University of Vermont

Office of Community-University Partnerships & Service Learning


Service learning rooted in UVM's John Dewey heritage

It's the last day of classes for the fall 2009 semester, and Zak Lance's hands look like those belonging to most other UVM seniors: fidgety, a pen bobbing in anticipation of an impending exam. They're smooth: the hands of a scholar. But just a few days ago, Lance had the hands of a farmer, soil-dusted and coarse from helping to pick and pack more than fifteen tons of produce at Burlington's Intervale Center. His Subaru Impreza, he says, is still recovering from lugging three thousand pounds of carrots around in the back seat.

Lance doesn't work in one of UVM's dining halls; nor does he deliver food to a veggie-mad fraternity. As a student in Matthew Kolan's Environmental Problem Solving class, Lance and his two project partners, Kayla DeCarr and Andrew Godek '10, have spent the last few months gleaning, or harvesting, extra crops for local organizations in need. "It felt really good to get dirty," says Lance.  "I felt like we were directly involved in making a difference–it's a really direct connection that was easy to see."

Increasingly, students like Lance are feeling the immediate connection to the outside community, thanks to the rising number of service-learning opportunities at UVM. Built into curriculum and branching out to as far as Honduras, Bangladesh, and India, service learning is changing the way UVM interacts with its neighbors while reaffirming a historic symbiotic relationship between the university and its environs. Students get dirty (sometimes) and get career connections. Community members get help. And professors get a new kind of dynamic, malleable text for the twenty-first century; thirty years in the making, service learning is here to stay at UVM.

"Service learning has the benefits of giving students a hands-on experience outside of the classroom," says Carrie Williams Howe, interim director of the office of Community–University Partnerships & Service Learning (CUPS). "And because it's done for the community, it improves our relationships and meets needs that might otherwise not be met–these are the high-impact practices that create social responsibility and creative problem solving."

Forget picking crops. In service learning, one of the toughest aspects for practitioners has sometimes been defining exactly what it is, anyway. In recounting the history of service learning at UVM, CUPS goes back to 1879 graduate and educational philosopher John Dewey, who said, "Democracy has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every year, in every day, in the living relations of person to person, in all forms and all institutions."

Nearly one hundred years later, service learning at UVM came to be more formalized, as the Office of Volunteer Programs morphed into the Center for Service Learning–the first of its kind in the country–and began matching eager, socially conscious faculty and students with worthy projects. By 2003, with backing from President Daniel Mark Fogel, the CUPS office had emerged from various iterations and offshoots as a wide-reaching, established, and highly organized resource with research and support always available. It's mission: to connect the community and university in addressing real-world challenges.

"This is a way to teach; this is a way for faculty to think about the pedagogy around some of their courses," says CUPS founding director Lynne Bond, longtime UVM professor of psychology. "Now, it has this strength, it has this integrity not susceptible to any future whims of administration."

Different from volunteerism, different from community-based research, service learning has now taken root among UVM faculty members, says Bond. UVM officially offers about sixty to sixty-five service-learning courses each year, says Williams Howe; Bond says probably double that number have at least some aspect of service learning. In the 2008-2009 school year, some 1,400 students were enrolled in service learning courses, working with more than seventy-five community partners.

On an early December day in 2009, yellow buses pull up to South Burlington's Koto Japanese Restaurant. Out spill nearly eighty-five kids from Camel's Hump Middle School, ready to share lunch with their teachers from Kazuko Suzuki's Japanese for Communication II class. All semester, the UVM students (all of whom have been to Japan) have been traveling to the Richmond school to share lessons and presentations.

"By teaching, they take responsibility of their own learning," explains Suzuki.

Throughout the fall, while Suzuki and her class were imparting Japanese language tips and sharing anecdotes about cell-phone culture in Japan, Tom Hudspeth's Environmental Education students were teaching first-graders in the Sustainable Living Initiatives Motivating Youth program at South Burlington's Orchard Elementary School, or hiking around Pease Mountain with fourth graders from Charlotte Central School. "I was so excited to be out of the classroom and to be with the kids," says Lisa White '11. "It was a perfect synergy of my enjoyment in working with children, and a possible future career in environmental education. And service learning gets out in the field; there is only so much you can do in a classroom setting."

