From the margins to the centre: Community Service Learning

When the Learning Exchange was created, no one at UBC was doing Community Service Learning (CSL). By 2011, more than 2,500 UBC students were engaging in community projects or placements through our programs every year. More than half of these students were doing CSL as part of an academic course. The continued growth of CSL had become a strategic priority for the university. How did this happen?

Students inspired growth

We started by getting students interested in volunteering in the Downtown Eastside. It turned out that students were hungry for this kind of challenge. Students’ enthusiastic reports about what they were doing and learning inspired me and the staff team to find more opportunities for student volunteers. The fact that community organizations were happy with what students were doing made it easy to expand the number of placements and find new organizations where students could volunteer. There were challenges (e.g., students not following through on commitments or placements not being interesting enough) but nothing that could not be resolved through discussion and corrective action.

Christine and kidsWe quickly realized that students were our best allies. They taught us what was important about CSL. They spread the word about the Trek Program and Reading Week and got their friends and classmates involved. They acted as ambassadors for UBC in the Downtown Eastside: it was hard to remain suspicious in the face of all that youthful energy and willingness to work. Students also were important champions within the university. We had students speak to the President and other administrators; we had them speak to the Board of Governors. Some students connected us with their favourite professors. Students were so articulate about how important their volunteer experiences were and how much these experiences added to their education that people at UBC and in the Downtown Eastside could not help but be impressed. Students were the impetus behind the wave of change around this new community-based approach to experiential learning.

The staff team managed growth effectively

But the growth did not just happen by itself. The Learning Exchange team worked hard to channel and amplify the wave. We asked students and community partners for input and acted on their feedback. We tried to prepare and support students to be respectful, effective participants in the community settings where they worked.

We put a lot of effort into helping students and organizations work through some of the difficulties that CSL can cause. These included, for example, students needing help thinking through their questions about why there was so much poverty and distress in the Downtown Eastside or community organizations needing help figuring out how to include opportunities for learning in their volunteer jobs. Sometimes we had to mediate between students and organizations when misunderstandings or other problems arose. We continually strove to make the Trek Program and Reading Week projects more efficient and more impactful. We were careful to recognize the contributions of students and community partners, both formally (e.g., through annual breakfasts with the President) and informally (in our day-to-day interactions.)

The team also paid careful attention to program details. We set standards for orientation, recruitment, and support materials and activities and regularly assessed their effectiveness. We were careful about the tone, content, and format of our written communications. We set annual targets for student and organizational participation levels. This was an effective way to motivate recruitment efforts as well as give staff some control over their workload (after a few years we started closing program enrollments once we reached our targets). It was also an effective way to reward staff, since we almost always met or exceeded our targets, which made everyone feel proud. We made effective use of the funds we had. We were mindful of our financial limits, but did not let these constraints limit our thinking.

We told the story

The Learning Exchange’s CSL programs were good news. Students were excited to have a chance to test themselves in the real world. Community partners were thrilled to have so many new capable, energetic volunteers. As faculty started incorporating CSL into their courses, they got excited, too. Students asked better questions in class and began to see how course material connected to real life issues. The continual rise in participation numbers was impressive. Fortunately, there was no bad news. No student got seriously injured. No major mishaps occurred.

painting garden bedWe took advantage of every opportunity to tell the story of CSL. We got help from Chloe Lewis, the photographer whose pictures and design work “captured people’s imagination.” We also got help from my colleagues in UBC’s Public Affairs unit, who regularly featured stories about CSL in UBC publications, including its annual reports. The link between CSL and the university’s teaching mission, especially its commitment to prepare students to be global citizens was obvious. People could see that Community Service Learning was a way to make UBC’s Trek vision a reality. It made sense for the university to make growth in CSL a priority.

To hear me talking with Walter Sudmant, former Director of UBC’s Planning and Institutional Research unit, about the importance of the Trek vision for the growth of CSL, click below.

“After originally being skeptical I began to see some real transformation”


“That seemed to be a unique transformation”


CSL had academic legitimacy

It also helped that post-secondary institutions in the United States had been doing CSL (also known as service-learning) for twenty or thirty years. There was a body of literature about the practice and outcomes of CSL. There was a “movement” in the U.S. academy to expand and strengthen service-learning. At the outset, I made the decision to use the “service learning” label to refer to what UBC students would be doing in the community. Some people felt the label did not matter. But I wanted our efforts to be aligned with what was happening in the U.S. I wanted to take advantage of the existing knowledge base and experience. I also wanted to be able to tie our efforts to similar activities that had already established their academic legitimacy.

This meant that my team and I needed to educate students, administrators and faculty at UBC as well as community partners about what CSL entailed. In the beginning, when we started talking about CSL, some faculty and administrators at UBC said, “Oh, we’ve been doing that for years.” They were referring to internships and practica. So we had to spend time at first, explaining how CSL was different from these other approaches to experiential learning. We emphasized the importance of critical reflection, a key element of CSL that was typically not included in internships, practica or co-op experiences.  We also emphasized the central role of community partners. This is why we decided to use the term “Community Service Learning,” a term that specifically highlights the importance of community.

