Service-Learning Program Connects Students with Community
Engagement outside the classroom goes beyond volunteering to shape the student experience.
On a crisp Saturday morning in October, dozens of middle school and high school girls came to TCU to find their voices.
As the teenagers sat at tables in the TCU student center ballroom, they struggled to write first drafts of scholarship essays or college applications. For help, advice and encouragement, the girls turned to college students taking the Introduction to Women & Gender Studies course.
“You’re totally welcome to get creative, and you want your essay to stand out,” Madison “Maddie” Weinstock ’19, a psychology major, told two high school juniors. Despite the anxiety on the teenagers’ faces at the sight of their blank papers, both returned Weinstock’s smile before picking up their pens.
That kind of meaningful interaction with the wider community in Fort Worth typifies service learning at TCU. As for distinguishing service learning from volunteerism, the university uses specific criteria, said Rosangela Boyd, director of community involvement and service learning in Student Development Services.
A service-learning component should not just benefit a partner in the community; the schools, agencies or other nonprofits receiving the assistance also must have a voice in what the students do for them. And the service-learning experience has to support overall learning objectives, typically in students’ academic majors or minors.
“There needs to be reflection, which can be the most important piece,” said Boyd, who has led the university’s program since 2006. “Students need to have a way to integrate their service learning with their lives and other sources of learning.” Instructors and students touch base regularly throughout the course, and students often write end-of-semester papers that delve into the intellectual and emotional impact of the experience.
Boyd cites research that shows service-learning experiences help students acquire skills as varied as problem-solving, career development and the ability to understand complex issues. The community partners, meanwhile, receive meaningful contributions from the students, making this type of engagement a “win-win,” she said.
In the 2018-19 academic year, more than 500 TCU students who took courses in art therapy, criminology, sociology, environmental science, political science, nursing and dozens of other disciplines received academic credit for working for the benefit of the community.
Learning Outside the Classroom
A team of graduate students completed a yearlong service-learning project as part of their coursework. In the class Applied Evaluation Research, the students conducted research, created surveys and analyzed data for Keeps Boutique, a nonprofit organization that provides clothing for women.
Located inside the Gatehouse, a supportive-living community in Grapevine, Texas, Keeps Boutique resembles a high-end store stocked with designer clothing, shoes and accessories. Members of the Gatehouse can shop at the nonprofit boutique at no charge based on their need for professional and personal items. They often outfit themselves for court appearances and job interviews.
Emily Avedikian, founder and director of Keeps Boutique, wanted feedback on her clients’ experiences as well as broader insights into how what they wear affects their self-esteem. She turned to James Petrovich, associate professor and chair in social work.
“The survey the TCU students created for our clients to take addressed several areas, including how the ladies feel about themselves,” Avedikian said. “We are always looking for ways to do what we do better, and the data the TCU students collected will help with that.”
Research on service learning has shown positive effects on many aspects of students’ lives, including cultural awareness, social responsibility and student cognitive learning outcomes.
Jami L. Warren of the University of Kentucky
For decades, scholars have looked to service learning as a way to enhance the university experience. “Research on service learning has shown positive effects on many aspects of students’ lives, including cultural awareness, social responsibility and student cognitive learning outcomes,” wrote Jami L. Warren of the University of Kentucky in the Spring 2012 issue of Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.
Warren added that research studies indicate service-learning experiences amplify student engagement “and that when students are engaged they are more motivated to study.” Boyd said TCU students tend to like service-learning courses.
A 2013 report from the University of Washington said almost 96 percent of college students surveyed would recommend service learning to their peers.
But not everyone embraces the academic concepts of service learning. The National Association of Scholars, a group that promotes traditional higher education, questions the role of service learning, particularly as it pertains to political and social issues.
In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January 2017, Stanley Fish, a law professor at Florida International University and a visiting professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, agreed with some of the organization’s positions. “Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal,” he wrote.
Fish said that students shouldn’t receive academic credit for work that benefits the community. Colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy, he said. “Neither social transformation nor unabashed patriotism is an appropriate goal of the classroom experience.”
An ‘Invaluable Experience’
Mary McKinney ’75, senior instructor in Spanish, has had her students work with more than 20 agencies around Fort Worth since 2009.
