UNCG Campus Weekly

Campus Weekly is published each Wednesday when classes are in session. In the summer, it is published biweekly.

Beyond the classroom: Service-learning prepares students to lead

For UNCG’s Office of Leadership and Service-Learning, the task is clear: empower students to serve as active, engaged citizen leaders in their communities and beyond.

“To do that, the students need to know the issues, know the government structures and know how to organize to create change when it’s needed,” said Dr. Spoma Jovanovic, professor of communication studies and one faculty member pioneering the effort for more community-engaged scholarship in the classroom.

Designated service-learning courses offered at UNCG have tripled over the last decade – from just 10 in the fall of 2007 to 43 this fall. 

Dr. Rebecca Muich, assistant dean for the Lloyd International Honors College and coordinator of the Honors Colloquium service-learning course, sees firsthand the appreciable impact on students.

“More than any other learning experience we schedule for our students, the service-learning experience crops up on our student evaluations as the most valuable and impactful experience of the semester,” she said.

In addition to service-learning initiatives, the OLSL teams up with groups across campus and beyond to offer experiential curricular and co-curricular leadership development. Courses and programs equip students to develop a personal, professional and civic identity through civic engagement, integrated learning and reflective practice.

Jovanovic’s Communication and Community course, offered this fall, exemplifies this strategy. Connecting students with community partners allows them to experience issues and provide service, rather than just reading about them.

For example, students in Jovanovic’s class work with Tiny Houses Greensboro to provide volunteer tracking and building alongside other community members; assist with refugee challenges and anti-trafficking messages in collaboration with World Relief in High Point/Winston-Salem; and work with the City of Greensboro’s Participatory Budgeting to activate the city’s voters and explain projects proposed to residents.

“Spoma has been teaching service-learning courses since before our designation process was enacted, and I believe every semester after,” said Lauren Cunningham, assistant director for service-learning. “She does it very, very well and students are deepening their understanding of their discipline’s relationship with community creation and change.”

Students spend 20 hours with each organization in addition to research. They make connections between their experiences and course readings on rhetoric, service-learning and activism.

“My hope is that students leave the class with a good understanding of how communication is central to our experience of community, learn what community members do to increase the quality of life and justice for under-resourced segments of the community, and have a basic understanding of who makes decisions and sets policy that impacts all those programs and projects,” Jovanovic said.

In the Honors College, service-learning is a core component of the first-year experience. They have partnered with OLSL for about five years to create a service-focused learning environment for new students.

The Honors Colloquium course offered 13 sections to over 200 freshmen this fall. The course is one credit hour, meets once a week, and is designed to help new International Honors students learn more about the Honors College and UNCG while acclimating to their environment.

Students learn about observation and critical thinking through visits to local museums and discuss global concerns by participating in the Keker First Year Common Read. For the service-learning component of the course, Colloquium partners with the Center for New North Carolinians, where students plan after-school activities for refugee and immigrant children.

“By having discussions about poverty, privilege, education, reflection, improvisation and performance, we indicate to our students that we expect them to become interested, engaged student-citizens who are in control of their own education,” Muich said.   

All classes that carry the service-learning marker have the option of working with a Student Reflection Leader who teaches students how service-learning differs from community service, introduces the practice of critical reflection and helps them unpack learning across differences after their service-learning experience, Muich explained.

Student Reflection Leaders are employed by the OLSL. This semester they have 20 SRLs working with 20 service-learning courses. The students lead faculty and their peers through reflection before, during and post experience in preparation for working with the community.     

“We are intentional about including critical reflection in all programs, which is a shift from the traditional way of looking at reflection,” Cunningham said. “Having them in the classroom de-centers the instructor as the sole source of knowledge and information for this experience and encourages students to look to themselves for ideas and solutions when faced with moments of discomfort or uncertainty.” 

The OLSL is offering a semester-long brown-bag lunch series – The ReFrame Learning Series –  to “challenge the lens through which we view public scholarship in higher education.” The final workshop, “Faculty-led Community-Based Research with Students and Local Partners” is Friday, Nov. 17, 12-1:15 p.m. in the Faculty Center. To Learn more or to register, visit olsl.uncg.edu/reframe. On Monday, Nov. 20, the OLSL is hosting the Creating Connections Fall Meet & Greet for faculty, staff and community partners 4:30-6 p.m. at the Faculty Center. For more information, visit olsl.uncg.edu.

By Elizabeth L. Harrison