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Learning to serve, serving to learn

Developing a social conscience is an important step int he development of a human being. At UGA, students get credit for it.

Sharron Hannon

Nancy Williams, like a number of other UGA faculty members, was incorporating service-learning into her teaching long before she heard the term and became acquainted with its philosophical and pedagogical underpinnings.

For the past several years, Williams has taken a group of social work students to a summer camp at Rock Eagle 4-H Center to work with children who are burn survivors. ­Operated by the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation, Camp Oo-U-La (Cherokee for “cool running water”) is the only camp of its kind in Georgia and one of just a handful nationwide.

The students earn course credit while partnering with firefighters and medical personnel from all parts of Georgia to create a memorable experience for the children.

“It’s very challenging for the students,” says Williams. “They come from different backgrounds and have to learn about living in a group, away from home, and dealing with ­children who have burn wounds, scars and body image ­issues.”

Many of these UGA students say it is the most meaningful class they’ve ever had. A number have returned to the camp as volunteers after they graduate, and one former student, Serena Baldwin, went on to become program director for the burn foundation.

As further measure of the effects of exposure to service-learning, Williams has conducted research before and after the Maymester course to examine how students reacted to the intensive, hands-on experience. The results show that the students considered it a “profound” learning experience that enriched their professional identity as social workers.
“Service-learning,” Williams concludes, “provides a way to make the values and objectives of the profession come alive for the students.”

Williams is so convinced of the value of such experiences that she recently agreed to serve as the faculty associate for UGA’s newly established Office of Service-Learning. The ­creation of the office, which is coordinated by ­Shannon ­Wilder, is part of an institutional effort to promote and expand service-learning at UGA.

“Our overarching goal is to educate the larger university community about the pedagogy of service-learning and the benefits it offers to students and to faculty development,” says Wilder, whose own interest in service-learning was developed during her doctoral studies.

The benefits of service-learning were noted by the Task Force on General Education and Student Learning, which recommended the creation of an Office of Service-Learning in its report to Provost Arnett Mace (see “Rethinking ­Undergraduate Education” in the September ’05 issue of GM/ But ­momentum was already building in that direction.

In January 2004, a service-learning interest group of ­faculty and graduate students began meeting monthly and a listserv and Web site were developed. Among the features of the Web site ( is a definition of service-learning—“A philosophy and methodology involving the application of academic skills to address or solve real-life needs and problems in the community”—plus information about service-learning components, characteristics, and ­outcomes.

The service-learning initiative is jointly supported by the Office of the Vice President for Instruction and the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach. The hope is that it will spur new collaborations between teaching faculty and public service faculty, who got a chance to interact at the annual Public Service and Outreach Conference last January, which focused on ways to link academic study, civic engagement, and scholarship.

“We got a lot of momentum going at that conference,” says Williams. “The keynote speaker was Kenneth Reardon, who created the Cornell Urban Scholars Program, and he really galvanized us. It was an important moment in the history of service-learning on this campus.”

To encourage and support faculty interest, the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach started a seed-grant program in 2004. A second round is being funded this year for the development of long-term, sustainable domestic and international outreach projects with a focus on service-learning.

“The number and quality of proposals submitted in the 2004 cycle exceeded our expectations,” says Art Dunning, vice president for public service and outreach. “We hope this year’s response will be greater still.”

Dunning says he particularly wants to encourage ­multidisciplinary collaborations focusing on strengthening the economic and social well being of people in the Southeast and in other parts of the world, including Africa, Asia and Latin America. “We can be in Tifton or Tanzania,” he says. “We have some rich opportunities to reach out beyond the campus.”

A global focus is evident in several service-learning ­activities already underway. As one example, students in the School of Environment and Design have worked for several years with local planners and community activists in Ghana to produce sustainable development plans that utilize principles of smart growth, economic restructuring, cultural tourism and environmental planning.

On the local front, several service-learning projects are ­under way in Clarke County schools. They run the gamut from students in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences helping elementary school teachers teach science, to Spanish majors tutoring Hispanic students and serving as interpreters for parent/teacher conferences at Chase Street Elementary.

Service-learning is being incorporated into a surprisingly broad range of disciplines across campus. At the first fall ­meeting of the Service-Learning Interest Group, participants came from several UGA units, ranging from the new College of Public Health to the Department of Entomology. In ­addition to faculty, the group included graduate students and a smattering of undergraduates.

David Carswell, a fourth-year management major in the Terry College of Business, is such an enthusiastic proponent of service-learning that he thinks it should become a requirement for graduation. He told the group he intends to lead a student push in that direction.

tudents involved in UGA’s residential First-Year Learning Communities ( will participate in service-learning projects as part of their spring curriculum. In addition, a student organization known as Globally Aware and Active People has affiliated with the Office of Service-Learning to act as an umbrella organization for individual students and student groups who want to cultivate global awareness and social action on campus. Led by Ashley Goodrich, a graduate student in social science education, the group already has an ongoing project in Tanzania.

Williams says she is glad to see the UGA community “stepping up to the plate” in embracing service-learning. “Service-learning has sound philosophical roots,” she says. “But it also is increasingly grounded in scholarship that shows this is a productive and viable learning approach.”

Evidence that service-learning is a hot topic in higher ­education these days is readily apparent. In October, UGA hosted the National Outreach Scholarship Conference that brought participants from 37 states to campus.

At a plenary session, UGA President Michael F. Adams moderated a panel of university presidents who discussed how the “scholarship of engagement” is not only transforming their institutions but also the communities with which they ­interact.

The panelists included the former and current chancellors of Louisiana State University, where the basketball arena was transformed into an acute-care field hospital for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Some 30,000 evacuees came through for medical evaluation, and 6,000 were treated there by medical personnel assisted by thousands of volunteers including LSU faculty, staff and students.

Though not on the same scale, UGA, like other universities in the Southeast and across the country, also participated in Katrina relief efforts, including providing shelter for some 600 evacuees at Rock Eagle 4-H Center. “Academic institutions of this size are uniquely positioned to respond to these kinds of challenges,” Adams noted.

The conference also featured hundreds of concurrent ­sessions led by researchers and scholars from around the ­country. Among UGA presenters was Richard Kiely, an assistant professor in the College of Education who has just been named a John Glenn Scholar in Service-Learning by the John Glenn Institute at Ohio State. Kiely is one of just 25 people in the country to receive this honor.

Bringing together faculty like Kiely and Williams with others who want to learn about service-learning is one of the goals of the Office of Service-Learning. “The creation of the office is a way to build infrastructure and support for service-learning,” says Wilder. “We want to help faculty connect with and learn from each other.”

Williams admits that incorporating service-learning into courses can be a challenge. “Faculty have to have a sense of adventure about this,” she says. “They have to have a willingness to step outside their comfort zone and have their efforts to do something different be appreciated and valued by their departments. It’s crucial that the University build incentives, infrastructure and support.”

But there are plenty of intrinsic rewards for faculty who do get involved in service-learning, she hastens to add. “Seeing students deepen their value systems, become responsible citizens and come alive in learning is deeply satisfying,” she says. “It’s kind of like having a baby. You hear about the hard work and the responsibilities, but you can’t fully understand the joy until you’ve done it.”

Sharron Hannon is director of public relations for academic affairs.

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photos by Dot Paul

Click on image to enlarge

Service-learning projects include UGA Spanish majors tutoring Hispanic students at Athens’ Chase Street Elementary.

(from left) Shannon Wilder coordinates the service­-learning office.