Service learning in courses offers campus-community benefits

At SUNY Oswego last year, 19 faculty members offered a service-learning component in coursework to more than 430 students. In 1998, when Dr. Laura Brown began offering students a service-learning option in an introductory gerontology course, only a couple of other Oswego courses challenged students to get out in the community to apply what they were learning in class.

Kristyn Bermingham with puppyCourses offering such opportunities today mark programs ranging from public justice to human resource management, from communication to music. Students in those courses logged nearly 7,500 hours with organizations as diverse as the YMCA and Oswego Animal Shelter, the BOCES Migrant Education Outreach Program and Oswego Middle School, according to Alyssa Amyotte, SUNY Oswego’s coordinator of service learning and community service.

The rewards of service learning are two-way and manifold, Amyotte and Brown said.

Brown remembers the joy in the face of a Japanese-American student who had visited World War II veterans in an Oswego nursing home—an encounter the young gerontology student initially had feared.

“She floated back to the classroom, she was so excited,” said Brown, who has become a resource for other faculty members seeking to integrate service learning and coursework. The veterans, it seems, were grateful for the student’s willing ear, and they wanted to hear about her own family’s times during the war. “She said, ‘I did that. I made a difference.’ I said, ‘Exactly.’”

Life meets learning

Dr. William Rose, a visiting assistant professor of sociology, said he valued service learning as a student and then as a teacher the past two decades. In his “Family Violence” course this semester, Rose included a service-learning project to help the students integrate learning and life.

“This is not an academic curiosity,” Rose said. “It’s about real people with real lives who are suffering because of their real lives—children suffering abuse, women suffering violence.”

Divided into four large teams, Rose’s class is making contact with Oswego-area human services agencies that deal with prevention and consequences of family violence. The students plan to conduct a service project on behalf of each partner organization.

“Class discussion is a big piece of it—the process of what they are learning along the way,” Rose said. “They’ll also do a reflective paper at the end. Some of that, undoubtedly, will include frustrations: people not calling back, workers too busy and too understaffed to meet with them. I’m OK with that. The reality is, these organizations don’t have a lot of time and money.”

Amyotte pointed out that while Rose integrates service learning and Brown offers a one-credit add-on to gerontology through a service-learning course, more delivery options exist. For example, communication majors must complete a service project for a capstone course required for graduation. Other professors encourage students to place themselves, for varying numbers of hours, with community service organizations.

In general, a service-learning course needs to include at least 20 hours of service, significant discussion and reflective writing, Amyotte said.

Students welcome

Senior psychology major Kristyn Bermingham loves her service assignment. As a requirement of Dr. David Sargent’s upper-level psychology course, “Advanced Animal Learning Principles,” Bermingham visits the city of Oswego’s animal shelter on East Seneca Street twice a week, and walks and does rudimentary training with dogs there.

“I also have a dog,” the Buffalo native said. “I’m very interested in how to properly care for dogs and train them. I enjoy doing this service.”

Human services providers likewise enjoy the help from learners. Paul Gugel, director of adult and migrant education for Oswego County BOCES, said SUNY Oswego students the past six years have organized a Discover College Day for children of migrant workers hailing from Mexico, Guatemala and, more recently, Burma. “The (BOCES) students we work with primarily come from families where no one ever went to college,” Gugel said. “The college visits take the mystery out of it. It makes it real for them.”

SUNY Oswego has integrated service learning and community service into the curriculum and other aspects of campus life to the extent the college earned the Carnegie Foundation’s Community Engagement Classification in January 2011. The college has earned a place on the Presidents’ Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll since the list’s inception in 2006, adding “with Distinction” in 2011.

PHOTO CAPTION: Labor of love—SUNY Oswego senior psychology major Kristyn Bermingham works with furry friends such as Hana, an Akita mix, at the city’s Oswego Animal Shelter as part of the service-learning requirement for David Sargent’s course, “Advanced Animal Training Principles.” The college continues to add courses with service-learning components as part of its commitment to community engagement.

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(Posted: Feb 29, 2012)

Tags: service learning, engagement