Service Learning, For the Whole Class?

I started out my letter to the editor of The Chronicle stating, “Sophomore slump is a real problem (“Clemson Seeks to Diminish the Sophomore Slump,” The Chronicle, May 11), and the curricular initiative at Clemson is to be applauded. At my institution, we are looking at co-curricular alternatives that may produce similar outcomes.”

The alternative I was referring to is SophServe, the direct result of overwhelming evidence that student retention and overall satisfaction was inadvertently suffering upon return to Wheelock (and elsewhere) in the absence of the nurturing and attention paid to the students in their first year.

We participated in a nationwide survey about the sophomore experience, conducted by Prof. Laurie Schreiner at Azusa Pacific University, in Spring 2011. Results indicated:

  1. 30% of respondents never had participated in a leadership position within a student organization
  2. 33% never had never participated in peer mentoring or leadership programs
  3. Nearly 20% reported never having participated in a community service event
  4. 50% never had never attended a single program geared specifically toward sophomores
  5. 69% never had never participated in a service learning course

Our solution was to create SophServe—targeting the sophomore class and engaging them in community service, living our mission, and connecting them with the broader community. We built in an academic component (reading, reflection) and encouraged sophomores to take leadership positions; each project had at least one leader, sometimes 2 or 3. Often these were students who did not already hold a leadership position in a student organization.

Wheelock student Flor Romero in a service learning project in Roxbury MA Projects this year included tutoring local schoolchildren, leading a grant-funded day of service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fundraising and educating the community in a breast-cancer charity walk, and encouraging participation in the AmeriCorps Student Leaders in Service program. Out of almost 200 students in the class of 2014, 125 of them participated in at least one project.

Flor Romero thinks highly of the program, saying, “I did 3 events in Sophserve this year and I definitely felt really good about participating in these events because I was giving back to my community. [For my second project] I went to a preschool in Roxbury and we cleaned the classrooms and painted the walls. I met some new people there, people who I had seen on campus all the time but I never talked to. We worked together to get the classrooms clean and I felt really good about that at the end as well.”

This is a response to SophServe we heard often.  Each project is closely supervised by Student Success administrators, and is preceded by readings and followed by reflection on key content and processes. Faculty are invited to participate, and next year we’re looking to bring alumni on board to provide additional mentoring.

In a study of 20 colleges and universities that seemed to do a great job of fostering student development, George Kuh, a respected higher education researcher, published in his book Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter (2005), his findings that civic and community engagement, along with active learning and living an institution’s mission, were practices they called out as being particularly effective. SophServe, so far, has validated Kuh’s observations.