Introducing Social Justice Through Service Learning: The Spelman College Model

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Spelman College has established strategic initiatives that inform and frame the curricular and co-curricular experience for students, faculty and staff for the next five years. As we think of intellectual engagement opportunities and the qualities and experiences that we hope will characterize Spelman College graduates, several strategic plan priorities have been identified. They include:

  • creating opportunities for global engagement, including at least one meaningful international travel experience for all students;
  • increasing opportunities for undergraduate research and career-related research internships;
  • creating greater opportunities for alumnae connections;
  • providing leadership development focused on individual potential and best practices; and
  • engaging students in service-learning activities that will pair hands-on community engagement with coursework.

The final goal of incorporating service learning into the curriculum is one that we hope will be adopted across disciplinary areas and will be experienced by all Spelman students at some point in their academic career. In keeping with our intention to educate young women who are called upon to “make a choice to change the world,” we believe that the creation of an infrastructure to support service-learning courses across disciplines is imperative as we work to pair hands-on- community engagement with coursework. Spelman College is interested in developing strategies that align with the various strategic goals in a way that allows them to be simultaneously accomplished through single initiatives. We have decided to create opportunities for students to connect service learning with other strategic initiatives by using social justice advocacy as a pedagogical platform. This platform facilitates faculty and alumna mentorship opportunities, internship experiences and global engagement experiences.

Spelman College faculty are encouraged to be creative in the ways they engage students in service-learning activities. While most of these activities will follow a traditional classroom-community connection, there are examples of service learning being tied to larger programmatic initiatives. The Spelman College Social Justice Fellows Program is one such initiative.

Spelman College Social Justice Fellows Program

Spelman College launched the Spelman College Social Justice Fellows Program in the fall of 2011. This program is a perfect example of a single initiative that allows for the accomplishment of several Strategic Plan goals. The Social Justice Fellows are supported by alumnae and faculty mentors (alumnae engagement), participate in social justice advocacy internships (career-related internships) and will participate in an international social justice advocacy experience (international travel). Social Justice Fellows are required to keep social justice journals that chronicle their social justice advocacy internship experiences and are required to connect their experiences to their coursework and assigned readings. It is being emphasizes to students that they must begin to connect scholarly engagement with community activism. Leadership training and development in the area of social justice advocacy (leadership development) are important parts of the Social Justice Fellows’ experience.

According to Carol O’Grady (2006, p. 6), service learning can be used as a pedagogical strategy that “serves as a form of resistance to oppressive social conditions.” O’Grady asserts that service learning can be thought of as an educational framework that allows for the “accomplishment of tasks that meet genuine human needs in combination with conscious educational growth.” Social Justice Fellows are currently interning at a variety of social justice advocacy sites including the Juvenile Justice Fund, the Southern Educational Foundation, and the Georgia Council on Aging, to name a few. Each of these is a social justice advocacy agency. The service-learning activities are not tied to a specific course; however, they are tied to required readings for all social justice fellows. Later in this article, an example of a service-learning experience that is directly tied to a course experience will be shared.

It must be stated that a social justice framework is not required of all service learning pedagogical experiences; however, many faculty and students do choose to create service learning courses that respond to genuine human needs. This reality is particularly salient as we think about the history of historically black colleges and universities. Our very founding and institutionalization were acts of social justice as historically black colleges and universities were established in response to the lack of access for persons of African descent to attend higher education institutions in the early 19th century. The founding of Spelman College responded to two social justice issues—the lack of access to college for blacks and women.

Spelman College women have historically participated in various forms of community service. A commitment to community service is an expectation of all students. When students enter the Spelman College gates, they are met by a plaque that reminds them that “Spelman College women are women who serve.” It is very important to make a clear distinction between community service and service learning. Service learning requires a formal collaboration between faculty and community partners. Opportunities for shared learning between faculty, students, and community partners are expected. Students are engaged in “active learning” or learning by doing. In most cases, students’ service-learning experiences are directly connected to a course or programmatic initiative. Students are required to connect service activities to selected course readings. They are often encouraged to make a critical analysis of theoretical understandings and practical experiences. Service-learning engagements animate the required texts in ways that guarantee what is often referred to as “deep learning.” Students are encouraged to apply knowledge gained through text exploration and class discussions. Service learning connects the classroom experience to the community engagement experience. Reflection is an essential component of service learning. A variety of reflection activities are used as students share their experiences through journaling, performance pieces, blogs, and electronic writing portfolios.

Among the many examples of service learning engagements is the Refugee Issues course taught in the Department of Political Science.

Refugee Issues Course

An example of a service-learning course that aims to create opportunities for civic engagement and global awareness is the course taught by Dr. Dorian Crosby entitled, Refugee Issues. It is taught once a year during the spring semester and usually attracts approximately thirty students. This service-learning course is another example of our efforts to simultaneously address multiple strategic goals through service learning. Students’ global awareness is increased, opportunities for undergraduate research focusing on refugee issues is encouraged and supported and lastly, students are engaged in “active learning” through a service-learning pedagogical format.

Refugee Issues Course Rationale

People around The focus of this course is on the complexities associated with the refugee experience. The course focuses on both internally displaced persons (IDPs) who never leave their country and resettled refugees—people who have fled their homeland, sought and received asylum in another country. The latter are attempting to adjust to their new life, often on completely different continents, in very different cultures, without any family or friends; some may repatriate once stability is established. But throughout all phases of displacement, forced migrants are in need of basic resources, such as food, clothing, shelter, water and medicine. Whether they are internally displaced within their own country or have fled to other countries, all refugees must rely upon non-governmental organizations, non-profits and civic groups to provide those basic resources. the globe are uprooted due to natural and humanly induced disasters, like war.

