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Partnership and Collaboration in Public Service through Service Learning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Gregg Buckingham and David Mitchell
May 25, 2020

This article shares information on service learning from two points of view—graduate students who participated in service learning and their organizational partners. Both find participation in service learning quite beneficial. In terms of professional development for students, service learning continues to be a sound pedagogical technique that builds civic literacy, social capital and collaboration skills.

In her 2015 book, Service-Learning Essentials, Barbara Jacoby shared her definition of service learning as, “A form of experiential learning in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs, together with structured with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes.” The data in this article comes from a service-learning graduate course in strategic planning, over multiple semesters.

In an article by David Mitchell and myself, to be published in an upcoming edition of Teaching Public Administration, survey results regarding the impact of the project for 38 organizations were reported. Both government and nonprofit organizations are included in the strategic plan projects. When asked what percent of the plan had been implemented, the modal category was relatively low, between 0-20%. However, over 40% of the organizations reported the number of strategic objectives already met was between 21-40%. Over 80% of the respondents reported, agreed, or strongly agreed that the strategic plan developed by students contributed to the strategic goals and vision of the organization. Several qualitative comments indicated the students’ plan was a springboard for the organization to further reflect and refine their goals. Further details such as the effect of the size of the organization, semester length, etc. can be found in the article.

In a separate survey of graduate students who produced the plans, several benefits were identified that link to ideas about civic understanding, social capital and collaboration. There is a movement recently to improve civic literacy. The AAC&U defined civic engagement in one of their Value Rubrics as, “Working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community…” These rubrics are available here.

Students reported the strategic planning effort meshed with civic engagement and the project benefitted the community, with 90% agreeing or strongly agreeing about the benefits. One student stated, “The service-learning portion proved to be a valuable asset for the organization that we worked with being that they were very new, opening just last year. It was a privilege to provide a viable strategic management plan that will promote sustainability and growth for an organization….” In terms of developing skills to make a difference another student noted, “This course gave me more than an explanation of strategic planning. I have experience now. I have an advantage because of this experience. I have already been using some of these skills in my new position at the organization.”

The course also added to the development of social capital, loosely defined as the relationships among people which enable society to function effectively. Building social capital adds resiliency and trust in a community. Certainly, this issue has been in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fully 85% of the students strongly agreed or agreed that the community service aspect of the service-learning course helped them become more aware of the needs of their community. Also, students strengthened their network. As one participated stated, “This course was the first that I collaborated in a team and I enjoyed it. I got to meet great people in the program and now have two more professionals added to my network.”

Finally, many authors have written about the increasing importance of collaborative skills in public service. Collaborative skills such as facilitation and group problem-solving are valued skills. A high percentage of students agreed the experience caused them to reflect on their perspectives in working with people (94%), about their perspectives in working in groups (96%) and their perspectives on the best role for them to play in a team activity (90%). Again, a representative student comment, “I think honing collaboration skills on a project like this one is very important to the marketability to nonprofit management students in their future careers. It was also beneficial in including a diversity of opinions and thought processes in the plan, making the overall final project stronger. It also shows the importance of involving multiple people in the strategic planning process.”

Just a word on working with students and organizations during the current pandemic. Though this is an online course, obviously many organizations were affected during the pandemic. Of nine teams during the spring semester, 8 met or came close to the needed contact hours. The quality of the strategic plans was on par with previous semesters. The class will be taught during summer and the organizations interested in working with students have pre-verified they are willing to work with students virtually. So, the experiment continues and as students work with the community, I hope this statement from the Gottman Institute continues to be true: “Empathy and understanding must precede advice.”

Author: Gregg Buckingham is a lecturer and David Mitchell is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida, School of Public Administration. Both are members of ASPA. [email protected]  [email protected]

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