Students enrolled in the Contemporary Policy Issues and Community Development course worked with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity to research community planning and development among three mobile-home parks in Starksboro. Ernesto Mendez's Agroecology class researched and volunteered at Cambridge's The Farm Between and other local farms. In Strategic Writing for Publication, UVM undergrads studied the effects of media and messaging on the Center for Agricultural Economy, analyzing the town of Hardwick's foodie-centered publicity in The New York Times and Eating Well, and on "Dan Rather Reports" and "Emeril Live," among other outlets.

Dewey's words are carried on; in this generation, service learning at UVM encompasses nearly "all forms, all institutions."

But folding extensive fieldwork into a packed schedule of classes can be a challenge, some students acknowledge. Service learning classes can be a major time-sucker, says Sarah Woodward '10, a Community and International Development major from Barre, Vermont who spent eight weekends during the fall semester traveling for community meetings.

"There are a lot of unknowns, too," says Woodward. "You might go into a service-learning project with clear expectations, but it's not always clear what the partners are expecting, and that can change." Because they're working with kinetic forces rather than static textbooks, students might have to constantly readjust their approach, which can be time-consuming and stressful, but also strikingly similar to situations they'll face in their professional lives.

Some community partners, too, speak of obstacles in matching expectations and timing "The biggest drawback is trying to bridge two semesters," says Bart Westdijk of the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. "How do you make it match up; what's realistic or feasible in a semester?"

Beth Truzansky of Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office worries that the administration and faculty might not always be as gung-ho as students, and that the capacity "on the hill" might meet clogs in its flow to the outside community. "We need to continue to creative positive incentives to buy into service learning," she says. 

But with the CUPS office continually bolstering support and resources for service learning–and with the presence of UVM students helping Vermont's local government, farms, schools, and nonprofits–much of the university and the community partners are sold on service learning.

"The more that areas in Vermont outside of Burlington get to see the value of the work that UVM and its students are doing, the greater the support for the university," says Jay Taylor '10. "Now more than ever, the university has a responsibility for the state and the state has that same responsibility for the university."

On a mid-winter evening in L309 Lafayette Hall, a Local Community Initiatives student is about to share some of his Peace Corps experiences and encourage his classmates to consider such service. But first, instructor William "Chip" Sawyer is asking students to process their partnership with the Mad River Valley Planning District and the Valley Futures Network. "How did it work?" he asks of the collaboration between the class and the community groups. "How did you make decisions? Do you think it went well? What was the group leadership like–was it shared leadership?" Thoughts will soon be gathered in "personal reflections," due to Sawyer for grading.

While being out in the field can be fun or hard or both, for students, service learning often has its greatest impact after the fact. "This role of reflection–because they have to sit and think about it, they become better students," says geography professor Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, whose Remote Sensing students use radio-controlled aircraft to gather data on wetlands landscapes. "I got hooked on service learning when I saw grades go through the roof. First-year students grow up quicker because someone is really counting on them, and seniors leave with a practical skill set under their belt."

Lisa Harris '10, an environmental studies major/anthropology minor on staff in the CUPS office, says she likes service learning because she's not just listening to lectures and reading books. "But beyond that," she says, "you're able to actually go into an organization, learn firsthand what they're doing. You can gain a better understanding of what the issues are and what you can do to further legislation."

As Williams Howe points out, service learning produces myriad skills–critical-thinking, problem-solving, perspective-taking, relationship-building. "It helps them learn these skills, but it also connects them to other students, to faculty," she says. "It makes them feel like they're part of something."

And sometimes this becomes tangible, as service learning can also directly translate into jobs. Organizations are not only impressed by the practical skill-set but also genuinely pleased to have had assistance in tasks they otherwise might not have had time for: this often adds up to a favorable rating for students with service learning experience.

Community partner Beth Truzansky says she has seen many UVM students land full-time jobs in the community after service learning opportunities. Similarly, community partner Bart Westdijk says he's been impressed by the positive attitude and energy among service learning students, and has seen a similar springboard to full-time employment. "In a state like Vermont, where connections are so important to find jobs," he says, "service learning makes a lot of sense."