University of Vermont

Interview: CUPS Director Susan Munkres

Susan Munkres, director of UVM’s Community-University Partnerships and Service Learning office. (Photo: Ben Sarle)

When Susan Munkres became acquainted with UVM’s Community-University Partnerships and Service Learning office after arriving at UVM in 2011, the sociology lecturer had a flash of insight. As she looked back at her teaching at the University of Wisconsin and, especially, Furman University in South Carolina, where one of her students had done research for the Greenville Farmer’s Market as part of his coursework, she thought to herself, “Wait a minute, some of what I was doing actually counted as service learning.”

Since joining the CUPS office in 2012 and assuming the directorship in January of this year, Munkres has learned that the experience she had of teaching a service learning course without knowing it isn’t uncommon. “It feels like it keeps falling into my lap that there are these community-engaged teaching moments happening, and faculty don't see them in that light,” she says.

As the CUPS office prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary next week, UVM Today sat down with Munkres to discuss the state of service learning on campus today and where she hopes to take it in the future.

UVM Today: First, for the uninitiated, how would you define service learning?

Munkres: Service learning is community engaged learning; it’s a form of experiential learning that involves an intentional relationship with a community partner and the intention that the research or service contribute to public benefit.

What’s the goal or benefit of the pedagogy? 

There are three. The most immediate is the benefit to the student in terms of real-world application of the skills they are learning in their academic discipline. A second is the benefit to the community partner in a service or a product delivered to them. And a third is a benefit to faculty in terms of students’ deepened understanding and increased engagement.

Is there evidence that students do learn more deeply and are more engaged?

Service learning is a high-impact practice that is nationally documented to improve student retention and success. And our data (from the National Survey of Student Engagement) confirm that. We see statistically significant benefits for students in areas like ability to work with others, ability to solve problems, reported sense of gaining work-related skills, reported academic challenge, reported interaction with a faculty member, reported satisfaction with UVM, and eagerness to choose UVM if they were able to choose (what college they would attend) again.

You’ve noted that there are many faculty out there who, like you, were doing service learning without realizing it. Are there any advantages to coming into the fold and having your course officially designated?

When you are aware that there are others also doing this kind of pedagogy, then you have opportunities to talk with them, to deepen your practice, to reflect on it. On a more mundane level, our office offers small implementation grants to faculty in designated service learning courses. We offer training opportunities and workshops, and we also offer TAs for faculty designated service learning courses. So there's material advantages as well as support for the pedagogy and ideas for developing it further.

Re-working an entire course could seem overwhelming. But service learning doesn’t have to be all or nothing, does it? 

No, service learning can become a small portion of the course. For example, I taught NFS 073 Farm to Table last spring as an SL course, and my students had one assignment of four major assignments as a service learning project. And it was a much smaller proportion of the grade, yet this was still a service learning class with a community partner. And the students had that portion. So it doesn't have to be the entire course.

The CUPS office is also one of the partners in the Career+Experience Hub that opened in the Davis Center this fall. What contribution does the pedagogy make to career preparation? 

Service learning give students real world experience in connection with their academic discipline. So, for example, students who graduate from Kathy Fox's service learning Criminal Justice class have either written survey and interviewed prison inmates about their family needs for the Department of Corrections or done the data analysis, which is great preparation for graduate school or for work in any number of agencies and nonprofit settings.

CUPS is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. What are you ambitions for the future?  

Currently, we have about 80 service learning courses reaching about 1,800 students. That's about 13 percent of the student body. I would like to see slow steady growth where appropriate. We currently have more service learning in the junior and senior years than our peer institutions and less service learning in the first and second year than these peers. I would like to see growth in these first two years so that students are better prepared for their service learning and other engagement opportunities like internships in their senior year.

What should faculty do who are interested in exploring service learning?

Visit our website, or pick up the phone and call. We can offer all kinds of information and support, and we welcome contact from anyone who would like to learn more about this pedagogy.

To contact the CUPS office, call (802) 656-0095, or email