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Service-learning in education leads to civic engagement

By Jillana Finnegan

We do not need one more idea to improve our community. We need more action. We need more people to contribute and to participate in the work already in motion.

Government cannot solve our problems, and neither can nonprofits or businesses alone. It is through the dedication and sacrifice of individuals that progress is made, and this is the resource that needs to be cultivated. We need more of our citizens to commit to being part of a solution; the complexity and scope of the problems facing our world simply require it. Can we raise the bar? Can we cultivate and encourage a commitment to community engagement?

We can, and the time to do it is now. The most recent report from the Corporation for National and Community Service on the civic health of the nation states that Americans are increasingly coming together and “tilting towards the issues and not running away from them.” There is momentum for increased service, social connectedness, and political action. If nonprofits, for-profits, and government entities collaborate to support and leverage this energy, then significant and long-term improvements in our communities are possible.

These collaborations could take many forms. I propose that encouraging the use of service-learning at all education levels is one of the most effective and efficient methods of increasing civic engagement. Service-learning is a teaching and learning method which ties community service to classroom instruction and reflection.

Students engage in the subject of the class not only through textbooks and lectures, but by serving in the community. Students benefit in many ways from these opportunities, but most importantly these experiences can equip them with the knowledge, skills, values, and motivation to contribute to the common good.

Service-learning is not a fad, nor is it centered on warm-fuzzy notions of just “doing good.” It is based on research that demonstrates service-learning improves academic performance and increases a sense of civic responsibility and personal efficacy. The use of service-learning has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. In the 2008-2009 academic year, over 1,100 colleges and universities offered classes that teach using service-learning, and the students’ service hours were valued at $7.4 billion.

At Boise State University, over 2,000 students participated in service-learning in 2009-2010, contributing over 50,000 hours of service to the Treasure Valley. Each semester 35 to 40 percent of those students report that they plan to continue serving at the site after the course is over. From 65 to 70 percent agreed with the statement “this service-learning class helped me become more interested in helping solve community problems.” Over 75 percent report they would recommend service-learning to other students.

Impressive numbers, but it is not enough. There is more work to be done, and it needs to start earlier. Service-learning can be a vibrant and significant component of K-12 education, and some funding is available at the national and local level to implement and support its use. However, more students across Idaho need the opportunity to apply their learning to the real world, to gain valuable interpersonal and professional skills, and to broaden their understanding of their community.

What is needed is for leaders in the public and private sector to provide funding, recognition, and placement opportunities for educators and students involved in service-learning and other forms of community engaged learning.

Leaders in the public and private sector have the opportunity to capitalize on the infrastructure and momentum already in place. Students want opportunities to make their learning relevant. We need citizens who value civic engagement and are motivated to address community problems.

Service-learning is a documented and respected method of teaching course material and instilling civic responsibility. It is not enough to have one great idea. We need ideas that come with a willingness and readiness to work hard, to sacrifice, to serve for the common good. We need young people to know that they can and should improve their communities. This will not happen unless public and private sectors come together to make civic education a priority in their own institutions and reach out to collaborate with each other.
Jillana Finnegan lives in Boise with her husband and two children. She is a graduate student in Masters of Public Policy and Administration at Boise State University, where she is also employed in the Service-Learning Program. After graduation, Finnegan plans to study and promote civic engagement as a means to improve our communities.

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