Service learning: Community service as education


October 12th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Some Nebraska college students are finding one of the best ways to learn is to do something for others.

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Take as an example two University of Nebraska Kearney students: Zack Colgrove, a sophomore from Blair, and Robbie Kirkland of Garland. On a recent October afternoon, they drove off the UNK campus in Kirkland’s bright yellow Camaro. Colgrove and Kirkland are volunteers for Campus Kitchens. The trunk of their car was full of dinners for some of Kearney’s low income residents.

Every week student volunteers with the Campus Kitchens program deliver more than one hundred meals to people in need in the Kearney area. Most of the meals are donated by area businesses, and support comes from local grants. Campus Kitchens is a nationwide program, with 31 colleges and universities participating.

A friendly face with a hot meal

Zach Cosgrove and Robbie Kirkland, students at the University of Nebraska Kearney, deliver food to people in need. (Photo by Jerry Johnston, NET News)

The two young men are delivering meals to the residents of Kearney’s Emerson Apartments. Emerson Apartments offers government-supported housing and reduced rents for low income inviduals. There’s nothing fancy here. The carpet is worn, the walls could use a paint job. There are decorations on the doors, but it’s October, and the decorations are from the Fourth of July.

The two students walk the hallways carrying a big yellow thermal case full of meals in Styrofoam containers. They knock on doors, deliver meals, and keep going. Most of the residents are elderly. It’s quite a contrast to see two young men walking the hallway. They’ve been doing this weekly delivery long enough they’re on a first name basis with some of the residents.

One of the residents, a woman named Phyllis, says she has been getting Campus Kitchens meals for four years.

“It’s wonderful. We all look forward to it. I’ve got five sons, so I love ‘em.”

Cosgrove and Kirkland return the compliment.

“ Phyllis..Oh yeah, she’s one of our favorites.”

After finishing their deliveries, they head back to campus in Robbie’s car – where he talks about his motivation for being involved in Campus Kitchens.

“Well, for me, I get satisfaction out of seeing a smile on somebody’s face. I really enjoy helping people. It’s probably one of the main reasons why I want to become a doctor in the medical field, solely because I like to help people.”

Zach Colgrove echoes his friend’s thoughts.

“Every week we get a bunch of people telling us how glad they are we are doing this, how badly the people there need it, and it’s overpowering sometimes.”

UNK Political Science professor Peter Longo says the project was born when a student asked a challenging question in one of his classes.

“It was about 2004. We were covering issues of social justice and the environment and one of my students said this is great, to cover all this theory, when are we going to do something?”

Longo says it’s the perfect example of the theoretical becoming practical – education leading to action.
“In order to be a good citizen, I need to take part, as Aristotle would claim, take part in the deliberative nature of the state. And so, it was a joyful moment.”

Earning a Certificate in Community Engagement at The University of Nebraska Lincoln

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is also working to apply classroom learning in community service. Linda Major, is the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and the Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at UNL. She says the center’s goal is practical application of classroom concepts to solve community problems. She gives an example you might not think of – free tax preparation help.

“Last year we had approximately 120 students from four different colleges and the law school involved in the project.”

Students from the law school and accounting majors helped with the forms, education and human sciences students provided child care, modern language students helped with translation when needed, and journalism. Major is proud of the outcome.

“The result: We did almost a thousand tax returns, and the total of the refunds was $1.2 million. For some of those families, it moved them out of poverty overnight. We think it’s a tremendous service to the community.”

And Major says UNL’s Center for Civic engagement now offers a Certificate in Civic Engagement. Between 30 and 40 students annually can apply for the program integrating community service with their college education. Major looks at the bigger picture.

“I think we’re at an important time in democracy’s history. I think we need citizen engagement. This seems to be a time when we need all hands on deck using the best minds to solve some really important questions.”

Major says she sees one more trend that makes her happy – more and more students who want to get involved in the community.

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