The first CIDER workshop I attended (both for this independent study and ever) was the Effective Service-Learning Primer. I was one of only two attendees, so the session leaders made an effort to personalize the workshop to our needs and interests. They e-mailed us a few days beforehand with questions about our academic background, previous experience with service learning, and what we wanted to get out of the session and then tailored their examples during the presentation to be more relevant to us, which I appreciated. As the name of the workshop suggests, they provided a general overview of service learning. I did not realize that there are so many service opportunities for students through VT Engage, both through the curriculum as well as outside of school. The University of Georgia, where I did my undergraduate and Master’s degrees, did not have a similar organizing body or program for community service and service learning, so I usually had to search far and wide on my own to find ways to volunteer. They also mentioned some useful resources, including a website where professors upload syllabi for service learning courses they have taught.
I took one service learning course in Spanish while studying abroad in Argentina as an undergraduate. Most of the students on the trip were in this course, but we all volunteered with different organizations. I was placed in a pre-school and pretty much just got to play with the kids, which was great. Outside of this experience, I also volunteered as a translator for Latino families in Athens-Clarke County schools during parent-teacher conferences. I feel like service learning may be a little bit easier to incorporate with foreign languages, because I was able to practice speaking Spanish, as well as gain exposure to different dialects, while helping and forming relationships with the community.
I would be interested in developing a service learning course in the natural resources or environmental sciences one day. My research and academic interests tend to focus on practical, real-world applications, so I think working with the community is a good fit for me. Obviously, continued cutting-edge research in the laboratories of universities and research institutes is essential to solve many of society’s problems. However, I believe there is a lot we can do with what we already know. I am a little overwhelmed, though, with the amount of coordination and expertise necessary for a successful service learning project. The workshop emphasized the importance of collaboration across disciplines and with different partners. I considered this aspect before—for example, restoring a riparian buffer sounds like a fairly straightforward task but might require input from hydrologists, geomorphologists, ecologists, foresters, and wildlife biologists as well as social scientists. We would need to think about questions like which tree species to plant considering the climate, precipitation, and soils but also in terms of what type of litter is best for the stream biota. What is preferable from an ecological standpoint might not match with what the local community members want (e.g. many landowners prefer good visibility of the stream, unobstructed by trees, and remove woody debris because they think it looks messy). Likewise, partnerships should extend beyond academia to include community representatives, industry professionals, or local governments. It seems like such projects could easily get out of hand with too many partners, at which point it would be hard to organize everybody to accomplish something tangible by the end of the semester. At the other extreme, if our goal is too small, we may overlook a critical element or else do too little to learn new skills or make a difference in the community. So, there are many things to consider and various challenges to overcome, but at least I can start thinking about how to implement service learning in the future.