Seeing the value of Community Service Learning

As we developed the Trek Program and the Reading Week projects, my staff and I learned how to inspire students to be excited about working in the Downtown Eastside. We learned how to prepare students to be respectful, productive volunteers. More importantly, we learned why this kind of activity is important. In our informal conversations with students and in the more formal focus groups and interviews we did each year, we consistently heard students say the same things. Their stereotypes about the Downtown Eastside and its residents were being unpacked. They were being challenged to ask critical questions about how society is structured and where social problems like homelessness come from. They were gaining clarity about their education and career goals by being exposed to different professional settings. And they were developing important skills, especially people skills.

Opening students’ minds and hearts

For example, one student who was doing volunteer work at a homeless shelter reported walking along the street one afternoon on the way to her placement. She saw a homeless man wrapped in dirty blankets on the sidewalk and watched her mind form the usual judgements—“Look at that homeless bum lying there. Why doesn’t he straighten up?” But then she realized the man was someone she knew from the shelter. She said to herself, “That’s not a homeless bum, that’s John!” In that moment, her stereotypes collapsed under the weight of her personal relationship with the human being inside the shape on the sidewalk.

Students struggled with the realization that the people they were meeting in the Downtown Eastside—the homeless, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the working poor—were not that different from themselves or their families and friends. Students started asking why some people lived in unsafe, substandard housing or on the street and had to survive on weak soup, day-old bread and left-over doughnuts while others in society lived comfortably.

Some students discovered new paths for their lives, e.g., one student was envisioning becoming a teacher but her experience volunteering at an agency that served immigrants and refugees made her decide to become a human rights lawyer. Other students who thought they were destined to become teachers discovered they actually hated being around large groups of kids and realized they needed to pursue other options. We saw that doing Community Service Learning (CSL) in different professional settings is a great way for students to gain experience that can help them assess which career choices fit or don’t fit their personalities, interests and aspirations. This is a benefit for the individuals who may avoid getting stuck in a job that does not suit them. It is also a benefit for society as it avoids the direct costs associated with training people who decide not to practice the profession they were trained for. It also avoids the indirect costs that accrue when people are in jobs where they are unhappy or unproductive.

The nature of the CSL placements also gave students the opportunity to learn new skills such as how to communicate across differences in class or educational level, how to work effectively as part of a team, and how to problem-solve under pressure.

We got a direct window into students’ experiences when they started giving us their written reflections. Some of these were offered spontaneously. Others were submitted to the writing contest we instituted. To read some of these touching, insightful, and funny essays, stories, or poems, follow these links to pieces by Larianna Brown, Jacqui Ferraby, Chris Fraser, Adrienne Montgomery, and Julie Ng.

Educating global citizens

Obviously CSL was having an impact. In some cases the impacts were profound. The evidence was in the stories we heard, the written reflections we received, and the results of our annual evaluations. The value of CSL was also evident in the fact that so many students kept doing it and so many students recommended our programs to their friends. Typically, about 30% of students in the Trek Program stayed in the program for more than one year. Some continued volunteering in the same organization. Others did a variety of placements and projects, sometimes over several years. I have heard of students continuing as volunteers in particular organizations for years even after they graduated. Some students have stayed in touch with individual community members they got to know through their volunteer work. (For example, listen to the audio clip at the end of About the Learning Exchange.)

CSL was a powerful way to engage students in the exploration of what it means to be a global citizen who promotes the values of a civil and sustainable society. This aspiration at the heart of UBC’s vision statement became real for students who did CSL in the Downtown Eastside. Students who engaged with the question of what UBC’s vision meant and why the Learning Exchange cared about social marginalization did develop the skills we were aiming to cultivate (e.g., critical thinking, problem-solving, and the ability to work with diverse others to achieve positive change). Seeing these outcomes made us intensely curious about what it was about CSL that provoked this kind of learning.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to How Community Service Learning promotes learning.