Integrating Community Service Learning into academic courses

From the time we created the Trek Program, UBC’s goal of getting students’ volunteer work integrated into academic courses was always at the back of my mind. But I was following the advice I had been given to build a base of support among students before raising the idea of curricular Community Service Learning (CSL) with faculty.

Making the most of personal connections

In 2002, with 300 students in the Trek Program and no signs of students’ interest waning, I decided to test the waters. Before coming to UBC, I had come to know an English professor through our shared interest in meditation. I thought he would be a low-risk place to start. I reviewed his on-line course syllabi and discovered he was teaching a senior level seminar focusing on twentieth century utopian or dystopian novels–works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The exploration of these works was intended to build understanding of social structures and processes of social change.

I phoned my friend and asked if I could talk with him about a new approach to learning. When we met, I described the CSL model and how it worked. I said I thought his fourth year seminar would be a potential fit with CSL. My friend shook his head and said, “Oh no, I can’t imagine how that could work.”

mural in Chinatown
mural in Chinatown

Only slightly discouraged, I described possible placements his students might do and how their experiences could amplify their understanding of the literature they would be studying. I said, “What better place than the Downtown Eastside to challenge your thinking on how social structures get created and to experience the dialectics around the question of what kind of society should be created?” By the end of the hour, the professor was not only willing to try CSL, he was excited. In January 2003, the first UBC course to incorporate CSL placements in the Downtown Eastside started.

Having enlisted our first faculty partner, my team and I went looking for more. We started with professors that we had some kind of personal connection with, for example, through our earlier faculty consultations about the Learning Exchange, or through shared participation on committees. In addition, we asked students in the Trek Program to recommend professors they thought might be interested in incorporating CSL into a course. We also asked students to identify courses they were planning to take where CSL might complement the course material.

In the next academic year (2003-2004), we succeeded in getting CSL incorporated into twelve courses. A range of disciplines were involved: Biology, Fine Arts, English, Human Ecology, Health Promotion, Sociology, Community Planning, and Visual Art. This mix was more a reflection of our personal connections than any intentions around priority themes to pursue or ideas about which disciplines were especially suited to CSL. These courses involved 25% of the 650 students in the Trek Program that year.

Over the next two years, we created a base of support for CSL among a core group of faculty allies. Working with these ten to fifteen faculty members, we learned about how to facilitate structured reflection activities in the context of academic courses. We developed strategies to incorporate both individual placements and small group CSL projects into courses with different structures, varying numbers of students, and diverse themes and intended learning outcomes. We learned many valuable lessons, e.g., it is much better to offer CSL as an option in a course rather than making it mandatory unless it is very clear to students before they sign up for the course that they will have to do CSL. (Unwilling students do not make good service learners.)

Getting people to understand the basics

We also discovered that the way you describe the CSL option in a course makes a difference to the degree of uptake by students—it helps to be clear and specific about what CSL entails and to enthusiastically convey the benefits of engaging with communities. As with the co-curricular Trek Program and Reading Week projects, we saw that the best way to get students keen on doing curricular CSL was for them to hear the stories and perspectives of other students who had already done it.

The need to convey what CSL is and how it works was important for faculty as well as students. I realized this one day when I was talking with Margery Fee, the English professor who had spoken about reflective writing at several Reading Week kick-off days. I was talking about the challenges of getting faculty members involved in community-based initiatives. Margery looked at me over the top of her glasses and said with some force, “Margo, you have to understand. We have no idea what you are talking about.”

This was a revelation. I had assumed that faculty members would be familiar with the dynamics of working in various community sectors. But when I thought about it, Margery’s assertion made sense. Most professors have spent their entire adult lives in academia. They do not have prior experience working in community organizations or the private sector or government. Many faculty members do not have experience doing volunteer work. I realized then that my staff and I had to do a better job of getting faculty out into the community so they could see first-hand what students were doing and understand how community settings can be powerful sites for learning. Faculty needed to be doing experiential learning, too.

Creating the UBC-Community Learning Initiative

In 2004, the Montreal-based JW McConnell Family Foundation launched a granting program to support innovative curricular Community Service Learning (CSL) programs in Canadian universities. At UBC, because of the President’s enthusiastic support of what we were doing and the snowballing interest among students, we had already set an ambitious target for growth in CSL. We envisioned most of that growth taking place in the context of academic courses. So we were very excited about the McConnell program.

In the fall of 2004, I submitted a letter to the Foundation in response to their first call for expressions of interest. The letter outlined plans for two complementary initiatives that we believed were promising ways to institutionalize high-quality, high-impact CSL locally and nationally. Unfortunately, UBC was not invited to submit a full proposal to the second stage of the McConnell funding competition.

