Service-learning at Williams: outlet for local involvement

Have you ever sat in a class wondering why or if your course work is relevant to life? Do you ever wish you could use your knowledge somewhere other than on paper?

These answers may be found through the process of service-learning (S-L), in which students combine class work and fieldwork to gain a better understanding of the world in which we live. Either as an academic study or implemented across course curriculums, S-L is becoming a significant part of higher education because of the positive long-term effects and values it instills.

A general misconception most critics have is that “community service” does not belong in a traditionally academic environment. But S-L is more than community service and is more closely related to an internship. The concept of S-L is for thought and practice to coexist, so that learning is the main objective.

Not only does a student learn how to implement his or her academic knowledge into a community setting, but also the community gains the expertise and service of that student. One of the main goals of S-L is to transform community field experiences into a lifelong desire to be civically engaged, thereby bettering citizens and society.

A significant aspect of the S-L process is the act of reflecting upon what is discovered while serving others. Through individual and group discussion, as well as through keeping personal journals, S-L students come to understand how their knowledge can benefit others while also benefiting themselves.

Across the country, colleges and universities have integrated service learning into their courses. Approximately one-third of all classes at Bates College have integrated S-L into their class structure. Arizona State University has integrated S-L through science courses in which undergraduates tutor elementary students with hands-on, simplified activities.Tufts University has developed a college of citizenship that integrates all facets of university life with a public service component, and Stanford University has a Service-Learning Institute made of faculty committed to service based research and fieldwork.

At Williams, S-L has yet to become a major aspect to course work; however, through the course entitled, EXPR 252: “Service, Community and Self,” taught by Associate Chaplain Peter Feudo, students explore the theory and practice of S-L as an academic study. Furthermore, the students have developed individual as well as group projects to serve those in need in surrounding communities.

One group project is serving a local senior citizen who is in the process of moving apartments. Members of EXPR 252 have sorted through her unwanted belongings and given unneeded goods to local food banks, libraries and shelters.

The classes’ individual projects vary quite widely, ranging from teaching art to elementary students who lack art programs in their school to planting flowers with the elderly at a local nursing home.

One student, Mark Rosenthal ’03, is working through the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation to help create a trail. Through informative signs, hikers will learn of the effects on forests of buying wood products such as furniture or flooring.

Jason Oraker ’00 is serving with the Massachusetts Committee on Public Counsel Services of Berkshire County in Pittsfield. He is shadowing public defenders to learn more about their position and community role. As well as experiencing the connection between theory and practice while serving others, Jason is deciding if he would like to attend law school.

Each week the students report to the entire class on the progress of their projects, and provide feedback as to how the projects could be enhanced. Therefore, Mark and Jason are teaching as well as learning from their classmates. Which establishes a sense of community not only between the students and the communities they are serving, but also between the members of the class. If you would like to learn more about S-L at Williams, the class projects, or S-L in general, please attend EXPR 252’s discussion on service-learning that will be held Wednesday, May 3 at 8:00 p.m. in Goodrich Lounge.