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Combining two key elements of SkillsUSA, "service learning" is more than the sum of its parts. It enriches education and promotes civic responsibility, building stronger communities

By Ann P. Schreiber

Service learning integrates community service with instruction and reflection. An element of SkillsUSA’s suggested program of work for college/postsecondary chapters, the program was developed to meet the needs of diverse campus situations. As it’s being piloted at several sites, campus administrators are discovering how adding SkillsUSA enhances their curricula.

“Service learning should happen in the classroom, and if it’s done under the umbrella of SkillsUSA, then that classroom becomes the chapter, and the chapter can have a cohesive unit that’s interfacing with the community,” explains Heidi Walsh, SkillsUSA’s associate director of program development. “For our college/postsecondary chapters who are struggling with how to run a chapter on a campus, this is the way to do it.”

Service learning is a graded component. “It’s not enough to just put in the hours at an agency, at a school or on a project,” says Barbara Wallace, developmental education director at the University of Cincinnati’s Clermont College. “The learning is what’s graded, and very typically here, the learning is made evident through journal writing, an essay or a presentation. That’s how you can tell that the knowledge was obtained, and the service connects directly to the curriculum in the class.”

Web Resources

  • Training in service learning is available. Go here.
  • To find out about SkillsUSA’s college/ postsecondary program of work, go here.
  • Lowe’s is awarding travel scholarships to the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference for those who attain a President’s Volunteer Service Award. Go here.

Service learning projects involve students in:

  • Environments that supplement their education

  • Opportunities to build workplace skills

  • Communication and networking

  • Awareness of community needs

At UC Clermont, professor Dee Kinney’s medical assisting class developed a program to educate children at Child Focus, a local nonprofit (see photo, below). Wallace is also working with Kinney to find an experience for her students with a Cincinnati food bank, because Kinney wants her students to understand the poverty rate in the city.

Wallace, an English professor, has conducted service learning in her classroom. She says bringing SkillsUSA and the trades into the mix has broadened her horizons. Even as Wallace talks about how she helps instructors build partnerships with local agencies, it’s clear her enthusiasm is contagious.

“The students get very enthused about it,” Wallace explains. “They often do more volunteer service work as a part of the class, and they’ll continue to do the service even after the class is over.

Likewise, “professors have gone from putting their toes in the water in the fall [semester] to requiring the service learning in the winter. But,” Wallace advises, “you need quality control, and you have to help the class understand what they are doing. You have to help the community partners so they understand that you’re not just making the introduction and letting it go.

“This is particularly important whenever we deal with any kind of liability or risk. You have to be careful about how you are seen in the community, and integrity is everything with success for programs.”

'These two needed to come together'Sharing Wallace’s enthusiasm are Rudy Garcia, Ed.D., dean of students at Central New Mexico Community College (CNMCC) in Albuquerque, as well as Sharon Gordon, director of the college’s Center for Programs and Partnerships.

“We have this fantastic service learning program that Dr. Garcia built from the ground up,” says Gordon, a former CNMCC and SkillsUSA student.

“It was almost automatic that these two [SkillsUSA and service learning] needed to come together to offer more opportunities for our students. When you look at SkillsUSA, the ethic of service, SkillsUSA has it. But the fact that we were able to add service learning and throw in that academic component was magic.”

“ ... (T)he learning is made evident through journal writing, an essay or a presentation. That’s how you can tell that the knowledge was obtained and the service connects directly to the curriculum in the class.”

— Barbara Wallace, director of developmental education,
University of Cincinnati, Clermont College

The program “focuses on critical reflection and civic engagement,” Garcia says. Nonprofit community agencies receive services while educating students in ways the classroom can’t — on issues such as the environment, hunger, poverty, education, health and crime. In one project, the students established Mental Health Awareness Week at their five campuses.

Professionals like Gordon can be hired to coordinate these programs, but she says instructors can start their own as Garcia did. “It takes a little bit of time to iron out the nuts and bolts of making it happen, but it is manageable, and it is doable when you look at quality versus quantity.

“So perhaps we have an instructor working alone with one, maybe two agencies. The control is there, and often agencies will come to the classroom, and they’ll customize a service learning project for the instructor.”

Garcia adds that in rough economic times, colleges can be the place where people go to gain an education that will change and improve their lives. “We have to impress upon colleges that education alone no longer creates a successful student. We have to graduate students that are capable of being engaged citizens.”

Online Extra: Q&A with Rudy Garcia

Q. How did you decide that SkillsUSA would be a good tool to help deliver service learning and vice versa? Describe that “light bulb” moment.

