Editor’s Letter: Service learning not only benefits college students; it has the power to transform communities.

By:    Date: 03-22-2017

Article by Stephen Black

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Through Hear Here Alabama, students are testing rural Alabama residents’ hearing and studying connections between hearing loss and well-being.

Service learning offers a plethora of benefits for college students. By combining organized service activities with academic study and thoughtful reflection, service learning enhances students’ comprehension of course content while providing them with valuable real-world experience.

The impact of service learning, however, can reach far beyond individual students. The manpower, skills, perspectives and enthusiasm college students bring to their work have the power to transform aspects of entire communities and even states. Through the FocusFirst initiative (page 8), for instance, Alabama has become the nation’s leader in diagnosing and addressing vision problems in young children.

The nonprofit Druid City Garden Project (page 32) also is a model for how multiple university departments and disciplines can come together to support a single initiative – and substantially improve lives and communities while offering service-learning experiences for students.

Founded by a University of Alabama faculty member in 2010, Druid City Garden Project now operates in seven Tuscaloosa-area elementary schools, teaching more than 3,300 children about healthy eating and community gardening through science- and math-based lessons and helping stem the tide of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The organization also provides fresh food to the community and teaches kids business and financial skills through farm stands.

UA students are Druid City Garden Project’s engine. Their efforts represent more than 80 percent of volunteer hours dedicated to the nonprofit, which runs primarily on volunteer support. Ten UA service-learning courses and nine University colleges and departments partnered with Druid City Garden Project during the 2015-16 academic year. Both the nonprofit and its collaborations with the University continue to grow, as do service-learning opportunities across the UA campus.

During the 2015-16 academic year, 180 UA faculty members – representing almost every academic discipline – offered service-learning courses in collaboration with more than 350 community partners.

Building a culture of service learning takes organized effort and support from an institution’s administration. Since 2007, UA’s Faculty Fellows in Service Learning Program (page 80) – operated by the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility – has been giving faculty members the knowledge, tools and resources needed to bring their service-learning ideas to fruition.

In the long term, widespread service learning in higher education could prompt a dramatic cultural shift. Community service activities, carried out in conjunction with course work, encourage students to move beyond acts of charity and temporary solutions to a deeper analysis of systemic challenges in the world around them. Students also develop a sense of civic responsibility and learn how to continue making positive contributions long after college. We believe institutions of higher learning should play this critical role in preparing the next generation to serve as effective, engaged and ethical citizens.

This publication highlights just some of the many outstanding initiatives arising from service learning at The University of Alabama. From providing free hearing screenings in rural Alabama (page 4) and enhancing quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients (page 10) to providing loans to small-business owners (page 70) and engineering products to meet needs in India’s poorest communities (page 66), service-learning experiences move students beyond the classroom as they apply their knowledge to solving real-life problems and begin to shape the future of our state, country and world.

Stephen BlackStephen F. Black, Director
Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility
A Division of Academic Affairs