As it turned out, the label did matter. Within the university, it mattered that I was able to cite academic references, quote experts from highly-regarded U.S. universities, and give examples of well-established CSL courses and programs in response to questions about CSL. It made a difference that CSL had academic substance. It was more than volunteer work. It was different from other types of experiential learning that had already been institutionalized at UBC.

The fact that the Learning Exchange built programs that were aligned with academic programs in other jurisdictions and that we continually emphasized the three key elements of CSL (volunteer work, academic content relevant to the work, and critical reflection) coupled with the quick success of our programs meant that CSL did become institutionalized at UBC.

To hear me talking with Walter Sudmant, former Director of UBC’s Planning and Institutional Research unit, about the process of institutionalizing CSL, click below.

“(CSL) has stuck . . . It’s got a durability to it”


“You transformed learning”


“Go in there with a framework for learning”


Faculty got involved

It took persistent work to gain a foothold in the professoriate, but gradually some faculty members did incorporate CSL into their courses. Students helped open doors by connecting us with professors they thought would be interested in CSL. My team and I got to know professors who cared about teaching and who were prepared to try something new. We took advantage of those connections. The fact that UBC’s leaders were eager to see CSL expand influenced some faculty members.

IKB exteriorBut integrating CSL into a course, when it is done well, takes time and effort. It also takes knowledge and skills that are not necessarily required in academia, e.g., the ability to organize teams to accomplish practical goals. This is why the support of staff from the Learning Exchange and the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI) was crucial to getting CSL institutionalized. Without some infrastructure, it is almost impossible to institutionalize CSL. Without institutional support, CSL depends on the motivation, skill, and capacity of individual faculty members, all of which are variable. Course assignments change, professors’ interests change, professors go on sabbatical. But faculty members often balk at interacting with central administrative units. There is a fear about losing control and autonomy. So support from administrative units has to be offered in particular ways.

The structure we eventually created for the UBC-CLI, where some staff positions were embedded in faculties was an important development. It was congruent with academic culture while providing support that is crucial to sustaining faculty involvement in CSL.

Institutionalizing CSL in the community

KIds playing basketballFew of the community organizations where students were doing CSL made UBC students’ engagement with their organization central to their mission or operations. But many organizations came to rely heavily on the presence of UBC students. For example, after a few years of working together, the Vancouver School Board and the Learning Exchange started centrally planning and coordinating activities in the schools in order to meet the School Board’s goals, especially those related to inner city schools. During Reading Week, some schools got every class involved in the activities facilitated by UBC students and project leaders. Around 2006 the Learning Exchange and the School Board began formalizing a Memorandum of Agreement, a sign that the partnership was important to both organizations.

Similarly, some non-profit organizations saw their partnership with the Learning Exchange Trek Program as vital to their operation. The best partners were organizations who wanted to help the university educate young people about the important work being done in the non-profit sector, who hoped to inspire students to choose a career in that sector. For a detailed description of one of our strongest relationships with a non-profit organization, see the article on our partnership with the YWCA of Metro Vancouver.

One sign that these partnerships were solidifying was the evolution of the relationships among staff of the various organizations. As these relationships developed, in some cases, challenges actually became more frequent and more complex. It seemed that, when the Learning Exchange was just starting out, professionals in the community were willing to let some missteps go without comment. But once we became serious candidates for ongoing collaborations, our partners became more demanding. This was a positive sign. It was a sign of increasing trust.

As was the case within UBC, in order for the Learning Exchange to move in from the margins, we had to demonstrate our trustworthiness and credibility in the community. Some of the same factors operated in our favour in both contexts. For example, it was just as important to tell the story of CSL in the community as at UBC. It was even more important to manage growth in the program effectively, because if we did not, it was our community partners who suffered.

In addition, it helped that the Learning Exchange team was flexible and responsive enough to accommodate different organizational cultures. For example, we adapted our communication methods when we realized that school teachers did not use e-mail. We adapted our expectations around meetings when we learned that some small non-profits needed to be approached on the fly. Dropping in worked better than scheduling a meeting weeks in advance. In addition, we know that some of our partners appreciated the fact that we elicited their feedback. More important, we acted on their comments and suggestions and followed up to let people know how their input had made a difference.

It also helped that I had worked in community settings for many years before coming to UBC, including doing front line service. I considered the community my home base, more so than the academy. I had relevant experience and knew the lingo and the behavioural norms. In addition, most of the other Learning Exchange team members also had relevant experience. And we were committed, enthusiastic, and fun to work with.

Plus, CSL, by its nature, has a natural appeal and integrity. The model itself, the combination of volunteer work in community settings, relevant academic content, and intentional reflection on experience, has a power that touches everyone. As some of the material on this website demonstrates, the relationships that can form through CSL and the learning it provokes can be profound. For people who care about preparing students for lives as informed, responsible citizens and who want to see communities thrive, it makes sense for activities like CSL to take centre stage.

Go to The Learning Exchange as social innovation for more reflections.