Making a Difference: Students and Civic Engagement

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A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Purpose of the Presentation

This presentation focused on introducing service learning. The advantages of incorporating service into academic settings were explored. Examples of current projects in both secondary schools and universities were spotlighted. At the conclusion of the presentation, the audience shared their own examples of programs that had been were proposed or were currently developed at their own institutions.

What is Service-Learning?

It is a teaching method whereby students learn and develop through thoughtfully organized service projects or requirements that reinforce the course content. The service is conducted either on campus or at a community site and is structured to meet a REAL need within the community. There should be a coordinated effort between the academic institution and the community served. (St. John’s University, 2008). With this type of instruction it is understood that, “Learning happens through a mix of theory and practice, thought and action, observation and interaction. It allows students to learn from themselves” (Cooper, 2001). Service-learning is often mistaken for and simply called community service.

Characteristics of Academic Service-Learning

Academic service-learning is a vehicle for the achievement of specific academic goals and objectives. It provides structured time for students to reflect on their service and learning experiences through a mix of writing, reading, speaking, listening, and creating in small and large groups, as well as in individual work. Academic service-learning fosters the development of certain intangibles characteristics–empathy, personal values, beliefs, awareness, self-esteem, self-confidence, and social-responsibility. It is based on a reciprocal relationship in which service-learning reinforces and strengthens both the service and the academics. (St. John’s University, 2008).

The Fundamentals of Service-Learning

Students are sent into the community to serve. They must be prepared for active and responsible engagement. This type of service incorporates multiple disciplines. Bhaerman, Cordell and Gomez (1998) state that it is not a “program but rather an instructional strategy, a philosophy, and a process.” Students are provided opportunities to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real life situations. The community must dictate its needs to the service providers, who in turn must adapt accordingly. The students are performing a valuable, significant, and necessary service that has real consequences for the community. The goal of the service is to empower students and also the community that is being served.

A New High School Program at IN-Tech Academy

IN-Tech Academy is a six through twelfth grade New York City public school located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. There are 1114 students enrolled of which 517 are in the high school. The student demographics are: 81% Hispanic or Latino, 11% Black, 4% Asian, and 3% White. IN-Tech Academy hosts a chapter of the National Honor Society with 35 members. Service is one of the pillars of this prestigious organization. The current student members have decided to dedicate this year’s activities to service both in the school and in the community. Some examples of proposed projects are: a high school to middle school tutoring program, community clean-up projects, and service-learning trips during school vacations. After participating in each activity, students are required to engage in group discussions and reflective journal writing. The expectation is to see growth in the students’ self-perceptions and the role they play in their larger community and the world.

Manhattan College Students Serve

Manhattan College is a Lasallian institution located in Riverdale, NY. There are 2,900 undergraduate students enrolled. One of the five schools is the School of Education. As a component of most education courses, Manhattan College students are required to observe school classrooms. Dr. Baxter has taken this observation requirement and expanded it into service-learning. As part of a three-credit secondary reading course, education majors learn strategies in class to teach literacy skills and then apply them while tutoring middle school students at IN-Tech Academy. These undergraduates are practicing what have learned in their classes while they interact with the middle school students. This is real preparation for teaching in their own classrooms in the future. The middle school students in this tutorial program raised their class performance grades. Many of them even improved their scores on standardized testing. Reciprocally, Manhattan College students became more confident in their own teaching abilities and in their decision to pursue teaching as a career.

St. John’s University – Leader in Serving the Community

The Ozanam Scholars program was instituted to assist in the mission of St. John’s University. “Inspired by St. Vincent de Paul’s compassion and zeal for service…Wherever possible, we devote our intellectual and physical resources to search out the causes of poverty and social injustice and to encourage solutions which are adaptable, effective, and concrete” (mission statement, St. John’s University). Students are selected on the basis of their scholarship, previous community service, and desire to continue to provide service. In addition to a major of their choice, all scholars minor in Social Justice. They are required during each semester, to provide ten hours of services weekly with one of the university’s community partners. Scholars also are required to complete a research project in their senior year. Several of them have taken these projects to a global level. The primary vision of the program is to enable students to develop service on a local and global community level as a lifelong presence in the world. In 2011, St. John’s University was honored by the Carnegie Foundation for its commitment to community engagement.

What follows are examples of the projects in which these students are involved:

  • Project Identity–assisting clients in registering for official documents and benefits;
  • St. John’s Bread and Life–bringing food to the poor and advocating for clients by providing social services;
  • Gear-Up–providing in-class and college readiness support;
  • Grameen America–providing micro-financing and other financial services to entrepreneurs living below the poverty level; and
  • Little Sisters of the Assumption–working with the people of East Harlem to address the physical, emotional, educational, and holistic dimensions of family health.


Most young people are not aware of the world outside of their immediate environment, street or block. Service-learning allows them the opportunity to expand their worldview. Young scholars improve their social skills and make contacts that assist them with their future endeavors.

The blending of academics with the needs of a community can make for a powerful resource. The overall goal is for the community to benefit as the students put evidenced-based information into practice. While students are utilizing what they have learned in a classroom setting, they also are developing a new or additional set of evidence to be used by both communities and the academy. It is important to emphasize that the students’ work must be guided by the community’s needs. The students’ learning cannot compromise or dictate the needs and involvement of the local people with whom they are working. With the appropriate engagement of the students and community members, both groups will have developed an understanding of civic responsibility and the proactive use of social action.


Cooper, M. (2002). Florida International University Homepage. Reflection: Getting Learning Out of Reflection (Online). Retrieved from

Fusco, D. (1998). Transforming Service Learning: An Argument for the Radical Inclusion of Young People. National Society for Experiential Education Quarterly, 31-35.

Powell, A.J. (2008, September 22). Education through Service. The Washington Times.

St. John’s University, Office of Academic Service Learning. Retrieved from

Santora, Marc (2008, September 11). At Columbia, Students Mix Studies with Volunteer Work, for Credits. The New York Times, p. B1.

Vincentian Institute for Social Action (VISA). Retrieved from

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World