Community work is valuable for all kinds of reasons. It’s a way of giving back and making a positive contribution to the world—but, in the classroom, there’s more to it than that.Partnerships with community organizations can be a great way for students to expand their experience levels, understand the ins and outs of a field outside the classroom, gain skills that can be brought back to benefit studies or research, or even road-test future career plans, all while offering expertise to organizations that can make great use of it.
Community service can be applied to any discipline that requires a mix of theory and practice—from language students volunteering abroad to experience linguistic immersion to medical students volunteering in hospitals and law students assisting with legal clinics. For Carly Rita Barbour, who took part in a legal clinic program at New England Law Boston, “The experience from taking a clinic is just as valuable—and even more so, in some ways—as any course taught in a traditional classroom.”
She gained experience in preparing documents for court, formulating arguments for clients, and other practical elements that she’ll need in her career. The value of that hands-on court experience can’t be underestimated, she says: “I learned skills that really can’t be taught without observation and direct guidance.”
Finding ways to bridge theory and practice can be a real challenge for students and early career academics. So being able to implement coursework through experience “just made so much sense,” says Ryan Selvaggio, a Vanderbilt University graduate who worked with a variety of service learning projects during his bachelor’s degree.
Ultimately, the experience steered Selvaggio towards his current career: “I realized that I loved hearing the voices of students and finding ways to lift them up, and those experiences were direct connections to my current career as an educator for recent refugees and immigrants to Nashville.”
Career rocket fuel
Apart from its direct academic impact, the benefits of service learning for students can also include development of broad skills that will be useful in any career, like problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as professionalism and leadership abilities. Grace Howell, Land Management Specialist at Alachua Conservation Trust, works with interns at Women in the Woods, a program that offers students and recent graduates on-the-ground experience in land management. The women who take part in the program bring their academic training to the important work of restoring degraded ecosystems, while building the practical skills that they’ll need to pursue careers in natural resource management.
This combination of real-world knowledge and academic qualifications is a winning combination, Grace says.
“Local agencies and employers often contact me when there are entry-level job openings because they know that ACT interns have had exposure to real world skills and knowledge of local natural resources in addition to solid academic backgrounds,” she says.
This experience is backed up by a report by Deloitte Volunteer Impact. It finds that 81% of hiring recruiters find that “skilled volunteering makes a college graduate more desirable.” It’s a strong indicator of not just practical skills, but also a student who is committed and has a strong understanding of what her chosen field entails.
Apart from its direct academic impact, the benefits of service learning for students can also include development of broad skills that will be useful in any career.
For La Tonya White, a medical student at Wayne State University in Michigan, having opportunities to interact with patients through volunteering has confirmed that she’s on the right path, despite how challenging medical school can be. “When you step into a hospital or clinic and interact with patients,” she says, “you realize that this is truly what you want to do for the rest of your life and there is no greater feeling.”
There’s a lot to be learned about teaching by volunteering as professors, too. Taking her humanities teaching out of the academy and into Indiana Women’s Prison convinced historian Alex Tipei that “going to prison” would be invaluable for academics generally—“not because volunteering in these institutions is the ‘right thing’ to do she says, “but because, as individual instructors and members of an academic corps, we have much to learn by participating in such programs.”
To be sure that the partnership between a community organization and university is successful and works for everyone involved, it needs to be genuinely collaborative, with community members and students interacting on an equal footing. This can be quite different from other volunteering experiences, says Selvaggio.
“Instead of coming in and deciding what I wanted to do for my project on my own, I had to hear the voices from those working there and also those who are being served there,” Selvaggio adds.
Regardless of the industry, community work is an excellent way to gain practical knowledge in the field—and even if it doesn’t end up being directly relevant to your research, indirect results like experience and confidence will be invaluable for your career going forward.
- Barbour, Cayla Rita. (2019) Retrieved from: https://www.nesl.edu/news/detail/what-are-law-school-clinical-programs-really-like-students-explain
- Tipei, Alex. (2019) Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-All-Humanists-Should-Go-to/237878
- Whyte, Molly. (2019) Retrieved from: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/why-student-volunteering-matters
- White, La Tonya. (2019) Retrieved from: https://www.csudh.edu/cnbs/students-testimonials