The McConnell Foundation issued a second call for letters of interest in 2005. My 2005 letter was significantly different from the the previous year’s. The second letter reflected a maturation of my understanding of how to institutionalize CSL at a research-intensive university. It focused less on specific activities and more on a vision for CSL at UBC based on certain foundational principles. This time UBC’s letter hit the mark. We were invited to submit a detailed proposal for funding. To read the full proposal, click here.

Ambition was not enough

The proposal to the McConnell Foundation reflected a significant expansion of my ambitions for CSL. By 2005 I had begun thinking that UBC’s stated goal of getting 10% of students involved in CSL programs should be refined to specify that 10% of students would do CSL every year, not just that 10% of graduating students would have done CSL at some point. This would mean that about 40% of UBC students would graduate having done CSL. Given the continued enthusiasm of students and community partners and my conviction that we could develop a model for CSL that would overcome faculty members’ hesitations about integrating CSL into their courses, I began to see this as a feasible target.

I believed this was also an important goal for UBC to pursue, one whose attainment would fulfill many of the aspirations of UBC’sTrek vision. This amplification of what the goal for CSL actually meant was never questioned. It simply became the way the target for growth in CSL at UBC was articulated. The projections for student participation in the model proposed to the McConnell Foundation estimated that by 2010, 5% of UBC’s undergraduates would be doing curricular CSL in the non-profit sector every year. My aim was for another 5% to be doing CSL in public schools every year.

I was very excited when the McConnell Foundation granted UBC approximately $1 million over five years to implement the model. UBC agreed to contribute approximately $1.5 million over the same time period.

We began work on what became known as the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI) in the summer of 2006. I assembled a team of three full-time staff. We identified a staff person from Volunteer Vancouver and a staff member from Student Development to be key members of the implementation team. We designed approaches to capacity building and training for faculty and community partners, met with Deans and department heads to inform them about the new initiative as well as meeting with many non-profit organizations. We hired a doctoral student as a part-time research assistant and began developing our research agenda in collaboration with staff from UBC’s office of Planning and Institutional Research.

The model we proposed was based on the success of our co-curricular Reading Week projects. We envisioned the new curricular projects taking place in three time periods: Reading Week in February; May/June; and July/August. Doing the CSL courses in these time frames would mean that the immersive implementation of the CSL projects would not interfere with the scheduling of other traditional courses. Based on discussions about the model with faculty administrators, we believed it would be feasible to recruit faculty members to teach courses featuring a CSL experience in the spring and summer. Our discussions with Student Development staff indicated that the introduction of new courses in the spring and summer would be appealing to students and would not interfere with students’ needs for summer employment.

It was relatively easy to enlist faculty and community partners to do CSL projects during Reading Week in February 2007. It was not difficult for faculty to incorporate CSL projects into existing courses that were offered in the winter term. We easily recruited and trained staff, graduate students and one alumnus to act as project leaders. By the fall of 2006, we knew we would meet our target for student participation for this time period.

iris close medBut we discovered it was not going to be as easy to get faculty doing courses in the spring and summer as we had been led to believe. More time was required to get new course listings into the university’s calendar than we understood when we wrote the proposal. It was simply not going to be possible to mount new courses in the spring and summer of the 06-07 academic year. In addition, when it came time to actually agree to do a course in the spring or summer, faculty members were not enthusiastic about the idea of changing the rhythm of their academic year. The period from May to August is typically the time when faculty attend conferences, catch up on their reading, concentrate on their research, and take vacations. Faculty tend not to be visible on campus during this time of year. There were a few faculty members who were willing to consider developing a course for the 07-08 academic year but the overall response to the idea of doing immersion courses in the spring and summer terms was discouraging.

We ran into other difficulties as well. We had ambitious plans to involve several UBC units in our capacity building efforts. We hosted some workshops to brainstorm ideas and build commitment for the intended collaborative efforts. But the results were discouraging here, too. Staff from other units did not seem to share our sense of urgency or commitment to getting results. In addition, the partnership with Volunteer Vancouver did not really get off the ground. By the end of 2006, I could see that it was not going to be as easy as I hoped to institutionalize Community Service Learning in the academic fabric of the university.

(For more detail on the implementation of the UBC-CLI click here to read my first annual report to the McConnell Foundation. Also see the story article Re-thinking our approach to curricular CSL. For some analysis of how CSL eventually became institutionalized at UBC, see From the margins to the centre: CSL.)