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When classroom meets community

The spirit of student volunteerism rides a 30-year cycle of intensity — so suggests research by some of the nation’s leading scholars of higher education. All indications are that we’re upon the crest of that particular wave right now, but with a critical difference this time around — faculty are a key part of the experience, facilitating service to the community, and integrating it with classroom work to an unprecedented degree.

It’s called “Service-Learning” in academic circles, and while the University of Vermont has long been blessed bymany committed, creative, and effective faculty practitioners of this art, it promises to grow as a hallmark of our undergraduate experience with the recent establishment of our Office of Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning. We’re fortunate to have a pair of highly experiencedservice-learning veterans in Professor Lynne Bond and Courtney Lamontagne leading the office in the director and associate director roles.

There’s no question that the opportunity to work for the benefit of an immediate community appeals very strongly to the generation that makes up our current undergraduates and prospective students. It’s equally true that the needs in our community are many, and the work of our students and faculty can be a force for positive change. For a public university, especially a land-grant university, such direct action in the community that supports us is a perfect fit with our mission.

At the University of Vermont, in particular, the methods and goals of service-learning have a special resonance given that experiential education’s chief apostle is one of Vermont’s proudest products, John Dewey. It is very much in the grain of the University of Vermont to promote this kind of activity.

As Professor Dewey would attest, the benefits of service-learning flow both ways. Our primary mission is education of our students, and service-learning is a powerful tool toward this end. National data show that students acquire more knowledge and skills and retain them more effectively in courses that combine service-learning activities with rigorous syllabi. True integration is the key to effective service-learning as faculty create courses in which there is an almost rhythmic alternation of classroom learning oriented around methodology, theory, ideas, and abstraction with hands-on experience through service engagement, which is then brought back to the classroom, providing opportunities for reflection and deepening of the theoretical understanding. There is no discipline in which service-learning cannot be a very significant way of enhancing student experience in the classroom.

It’s been a bit more than 30 years since I was an undergraduate in a university classroom. Though we were near the top of the cycle of student community involvement then, I’m afraid my undergrad years pre-dated the emergence of service-learning as we know it today. But Rachel and I both participated in a social psychology research project that placed us in the middle of deeply impoverished communities in Nova Scotia. The personal growth of that experience remains a vivid part of both of our educations, something that I’m sure many alumni can relate to in their own individual ways. Such memories are testimony to the powerful chemistry that happens when classroom meets community.