CSEE Connections — Community Service News, Oct 2003

By Charis Denison, Prajna Consulting
Council for Spiritual & Ethical Education — October 2003

I recently got a letter from an old student of mine. He’s a med student now with plans to work in a free clinic when he finishes his degree (if there are any by the time he finishes his degree). In his letter, he wrote about how service learning allowed him to do things. It allowed him to enter this career path with confidence and to test the opinions he was being raised with in his family. He said that teenagehood was so full of “ grey areas.” All of a sudden, nothing felt certain. Nothing was clear. He felt on the precipice of embracing and rejecting many values he was surrounded by in his youth. Community service gave him moments of clarity. “This is good. I am helping someone in this moment. … I know I am adept at this skill. … I know I am making a difference right here.”

When I read his letter, I remembered his reflection senior year. His service placement was at a job-training center for homeless adults. He helped clients work on their resumes and helped teach computer skills. In his reflection, he mentioned how his father had picked him up one day from the low-income area of Oakland, California where he volunteered. During the drive home, his father quizzed him on how, exactly, he was going to change things by participating in this project. Did he really think these people were going to get off the streets and stay there because of some computer training etc? In his reflection, this student said that he looked out the window while his father was talking and thought, “I know I changed things today and that’s enough for now.”

That reflection stays in my mind because it demonstrates this student’s point about testing the opinions our kids inherit. This young man didn’t want to believe his dad’s take on things. He didn’t want to inherit his father’s cynicism, but needed his own experience to create a take of his own and prove himself right. He shared, “What makes me this way? Is it a question of nature vs. nurture? What is causing me to turn off my father’s words that I have grown up hearing for sixteen years and turn to my own beliefs? I think I’d like to live the unfounded notion that the blemishes of the world can be mended with caring rather than grow up to believe that the poor, the needy, and the hungry are a hopeless cause. If that’s what it means to mature in the world, if that’s being a reasonable adult, I don’t want to grow up.” He concluded with, “What was it that allowed me to reject my father’s ideas? My own experience on my own time, encouraged by other adults I respected. That’s what.” I don’t think we can underestimate the power of service learning in this regard.

On the flip side, I remember a student a few years back who is African-American. Her mother kept telling her that the world was full of professional Black women. But, in her world, at her school, that wasn’t the case. In fact, her stellar education may have been preparing her academically, but she was becoming more and more socially and culturally isolated. Community Service Learning allowed her to immerse herself in her future! She would come back to school glowing with stories and pride about the community she belonged to outside of school. Here are a few words from her reflection. “It is a privilege to work in such a motivated atmosphere. I feel that I am reaching out to my African-American community while honoring my school at the same time. The staff welcomed me and all have such integrity and character. Most of them are African-American females, which was joy to see. I don’t think I have ever walked into an organization or business where African-American females run the entire place. I was very excited to see so many black women handling their business and supporting their community. It is beautiful. Even though my family raised me knowing this fact was true, it is hard to envision when the only things we see on the news and in the newspapers paint such a dreary picture of the African-American community.”

Alice Walker once said, “There is nothing sadder than young cynics. They go from knowing nothing to believing in nothing.” Research has shown over and over again how experiential education proves to solidify academic learning and foster career exploration. Community Service Learning as experiential education allows students to do that and test the family and community values they grow up with, shape them, solidify them, and then call them their own.

My personal hope is that service learning will become so embroidered into the fabric of education that its absence in a school community will reveal the holes in that school’s education. We may not be there yet, but I remain an idealist.Click edit button to change this text.