Garcia: I decided service learning and SkillsUSA were a good fit back in 1994, when I started service learning at my college. At that time SkillsUSA was called VICA and we had a chapter at the college. My dean at that time approached me about starting a VICA one-credit-hour course for students that would focus on employability skills. I was also a VICA advisor and coached the gold medalist from New Mexico in Job Interview.

I eventually coached several students after that who won medals or placed in the Top 10 for Job Interview. It was at this time that I realized how well SkillsUSA and service learning could work as teaching pedagogies, because of they both focused on service and leadership. Prior to being employed at the college, I worked in corporate America as a food microbiologist and had my own small business. I had hired interns from the college during that time and realized that students were being educated well in their coursework but were suffering in the area of soft skills and citizenship, which service learning emphasized in its methodology. SkillsUSA attempts to focus on this, but I believe this focus has been lost and it is now directed towards the competition only.

Now with President Obama emphasizing service, we need to push for all colleges doing SkillsUSA to integrate service learning, because it will allow students to improve their technical coursework, serve their communities and reflect upon the experience with the hope that they become civic leaders and engaged citizens. The combination of the two — if done correctly — will improve student retention, academic achievement and community involvement.

We can no longer ignore positive and proven instructional methodologies that allow our students to graduate and become involved in solving societal issues. Combining SkillsUSA and service learning can create a model that President Obama can refer to as successful for the economy and our communities. I am hoping that SkillsUSA continues to adopt this and gives it the attention that it requires. I know that we will continue to do so.

Q. Briefly, what is your background in the field of service learning?

Garcia: I have been teaching for 18 years and had integrated a service component into my curriculum in 1990. In 1994, the American Association of Community Colleges granted our college a small $1,500 grant to start service learning. The president and vice president of instruction requested that I lead this initiative. In five short years, we went from a budget of $1,500 to over $1 million and from a staff of one to nine. I have served as a consultant to National Campus Compact, the American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College National Center for Community Engagement.

I have a strong ethic of service dating back to when I was in fourth grade and collected enough aluminum cans to adopt and feed a child in need from India for a year. I grew up very poor, but my mother and father would always ensure that they fed the homeless men who wandered the alleyway behind the house I grew up in. I was involved in service work and projects while in elementary-, middle- and high school and college.

I believe that we can no longer ignore the social ills that plague our communities and must step up to the plate and do something about it. We are a nation of complainers and lack the will to do what we need to do to help those in need. Right now our country is very much in need of help and now is the time to do something about it.

I know what it is like to be poor and discriminated against; my mother and father are from Mexico. I also grew up with a speech impediment that caused many persons to make fun of me. It was volunteer tutors who helped me speak and read better. We all need an ethic of service during trying times such as our country faces today. There is hope — just look at the pictures of the millions of people who stood on the D.C. Mall in freezing weather because of hope!

Q. Were you ever a SkillsUSA member or instructor?

Garcia: I was both. I taught leadership courses and coached students in the Job Interview and Speech competitions. I wrote and designed our college’s first SkillsUSA (VICA then) course in 1993.

Q. You seem pretty passionate about service learning. Why is that?

 Garcia: I am passionate about what service learning does. It provides students with an opportunity to learn the coursework while serving in their communities. It focuses on critical reflection and civic engagement.

We can no longer depend on educating students in antiquated ways that are not successful. We have to engage students and involve them in critical thinking and service. There has not been sufficient education reform in higher education for many years, and we are losing students as they become bored in the classroom and drop out of school.

Our country is suffering from many societal problems, and service learning allows us to look at these issues and provide possible solutions to them. It allows students to confront their fears and realize that by helping others, they are helping themselves. Our country is crying for an ethic of service and engagement. Service learning can do this. It is about what we can do for ourselves that will make us successful in what we do for others.

Q. Why should colleges be involved?

Garcia: Because our colleges are the community, and the communities are our colleges. By doing this, they are improving the lives of the citizens in these communities who are also their students. In rough economic times, colleges can often be the one place where persons in need can go to gain an education that will change and improve their lives.

Research has also shown that service learning improves retention, academic achievement and community engagement. We have to impress upon colleges that education alone no longer creates a successful student. We have to graduate students that are capable of being engaged citizens.

Q. How is CNMCC involved in service learning? Can you describe a project?

Garcia: As a college, we are engaged in numerous service learning projects that address the following issues: environmental, hunger, poverty, education, health, crime, etc.

One of our largest service learning projects involved the establishment of Mental Health Awareness Week at all five of our college campuses. This came about because of the number of college students that I had to see as dean of students who had mental health issues. I received two death threats last year from mentally unstable students, and I realized that these students were not getting the help that they needed for numerous reasons.

Working with Sharon Gordon, we designed Mental Health Awareness Week to provide various resources for students who may need such help and to be tested. The project was designed by service learning students.

