Making service to others a part of higher education
March 4, 2006
The Salt Lake Tribune
Leslie Lords Robbins
When Westminster College student Kolbie Stonehocker placed her black, gothic-like combat boot in front of a classroom of fifth-graders, her biggest fear was that no one would choose her scary boot.
Pick up a shoe, take it to your seat, and hold it up. Kolbie waited anxiously, as her eyes scanned the room, until fifth-grader Hannah Walker held up the boot and smiled. Little did Hannah know that she saved a piece of Kolbie's soul as a gentle transcendence took place.
Hannah and Kolbie's story belongs to a group of students from Beacon Heights Elementary and a group of Westminster students enrolled in the Learning Community - Landscapes of the Self. Service-learning is a form of experiential, community-based learning that involves students and meaningful service activities within a college course filled with reflective conversations and assignments.
We didn't provide water for a Third World country, or adopt a section of the rain forest; we simply had conversations with a group of fifth-graders about the origin of their names, significant places in their lives, personality, parents and self. From these conversations we took an 11- by 14-inch canvas, created a collage with significant pictures and objects, and the tangible outcome was a piece of visual life history.
Reciprocity resulted when two separate and different communities gathered. A lens of empathy and sameness was created, while pathways to inner geographies became clearer. Once everything was in place, a thin layer of mod-podge held everything down, adding a final shimmer.
The conceptual piece of our service happened when the 21 college students wrote reflective essays, and then created a collaborative piece of narrative-based research. We will present the essay on March 23 at the annual Utah Service Symposium entitled "Celebrate the Art of Service-Artivism: Art + Activism."
The essay is filled with sentences such as, "Service-learning has re-emphasized what I feel is lost in communities throughout America," "Through service-learning I found common threads with another human being, which gave me the feeling of connection rather than separation," "I was astonished that something that I ignored could change my life and have as deep of an impact as it did."
And Kolbie writes, "To think that I helped Hannah create a huge wave in that nameless sea of people helps me make ripples in my search for identity. This service was somehow sacred to me."
Surrounded by a cathedral of red rocks, blue sky and the Colorado River, faculty representatives from colleges across the state gathered safely last weekend in Moab. Conversations about service-learning and the vital role it plays in higher education and community building were guided under the direction of Utah Campus Compact.
Discussions of place, self, education and developing citizenship moved from methods and strategies to reflections about how to continue this pedagogy within the various disciplines.
I attended the conference as an adjunct professor from Westminster College. I am not a full-time professor with tenure or a published book. However, I have had the pleasure of observing deeply engaged students in my classes through reflective composition and conversation. It has become a sort of spiritual experience for me.
Spiritual, not in the religious sense, but in the sense of taking something in, and also giving back, as defined at the Moab retreat by Marshall Welch, director of the Lowell Bennion Service Center at the University of Utah.
So now what? These words echoed off of the red rock as we departed and went our separate ways back to our campuses. One gold thread held our words together - the thread that service-learning will find an even stronger place within the fabric of Utah colleges, disciplines, neighborhood and global communities.
There is a hope that prospective college students and parents make service-learning part of the criteria for choosing their place of higher education, and that current college students reach out for more classes that provide service-learning.
Most of all, there is a hope that students will experience this higher level of education where spirituality and transcendence exist, so that they can find ways to become human beings with an illuminated awareness of their place in this world.
And the fifth-graders will tell you that mod-podge works best for holding everything in place, adding a final shimmer.