On any given morning, I blended in with the rest of my classmates at the liberal arts college, walking briskly to class with a large bag on one shoulder and coffee in hand. I sat in tightly packed lecture halls and small seminar classrooms, taking notes on the Roman Empire, Dante’s Inferno, and covalent bonds. I highlighted facts in textbooks, read chapters in famous literature, and wrote essays about international relations. In one aspect though, my education was not as cliché. I graduated from Providence College this spring with a degree in Public and Community Service Studies, a major that led me away from traditional education and into the world of service-learning. My friends were always jealous that I rarely had to buy books for my classes, while I watched them shell out hundreds of dollars on accounting and biology resources. According to my professors, our textbook would be our experiences, those that we came to college with and the many others we would have here through our time serving at non-profit organizations in Providence called site placements.
The core courses of this major which I began in my first semester of college embraced the service-learning framework. The academic department that houses these courses, the Feinstein Institute for Public Service, explains “service-learning as a method of teaching that integrates community service experiences to provide a context for and enrich an academic curriculum.” In Introduction to Service in Democratic Communities, I tutored girls at a tuition-free private school for low-income families. The next semester I taught photography lessons to urban youth and helped them create an exhibit about what community means to them. As a sophomore and junior, I organized and managed volunteers for an after-school tutoring club and a college mentor club at a charter high school. While my friends in other majors were learning through reading and writing, I was learning by doing.
The lessons I learned in the Providence community could not be found in a textbook or written on a whiteboard for me to copy into a notebook. I’ve read articles about economic inequality in America and the vast differences between the lifestyles of underserved populations and privileged populations. However, words and numbers do not have the same impact as seeing the effects in person. The message of inequality roars louder when you see the faces of exhausted, frustrated, but determined teachers and an administrator in a resource-poor urban school. You understand the call to action on a deeper level when you listen to a principal announce at parent night how much higher their children’s test scores need to be in order for their school to even exist.
In the traditional world of education, service without reflection would be like learning the whole vocabulary of accounting, but never understanding the definitions.
One of the most important elements of my education in this major became reflection. To those outside the major- and I must admit, myself as well at the beginning of college – attending reflection sessions and writing reflection papers seemed strange as assignments in a college-level course. While unconventional, these assignments came to be just as valuable as the experiences I had in the field. There is no point to having the incredible opportunity to work in the field if you never take a minute to stop and think about what you are seeing, doing, feeling. In the traditional world of education, service without reflection would be like learning the whole vocabulary of accounting, but never understanding the definitions. The deeper context and purpose of the work is lost without the latter. These assignments helped me verbalize the skills I was developing and pushed me to ask questions and find answers about myself, my community, and my future career path.
The most important skill I learned through my undergraduate studies has nothing to do with facts, concepts, ideas, or theories. My professors, classmates, and experiences taught me an invaluable skill: a new way of thinking. Our professors gave us the freedom to be creative in our writing and presentations. The organizations where I served gave me free reign to organize programs, such as a college mentor club. My peers and professors pushed me out of my comfort zone during conversations in and out of the classroom, encouraging me to participate in and organize projects I didn’t think I had the courage to do, like leading a school-wide campaign to bring more sustainable food into the college’s dining hall.
Most importantly as well, these people were my support when I failed. Our coursework was in the field, so there were real benefits and consequences to our assignments. We weren’t creating a fictional business proposal for a management class or raising a virtual child for psychology. We worked with real people and faced real, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles daily. When only a quarter of the students enrolled in a tutoring program showed up after school, I had to go back to the drawing board and problem-solve. When the city bus changed its sign to out-of-service on a field trip I was leading, I made a quick adjustment to the plan and put on a brave face to show the group that I had the situation under control. When the manager of the dining hall told me my requests weren’t possible at this time, I remembered the class lesson on finding common ground with an adversary in community organizing and spoke with him about ways we could work together, instead of against one another, in the future.
Colloquially in America, people say they ‘receive’ an education, but that word doesn’t seem to fit with the service-learning courses I took in college. Instead, I believe I experienced education; and it is this education that has shaped me into the person that I am today. A recent college graduate, I am prepared to work in and contribute to ‘the real world’ because I have spent the last four years learning, questioning, creating, failing, and succeeding in it through service-learning.
I’m a huge proponent of service-learning in higher education because of what it has done for me. Providence College is not alone in offering this alternative educational framework. Many higher education institutions across the country offer service-learning courses, including Wheelock College. Campus Compact is a national organization that helps colleges and universities become more involved with their surrounding communities. Responses from Campus Compact’s 2012 Annual Member Survey show that more than 500 colleges and universities in America offer courses with a service-learning component. For students and faculty at institutions without service-learning opportunities, I hope you can see the benefits of this model and start a movement to bring service-learning to your campus. There is a wealth of information, resources, and support available across the country to help individuals with this effort, such as Campus Compact. For lucky individuals at institutions with service-learning, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity, students and faculty alike. Taking or facilitating a service-learning course requires you to challenge yourself in ways that are not possible in traditional education and brings a unique benefit to all individuals involved. The personal growth that occurs and relationships that you form in the community give you the strength to overcome the challenges and work harder than you did the day before.
 Campus Compact. (2013). Creating a Culture of Assessment: 2012 Campus Compact Annual Member Survey. Boston, MA: Campus Compact.
Kerry Fleming is a New Sector AmeriCorps RISE Fellow serving at Wheelock College Aspire Institute. The Residency In Social Enterprise (RISE) Fellowship is an 11-month professional development program for aspiring leaders in the social sector. Kerry graduated Summa Cum Laude from Providence College with a degree in Public and Community Service Studies and Political Science. She aspires to have a career in the social sector that involves exploring innovative solutions to social issues in America. In her free time, Kerry enjoys listening to and discovering new music across many genres, exploring Boston, and writing.