Tips for Service Learners
When you embark on the journey of service-learning, you open yourself up to the possibility of learning far more deeply -- and having far more impact! -- than you would in a "normal" course. Service-learning exposes you to the knowledge and experience of members of the broader community, beyond the boundaries of Loyola. However, it also poses a unique set of challenges that don't normally pertain to your academic work, some practical, some personal.
The ten practical tips below can help you to "set yourself up for success" in your service-learning or community-based class. (The same material is covered in the Center for Experiential Learning's "Intro to Service-Learning" presentation, which you may hear at the beginning of your course.) If at any point you have any questions or concerns about your service-learning experience, don't hesitate to contact the Service-Learning Program Manager.
Ten Practical Tips for Service-Learning Students
1. Get an early start! As soon as you register for a service-learning course, contact the instructor to find out what the service-learning requirements will be for your course. Will your course require you to volunteer 20+ hours with a community agency? Perhaps you will be working on a group project on behalf of an organization, or doing research towards alleviating a social issue. Start thinking about how those requirements will fit into your schedule, and what adjustments you may have to make in order to complete your required hours of service.
2. Do your research! Once you know what your course will require, and with which organization(s), research those organizations—either by yourself (google is your best friend here!), or using , or else in consultation with a Peer Mentor or other member of CEL’s staff. Understanding the organization and issue you will be working on is vital preparation for ANY service-learning course. This is particularly true if your course is a "placement" model course, one that requires you to volunteer directly in the community for 20+ hours. Deciding where you want to serve based on solid information will lead to the best possible “fit” for you, your course requirements, your interests, your career plans, and your schedule.
3. When contacting a community organization…
- Be persistent! Especially if you're trying to secure a volunteer placement, you may need to call/email (doing both can be helpful) a given organization more than once in order to get a hold of them or for them to call you back. Please don’t take this as a sign that they do not want your service! Non-profit staff are often very busy, so leave a message and give them at least 3 business days to return your call/email.
HINT: if at first you don't get a response, try again...using a different means of contact. Some agency representatives are very phone-friendly; others prefer email. So try both!
Be professional! As a service-learning student, you represent not only yourself but also Loyola University Chicago. Make sure to tell the organization that you are contacting them in connection with a Loyola class; leave full contact information (phone AND LUC email); and if possible, offer to send them a copy of your resume so they know how much you have to offer.
Be specific! Especially if you are hoping to volunteer with an organization, the more clear information you can give them up front, the better. Tell them what you hope to do; the regular days/times you hope to do it; how many hours (approximately) you can offer; and when you need to be done with your required hours or project.
Be flexible! You may know the service you would like to do, but the organization may see a different task that fits better with your skills or their priorities. Likewise, your class may only require 20 hours of service, but your organization may need volunteers to do more than that to properly complete a project or fulfill a position. Remember that this is a dialogue, and that the organization has its own mission to fulfill...hopefully with your help. If you CAN'T help the way they need to BE helped, then you need to find another organization with whom you can serve.
4. Treat your service work as you would paid employment! Make sure to arrive on time for all meetings with your community organization or volunteer shifts. Tardiness is unprofessional and an inconvenience to the agency staff. Talk to your site supervisor about their protocols for being late or calling in sick. Dress appropriately for the tasks that you will be doing and for your agency—ask about the dress code if it has not already been mentioned in your orientation.
5. Keep open communication! Communicate with your site supervisor and your professor. If any situation arises that you have questions or concerns about, make sure to address them before it becomes unmanageable. If you are uncomfortable addressing concerns on site, please contact the CEL staff for assistance. If you are working directly with individuals served by your community site, make sure to maintain professional communication. Let the individuals know about your role at the site and how long you will be working there.
6. Always think about your course objectives! Always keep in mind how you can tie your course's learning objectives to your service-learning experience. Remember that you are being graded on your ability to link your service with your classroom learning.
7. Keep track of your hours! You are in charge of keeping track of the hours you serve according to the specific guidelines given you by your instructor. Make sure you are getting all necessary signatures and turning in documentation at appropriate times!
8. Ask questions! If you don’t understand a task that is given to you or want to know something more about it, ask your supervisor. Likewise, if you complete a task and don’t know what else to do, don’t be afraid to inquire about what to do next. But be patient: your supervisor may be in the middle of something else and need you to wait a few minutes before showing you your next task.
9. Be respectful! Be trustworthy, respectful, and non-judgmental. At your site you will very likely work with individuals from completely different demographcics than yours. Try to treat everyone equally and with respect, and note when and why you may find that difficult!
10. Maintain confidentiality! You may also want to talk to your site supervisor about confidentiality. If you have questions about what information about your organization and its clients can and cannot be shared, please ask about the policy of the community site. Don’t ever give out information about another person without their consent!
Adapted from the Service Learning Program at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL
(T. Milne and S. Gustis, 2007)