Learning More by Rolling Up Their Sleeves

At Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, students work with United Blood Services to both coordinate and implement blood drives at different campus locations. In 15 total drives, the average number of donors was 26, with nearly 300 units received.

As in all service learning programs, a reflection component is required: How did the students’ service connect to their course content? What did they learn that they might not have in a classroom?

Biology students reported learning different procedures in developing safe products for patients, as well as various ways to filter and store blood. They learned how to educate people about the misconceptions of donating blood. And, after speaking with patients who had received blood, they learned about individual medical conditions and how specific components have saved lives.

A psychology student reported how recruiting donors requires persuasive theory, learning people’s fears and misconceptions and how to dispel their apprehensions about donating blood.

Communications students reported how they gained firsthand experience in the ways that people communicate in groups and as a team. They also learned how important it is to provide accurate information on blood donation as they put together an organized oral presentation to persuade students to donate and make it a lifelong practice. The drive also gave students a chance to work on their paraphrasing techniques.

Bonnie Chavez of United Blood Services says “the students that are in service learning not only become consciously aware of the need for blood, but they take that knowledge with them so they become lifelong blood donors and coordinators, resulting in a significant impact in the community they live and work in.

“The program benefits United Blood Services because we now have a committee of blood-drive coordinators who can actively recruit donors.”

Ramping Up a Repair Course
Through Service

Metropolitan Community College’s service-learning class, MCC Cares, provides students the opportunity to use their construction skills while helping people in need.

Partnering with the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging (ENOA), MCC students make repairs and improvements on senior citizens’ homes and facilities.

“With community service integrated in their learning experience, students actively volunteered for their community, gained awareness of the needs in Omaha and worked together to become part of the solution,” says Carl Fielder, Ed.D., director of career education at the Omaha campus.

Instructors enhance their teaching skills, he adds, “by bringing construction theory and classroom learning alive through applied problem-solving opportunities in real-world settings.”

They’re also able to strengthen community partnerships that lead to employment and volunteer opportunities for students. And, because the program leverages college resources and expertise with those of ENOA, the agency’s community service outreach has expanded.

“While earning college credit, students were able to make a direct impact on the lives of others,” Fielder notes. “Whether it was repairing a deck, stairs, bathrooms or offices, students were able to apply book and classroom learning in a real-world setting and masterfully demonstrate their skills through community service.”

That impact has been invaluable to the people served. One woman says she was a prisoner in her home until MCC Cares built her a deck and wheelchair ramp.

“This group of people gave so much for what we have today, I feel like this is my way of paying tribute to them. The learning side of this whole project is just a plus for me,” says electro-mechanical maintenance student Joseph Collins, who made time for it despite having a full-time job.

Online Extra: Joseph Collins' reflections on service

Joseph Collins, a student at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Neb., reflects on his service learning experience benefiting senior citizens:

“I have been part of the Metro family since the spring term of 2008. I am working on my electro-mechanical maintenance degree. When Dave Horst first came to me with the idea of doing service learning, I was a little iffy at first. I work full time, and by that I mean a lot of times I work 50-plus hours a week. With that, along with going to school a couple days a week, I think it is safe to say my time is precious. Then Dave explained that service learning is not just community service. Service learning is donating time, material and know-how to possibly extending the stay of a person in their home — and even in some cases extending a life! This, to me, was huge. I wanted to get started right away.

“So, here I am, three terms into my degree and helping every chance I get, and I still get asked, ‘Why do you do this kind of work?’ That is what I am going to try to put to paper for you today. First and foremost, I wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than myself for a change. I had focused my time so much on myself and what I was trying to accomplish, I almost felt a little selfish.

“Someone needed a new roof; the whole neighborhood pitched in and helped. If a new barn needed to go up, the whole community helped. And when I say ‘helped,’ I don’t just mean the labor side of things. Support was given, money was distributed, labor orders were handed out, etc. These people came together as a whole.

“Personally, I feel like my generation no longer works together as a whole. In this fast-paced world of technology, everyone is looking out for his or her own well-being. I would like to see a shift, to go just a little bit backward for once and try to connect on that level again. I live close enough to my family that, if they need something, I can be there fairly quickly. However, I do not live in town with them anymore, and it makes me feel better knowing that there are still individuals willing to devote a little of their time to make a lot more time for someone else.

“This group of people gave so much for what we have today. I feel like this is my way of paying tribute to them.

The learning side of this whole project is just a plus for me. It does not matter who you talk to, there is no replacing real-world experience for any job. This service learning project gives you just that. It gives you a chance to work together as a team to accomplish the same goal.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Spring 2009 | Volume 43, No. 3
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