Service learning benefits students and the community

March 23, 2009

Melissa Rauschenberg ’10 was initially nervous about working with homeless people at the county cold-weather shelter. She had heard so many stereotypes about the homeless – they’re dirty, drug-addicted, mentally impaired – and she wondered how she could possibly relate to them.

Rauschenberg was among the 23 students in Professor Cathy Orzolek-Kronner’s Social Work Practice I class this semester who spent six weeks working at the county’s cold-weather shelter. Each student took one five-hour shift each week. Together, they served 30 to 40 clients, depending on the weather, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. each day.

Soon after beginning her work at the shelter, Rauschenberg said she was pleasantly surprised when she began feeling deeply connected to many of the shelter’s clients.

“You hear the negative – that they are dirty or on drugs. Going into it, that’s what you expect. And some of them do have these problems. But I learned that they have feelings, too, and that they’re a lot like me,” said Rauschenberg, who as the mother of a 1-year-old daughter grew especially close to some of the homeless mothers.

“We had so much in common, such as life lessons,” she said. “The difference is that I go home and they don’t.”

For years, McDaniel College professors have informally infused service-learning experiences into their classroom lessons, providing opportunities for students to voluntarily sign up for a community-based project such as the cold-weather shelter.

Now, administrators and faculty are pushing to create service-learning courses in an effort to increase and formalize such experiences. Service-learning courses are designed with a specific community-based commitment in which students are expected to participate.

There has been so much interest from faculty and students to offer such courses that the college’s first formal service-learning course – “Writing for Nonprofit Organizations,” taught by Julia Jasken, assistant professor of English – was launched this spring, a full semester ahead of schedule, according to Sarah Stokely, associate dean of student academic life.

“Students are asking for it, which is why this is moving more quickly than we anticipated,” said Stokely, who added that several courses in the fall are expected to include service-learning components.

In Jasken’s “Writing for Nonprofit Organizations” class, students are working three hours a week at a local nonprofit organization in a writing-related internship. Participating nonprofits include the Community Foundation of Carroll County, Habitat for Humanity of Carroll County, Mission of Mercy, United Hands of Carroll County and United Way Community Partnership.

Jasken’s students are researching and analyzing the communication needs of local and national nonprofits. But in addition to traditional analysis papers for class, they are developing letters, grant proposals, brochures, press releases and other public relations materials for their assigned nonprofit organizations.

Jasken said her students seem to be discovering that their service experiences are mirroring the kinds of subjects they are covering in class.

“There are the normal frustrations that come along with working in professional settings, such as negotiating deadlines or dealing with the not-so exciting experiences such as database management, but that’s all part of fully understanding what it takes to work for – or run – a nonprofit,” she said.

“On the whole, students seem very pleased with being able to learn more about how their organizations function,” Jasken added. “And, many are getting a chance to write grants and produce brochures, which will have real impact for their organizations.”

Stokely says that the concept of service learning “fits in well with McDaniel’s liberal arts educational goals and belief that we are shaping citizens of the global village.”

“Our mission here is to treat the student holistically,” Stokely says. “We believe ‘inside the classroom’ and ‘outside the classroom’ are not two separate spheres, but are spheres that are connected.”