“What I read in my students’ reflection papers is that working in the field made them less afraid of making mistakes and more comfortable using the language,” she said.
At the start of each semester, McKinney hosts an agency fair. “It is set up like speed dating, giving our students an opportunity to speak in small groups with each person and get a better idea of where they would like to perform their service,” she said. “Even if they weren’t matched to a school, all of my students are in some kind of teaching role.”
In the 2018-19 academic year, McKinney’s students spent three hours a week at locations including Iglesia San Miguel, Mary Louise Phillips Elementary School, International Newcomer Academy, World Languages Institute and Northside Inter-Community Agency.
McKinney said it took years for her to find just the right community partners for her students. “What we need are places where students can use their language vocally, not do things like translate brochures,” she said.
At World Languages Institute, Caroline Cajas ’19, a biology major, spent the spring before her graduation helping middle school students hone their Spanish skills as they delved into topics such as the Spanish diaspora and racism.
“Going forward in my career, I’ll most likely be working with adults, but this experience has made me want to continue volunteering with kids,” Cajas said. “Some of the students here told me until they saw me, they didn’t realize there were Hispanic students at TCU.”
“The students from Dr. McKinney’s class become role models to our students,” said Guadalupe Barreto, principal at the World Languages Institute, a secondary school in the Fort Worth Independent School District that offers a Spanish immersion track and bilingual services. “Both the TCU and the WLI students interact in Spanish, providing our students the opportunity to be role models as well.”
At Mary Louise Phillips Elementary, Emily Souder ’19, a movement science major, worked every Wednesday with four students in 30-minute one-on-one sessions. Among her pupils was a first grader whose family recently moved to North Texas from Guatemala.
“In my time here at this school, I’ve learned there is definitely a difference between adult Spanish and kid Spanish,” Souder said after helping the girl read ¡Hoy volaré!, a Mo Williams picture book featuring a pig and an elephant.
“I’ve been so surprised over the fluidity of the language, how the kids go back and forth between English and Spanish,” Souder said. “I had to learn to keep up!”
Charlee Bisch ’19, a speech-language pathology major, considers her work at International Newcomer Academy a high point of her TCU education. “We are at a university that lives its mission statement to make us better global citizens,” she said. “It was truly an invaluable experience.”
Introduction to Women & Gender Studies, a fall class co-taught by Margaret Lowry ’03, Tiffany Robinson ’15 (MATM ’17), Gihan Farag ’16 MTS (MATM ’17), Sarah-Marie Horning and Santiago Piñon, partnered with Girls Inc. of Tarrant County to host a writing workshop for teenage girls who were working on scholarship essays.
At stake were awards: $500 for the eighth graders, $5,000-$20,000 for high school juniors and seniors. Girls Inc. scholarship eligibility rules require that girls are either currently or were previously in Girls Inc.
“It’s fun for the girls to be on campus, especially the juniors and seniors who are trying to imagine themselves in college,” said Lowry, lecturer in women and gender studies. “The project gives TCU students the chance to see themselves as expert writers. Many of the TCU students were nervous about the responsibility of being writing mentors, and they used the Girls Inc. motto, ‘Strong, smart, bold,’ to inspire their work.”
“Working with college students and getting their attention is a big deal for our girls,” said Donna James-Harvey, director of college and career services for Girls Inc. of Tarrant County.
More than 70 percent of the Girls Inc. participants will be first-generation high school graduates, and more than 85 percent come from low-income families, James-Harvey said.
Girls Inc., founded in 1864, is dedicated to empowering girls ages 6-18. Part of the mission of the national nonprofit, James-Harvey said, is to help girls develop the skills to become leaders.
At the October workshop at TCU, Alyssa Padilla ’19, a finance major, helped an eighth grade student from Martin Jacquet Middle School in Fort Worth work through a draft of her scholarship essay.
“Don’t worry about how it sounds now,” Padilla told the student. “We can sift through and work on themes.”
In her essay, the eighth grader wrote that two coaches whom she considers mentors tell their students “that we are never alone” and to never give up on dreams.
During a workshop break, the teenage participants received a surprise visit from Emily Morales, a sophomore mechanical engineering major at TCU. She won a $20,000 scholarship from Girls Inc. in 2018.