Students enrolled in the Refugee Issues course are exposed to the many complexities associated with a “refugee” status. Some students are completely unaware of forced migration issues, while others are familiar with them from a media-informed or academic perspective, but they lack a practical understanding of how displaced persons are assisted. Likewise, they are unaware of the tremendous need for more people to assist refugees in all phases, not just financially but with human to human contact. There is always room for more legal advocates for asylum seekers, especially female asylum seekers. In particular, there is a need for more young adults to get involved because so many displaced persons are young (UNHCR, 2012). Thus, Spelman was an ideal place to introduce these needs to students who have followed the Spelman mantra by “making a choice to change the world.” To that end, the Refugee Issuescourse was created. This course is believed to be the first service-learning class in the Department of Political Science at Spelman College. It is also believed to be the first refugee course taught at Spelman and in the political science department.

The idea for this course emerged from Dr. Crosby’s work with resettled refugee organizations in metropolitan Atlanta. In her work, she found very few African-Americans. The tremendous need for African-American women’s involvement in the practical and academic arenas of forced migration could be met by first educating them about such issues and then equipping them to serve in those capacities. Spelman is the perfect place to do just that. Its mission to educate African-descended women, while preparing them to lead compassionately and effectively is an ideal match with the goal of the course. Confirmation of the need for a refugee/forced migration course was based on the results of surveys collected during a refugee forum Dr. Crosby held in 2008, where she inquired if those in attendance wanted to see a refugee course offered on campus. Over 80% of the ninety surveys returned were in the affirmative.

The next step was to gain approval for the course from the department chair to submit the course to the curriculum committee with a request to pilot the course. After receiving authorization from both, community partners were then approached regarding participation as service sites. Including community partners is a critical component of any service-learning course, in that they must be vetted by the college for approval as a site for community service and they must understand the specific goals and objectives of the course and responsibilities of the students (they are to engage in assisting the organization with their efforts to aid resettled refugees, not perform isolated tasks.) This was a fairly easy accomplishment since the resettled refugee communities were familiar to Dr. Crosby. In addition, it is important to develop a collaborative relationship with the service site coordinators.

The next step was to secure institutional support from The Bonner Office of Community Service and Student Development, which coordinates all community service for Spelman students by providing them with a list of approved sites/community partners. The Bonner Office works with Dr. Crosby to ensure that students are uploading their service hours into an online database, as well as by facilitating transportation to and from the service sites either through use of the service van or by providing students with Atlanta transportation passes.

Once all elements were established, the first class was taught in spring 2008. It has since been taught every spring, including 2012. The majority of the students are political science or international studies majors. The first class was ninety per cent (90%) seniors. The others have been a balance of sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

Spring 2012 will be the fourth year the course has been taught and in those four years, there has been a noticeable transformation within students who entered the class aware and timid but exited energized, enthused and refocused. One goal of service-learning courses is to create an empathetic learning environment and to develop more civically engaged students. This is a definite outcome of the Refugee Issues course. For example, out of the thirty-five students (total from 2008-2011) who completed the course, at least four who originally planned to attend law school with intentions of preparing for a career in corporate, sports or entertainment law, shared that they were changing their focus to humanitarian or international law to advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women asylum seekers. Students have shared how much the course impacted their global perspective. For instance, one student wrote in her reflection essay, “Now after my service and this course I realize the impact that I could have on issues that affect the international community, specifically refugees.” In addition, one student who happened to be a refugee took the class so she could better understand non-profits in order to start her own so that she could assist youth in her home country. Today, she is fulfilling that dream.

Introducing social justice consciousness through service-learning is one way of infusing service learning as a pedagogical strategy. Spelman College will continue to creatively incorporate service-learning courses into the curriculum as we respond to the teaching and learning environments that best respond to the millennial student. While all service-learning courses will not be framed by a social justice philosophy, those that are will intentionally connect students to new ways of thinking and knowing as they engage marginalized populations and interrogate various systems of oppression. It is our hope that this innovative pedagogical strategy will be useful as we expand the global awareness of our students, increase opportunities for undergraduate research, enhance alumnae connections, strengthen leadership development, and pair hands-on community engagement with coursework.


Baines, E. (2006). The U.N. and the Global Refugee Crisis. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Battistoni, R. M., & Hudson, W. E. (1997). Experiencing citizenship: Concepts and models for service learning in political science. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Corporation for National and Community Service. (2009) What is service-learning? Retrieved August 23, 2009, from Learn and Serve America Website:

Eyler, J., Giles, D.E. Jr., Stenson, C. & Gray, C. (2001) At a glance: What we know about the effects of service learning on college students, faculty, institutions and communities, 1993-2000. (3rd ed.). Learn and Serve America National Service Learning Clearinghouse.

National Dropout Prevention Center. (2001). Service Learning at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Preliminary Study. Retrieved from

O’Grady, C. (2000). Integrating Service Learning and Multicultural Education in Colleges and Universities. New York: Routledge Press

Strage, A. (2000). Service-learning: Enhancing student learning outcomes in a college-level course.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall, 5-13.

United Nations. (2007). Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. Retrieved from:

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Spring 2012: Emerging Pedagogies for the New Millennium