Washington State University will have more opportunities to participate in community service-learning thanks to a grant awarded to the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), a program in the Division of Student Affairs.

Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) awarded the CCE a one-year, $3,750 Innovation Grant that will allow it to strengthen partnerships with five WSU programs serving about 500 first-generation students. The CCE will plan, coordinate and lead 90 service-learning projects for students in those programs.

The programs are housed in multiple areas at WSU and include Cougs Rise, Aspiring Teacher Leadership and Success Program (ATLAS), Passport Scholars, College Success Foundation Achiever Scholars, and Smart Start.

“The grant allows us to dedicate staff time to network with these programs, transport and lead projects for their students, and help demonstrate that community engagement is important to their students’ success,” said Ben Calabretta, CCE interim co-director.

The types of projects the students can participate in range from socializing with senior citizens, mentoring in elementary school classrooms, and environmental restoration, to helping thrift stores, adults with disabilities, and animal shelters. They will find something that interests them.

Raising Academic Performance

Calabretta said recent, local research supports the notion that students who participate in service-learning generally experience higher academic success. As part of a project funded by the Student Success Seed Grant in the Office of the Provost, the CCE worked with faculty to compare the performance of students taking Biology 102 over the span of four semesters, tracking the performance of students who participated in a service-learning project, and an equal number of students who did not.

“What we found is the students who participated in the service-learning project had higher grades in the class, higher GPA’s overall, and higher retention rates from year to year,” Calabretta said. “The study also showed that first-generation and students of color increased their performance the most.”

With fresh data in hand, Calabretta and his team developed the NASPA proposal to connect more first-generation students with service-learning opportunities provided by the CCE.

Discover new passions

Students participating in the Cougs Rise summer bridge program will be the first to sign-up for service-learning projects as part of the grant. The other programs will begin involving their students in the fall.

As an initiative in the Office of Academic Engagement (OAE), Cougs Rise serves 180 first-generation and low-income students annually from five high schools in Washington. The program helps them successfully transition to WSU. OAE is a program in the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement (DAESA).

Having worked with the CCE before, Cougs Rise Project Director Ray Acuña-Luna said participating in service-learning is a transformative experience for his students.

“We find that students learn best when they can actively participate in projects where they see the impact they have on improving something or someone’s life by engaging in action,” said Acuña-Luna. “It is a way for them to grow as individuals, discover new passions, and build their professional resumes.”

Maria de Jesus Dixon, director of DAESA’s College Success Program and assistant director for the Academic Success and Career Center, plans to continue to build the service-learning component into the curriculum of the UNIV 497 class her students take. College Success Programs consists of four initiatives—Passport to College, College Success Foundation Achievers, Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, and Washington Inspiring Students from Homelessness (WISH). The students she works with either come from state, tribal, or federal foster care, are low or middle-income, or are unaccompanied homeless students. The vast majority are first-generation students.

“Because they come to WSU with complex histories that can include trauma and instability, anything we can do to help them focus more on their academics is a plus for them,” Dixon said. “Service-learning provides them with tools that can help them work through what happened to them during their childhood and empower them to take control of their future.”

She said the tools they can gain and practice during service-learning projects include academic knowledge, interpersonal and communication skills, self-confidence, a better understanding of their community, and empathy.

After volunteering in a daycare center last year, a WISH student wrote about her experience, “It was a nice change to give someone else what I never had.” Another student who volunteered at White Springs Ranch in Genesee said, “It was a great experience and I look forward to volunteering again.”

“If they are going out on an environmental restoration project, for example, it’s not just about planting trees,” Calabretta said. “Our student leaders will talk with them about the organizations they are helping and the societal issues they face, and ask participants to reflect on their experiences afterwards, to think about why it’s important to serve in the community.”

Jump in headfirst

Acuña-Luna and Dixon said first-generation students are often so committed to studying or working, they sometimes lack exposure to service-learning opportunities.

“If you take a historical look at underrepresented groups in our country, we tend to be community-based and relational-minded.” Dixon said. “Community service is already engrained in us culturally.”

“First-gen students are one of the most eager and generous student populations,” Acuña-Luna added. “When given the opportunity to help make someone’s life a little better through service work, they jump in headfirst.”

The CCE grant further strengthens WSU’s standing as a First-Gen Forward Institution, a national designation given last year by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and The Suder Foundation.

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