“Work hard and find a mentor,” Morales told the teenagers who still had to complete their essays. “Go to STEM camps and pay attention to time management. This scholarship program meant that I could go to TCU. It was a big relief for my family and a huge steppingstone for me. Being here is a dream come true.”
Six months after the workshop, Girls Inc. announced that two eighth graders from Fort Worth who worked on their essays at TCU had each won $500 scholarships.
“These were wonderful essays, full of heart and meaning,” James-Harvey said. “I know that coming to TCU and working with the students made a big impact on their success.”
A River Runs Through it
One of Boyd’s favorite aspects of overseeing the service-learning program is facilitating relationships among faculty and departments. “Sometimes it’s hard for someone to think what a service-learning component might be for something like English or history, but there are so many possibilities.”
Boyd is gratified when her office supports interdisciplinary projects such as Restorying the Trinity River, which brings together courses in anthropology, art and geography to examine ways to increase community engagement with the river that runs through Fort Worth. The project started in the spring semester and will continue through the 2019-20 academic year.
“The problem behind the project is that people often feel disconnected from the natural world,” said Dave Aftandilian, associate professor of anthropology. “Because there are no big problems in the world that we can solve from just one discipline’s perspective, this became an interdisciplinary project.”
Aftandilian, who directs the human-animal relationships minor, reached out to the Trinity River Vision Authority and the Tarrant Regional Water District, which supplies water to more than 2 million people in Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield, Texas.
“Among [the regional water district’s] top goals are getting people to use the Trinity more for recreation, and we thought we might be able to help,” Aftandilian said.
Two studio art professors embraced the project’s main concept and added their courses to the effort.
In April, Adam Fung, associate professor of art, took his studio art class out to paint en plein air at Airfield Falls Conservation Park, the site of the only natural waterfall near Fort Worth. Some of the students’ artwork will be printed on vinyl wraps.
The regional water district plans to use those wraps to help beautify siphons and junction boxes throughout the trail. “We also hope future students might come out and paint directly on structures like pump stations, which are concrete and metal and not very aesthetically pleasing,” said Tina Nikolic, neighborhood and recreation enhancement coordinator for the Tarrant Regional Water District.
At the waterfall, Nick Bontrager, associate professor of new media art, had his students use a piece of high-tech equipment on loan from the university’s Department of Geological Sciences to laser-scan the waterfall to within a millimeter of accuracy. Other undergraduates recorded the sounds of the river and the falls or shot video above and below the water.
“We used the pictures and sound recordings to chart the progression of the pollution,” said Ellie Nosich ’19, a communication studies major. She created a mixed-media presentation for the project. “We think of pollution in the Trinity as a call to action.”
All of the data the students collected, along with many of the projects, were offered to the regional water district for study and use. The district even allowed access to environmental studies that helped the team determine expedition sites, Bontrager said. “They have been extremely supportive of our work.”
Carol Thompson, professor of sociology, appreciates how the river project represents an expanding vision of service learning. “If you think about the most narrow version of service learning, it’s going out to an agency or community and helping them, and our students did that.
“But when you are talking about global problems or environmental degradation and talking about service to humanity and nature, it can be harder to pin down what that looks like,” Thompson said. “Restorying the Trinity is engaging the community in a broader way.”
Thompson took several students to the river on a Saturday to tag turtles for what she describes as an ongoing service project for both the academic community and the community at large.
Thompson’s group worked with Andrew Brinker ’06 MS, a science teacher at R.L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth. He organized the Trinity River Turtle Study, a multiyear conservation project that received support from the College of Education.
For two years, TCU students have assisted with the turtle project both as volunteers and in the context of service learning, said Brinker, who was a biology graduate student at the university.
During that time, 700 turtles have been marked by community volunteers and TCU’s service-learning students. More than 150 marked turtles were later recaptured. Brinker shares the turtle census data with the biologists at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Students helped Brinker trap turtles, scan them for microchips and add chips to turtles that did not have them. Before releasing the turtles back into the river, the team measured and marked the animals for further study.
“No one wants to think of life in Fort Worth without a thriving river,” Thompson said. Through the Restorying the Trinity River project, “our students are bringing their talents to the challenges and problems that surround the Trinity and our community.”