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Service-Learning and the Civic Function

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

By Bryan K. Breland
September 29, 2015

In my previous assignment as director of emergency management at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), I often found myself in a position that is common in small organizations, agencies and departments. I was charged with monumental tasks and had modest resources. Because executives and high-level managers only periodically consider the capacity of the organization to withstand, function and recover after a crisis event, funding for such activities is routinely just above – or sometimes below – adequate. Despite short-lived concerns about emergency preparedness following media coverage of a catastrophic event or near miss that might result in the reallocation of funds within the organization to address a particular deficiency, rarely do emergency managers have generous budgets and abundant staffing to carry out their missions.

It was not until I transitioned into my current role on faculty that I learned of a remarkable resource that likely exists just down the road from many of you: service learning in higher education. The concept is indeed quite simple. One of a number of approaches to experiential learning and pedagogy, perhaps it is most important that service learning be distinguished from other commonly used methodologies that include both didactic coursework and practical application.

College internships tend to center around building student skills and competence in a chosen career or discipline. The value of these more conventional experiential learning placements – internships, cooperative education, practicums and fieldwork, among others – is encouraging the practical application of acquired knowledge and conceptual understanding. These may have a secondary benefit to the sponsoring individual or organization, but relatively little consideration of charitable or societal beneficence or community involvement.

In contrast, community service and volunteerism promote civic engagement and foster a consciousness of citizenship and humanity. They develop character, improve cultural and self-awareness and enhance social skills. However, the nature of the work is often unrelated to the student’s academic pursuits. While beneficial to the served community, the benefit to the career and professional development of the student is negligible.

Service learning seeks to maintain a purposeful balance between a contribution to the student’s understanding of identified concepts and benefit to the community the project serves. It intends to substantiate the academic course material through related civic engagement and moderated reflection, while enhancing social skills, analytical ability, civic and ethical responsibility, self-efficacy and career development.

At UAB, the Office of Service Learning and Engagement Scholarship works to match faculty research and course curriculum with identified needs of the community. Faculty then work with community partners to develop structured learning opportunities based on the resource needs and goals of the benefactor organization or agency. Students use the knowledge and skills acquired in the course curriculum, rather than physical labor, to contribute toward those goals. Because these activities are aligned with the curriculum, the student earns academic credit and the organization or agency benefits from the additional resource.

There is evidence that college students are hungry for opportunities to serve the community in this more structured approach. Service learning courses – as well as enrollment in these courses – are experiences exponential growth. Five short years ago, there were 47 designated service-learning courses, in which 1804 credit hours were earned. Today, there are 141 courses and students earned 5355 academic credit hours last year. Campus Compact is a national coalition of nearly 1,100 colleges and university with similar experiences.

Given the extensive range of academic programs of our higher education institutions, any organization or agency with a function associated with the improved civic condition of our communities could potentially benefit from collaborating with schools that promote service learning. The equally broad range of services—provided as part of the public administrative function in government, public institutions, nonprofit organizations and grass-root community groups—would serve to provide opportunities to the motivated, enthusiastic and civic -minded leaders of the future.

I would be more than happy to entertain questions regarding service learning and the benefits to both the students and organizations. A more direct approach would be for someone in your organization to reach out to leaders at a local college or university to find out if service-learning placements are available in courses that align with your organizational function and mission.


Author: Bryan K Breland, DrPH, JD, MPA, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Service Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His current research focuses on emergency preparedness in health care organization and systems. You can reach Dr. Breland at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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