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In Service of Getting Messy

By Patricia B. Spencer

I believe the best of learning happens in the messiest of circumstances—on the bridge between the classroom and the community, in a context of irreverent inquiry and shifting roles between teacher and learner, in a relationship that has to be nimble and responsive. In an experience we call Service-Learning (SL) at Ithaca College.

After twenty-five years as a faculty member, and through twelve years of facilitating a SL course in Proposal and Grant Writing (with more than 350 students and 30 community partners), I’m convinced of two things:

I can’t reproduce the same high-impact experience for students with a more traditional classroom approach to these professional practice skills and I don’t want to go back.

Why would I, when I see my students consistently practice and demonstrate:

  • Integrative learning—by connecting their academic knowledge, theory, and skills in proposal writing to their service-learning context and identified community need.
  • Problem Solving –by Identifying challenges and opportunities that arise in this environment, and responding constructively to them.
  • Communication Skills—by developing written, verbal, and non-verbal competencies to effectively communicate with diverse audiences with sometimes conflicting needs.
  • Professionalism—by understanding their roles and responsibilities within their service-learning context, and acting appropriately throughout the experience.

 For those of you who know me, you realize I joined the community-based learning choir early in my profession, and that I will chant on demand, if asked. However, a growing number of our colleagues are part of this vocal celebration of reciprocal learning. In a small sampling of current Service-Learning courses, we find course instructors, community mentors, and their students:

  • Challenging assumptions about age and aging, while partnering with senior members of the community to teach each other new skills.
  • Providing new coping skills and opportunities for expression, through a creative arts outreach program at a maximum security facility for incarcerated youth.
  • Promoting awareness of more sustainable business and living practices, by supporting the development of a regional sustainability alliance.
  • Addressing issues of childhood obesity, while working with a local school system to promote a Food is Elementary nutrition curriculum.
  • Spotlighting domestic and dating violence, while assisting a local advocacy group with their efforts to better promote their prevention programs.
  • Enhancing writing skills and college-admission confidence among middle school students from urban centers, while serving as face-to-face and distance E-mentors.

As the literature on student learning suggests, and as our focus on integrative learning requires, we need to grow our support for faculty who are interested in enhancing an existing course with a Service-Learning feature or developing a unique approach to a new course with a Service-Learning foundation. To move in this direction, the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) has:

  • Unveiled a college-wide definition and criteria to define Service-Learning (SL).
  • Created faculty development opportunities with our partner, the Center for Faculty Excellence.
  • Begun work on faculty and community partner recognition and rewards.
  • Started to build faculty, student, and community partner awareness about our community-based learning efforts.

Clearly, this is just a taste of what our students and their instructors and community mentors are doing in a growing assortment of SL courses and what the Office of Civic Engagement is doing to support them. In a broader sense, it’s the depth of reflection in the layering of civic engagement experiences—community service to the SL classroom and community-based internships to civic leadership roles—that now defines a key piece of the Ithaca College experience: our desire to foster engaged citizenship.

With a spirit of civic inquiry, please join us on the bridge. It’s time to get messy.

For resources to develop a Service-Learning course at IC, please visit:

To contact Patricia Spencer directly:; 274-3770

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