PDF - Community College National Center for



PDF - Community College National Center for
Journal for Civic Commitment
Vol. 23, March 2015
Institutionalized Service Learning Promotes
Engagement and Builds Social Integration
Velda Arnaud *
Blue Mountain Community College, USA
Community colleges are challenged to retain more students through graduation.
Research has shown that service learning engages students, and engaged
students persist through graduation. This descriptive case study sought to
determine how institutionalized service learning was structured, supported, and
operated on one community college campus. Findings indicated that curricular
and co-curricular service learning existed throughout the campus and that
students were engaged in their service learning experiences and built
connections with campus personnel and those in their communities. These
results seem to indicate that a campus-wide approach to service learning might
retain students, thus increasing graduation rates.
*Instructor, Business Technology Department, Blue Mountain Community College, 2411 NW Carden
Avenue Pendleton, OR 97801. [email protected]
© 2015 Journal for Civic Commitment
2 V. Arnaud
Many community college students arrive without the knowledge, skills, or
guidance to be successful, and many students have work and family obligations
in addition to their coursework. Complete College America (2011) identified
academic remediation and outside obligations as two obstacles to degree
completion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2010),
community college graduation rates (22%) are low compared to 4-year college
and university rates (57%). President Obama has stated that there is a need for 5
million more community college graduates by 2020 (The White House, 2009,
2013). As community college leaders seek ways to retain students and increase
their graduation rates, their campuses have also been impacted by decreased
federal, state, and local funding. Resources are stretched.
While there are differences in the characteristics of the student
populations at 4-year colleges and universities and the students at community
colleges, available research on students at 4-year colleges has shown that
students who become engaged with their learning remain in college and
complete degrees (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2006; Kuh, Kinzie,
Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 2010; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Student
engagement has been defined as those learning activities that are supported by
the college and that require students to contribute time and effort (National
Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE, 2012). Kuh (2008) identified service
learning as a high-impact practice that engaged students, built connections
between students and other people, allowed for interaction with differing
populations in the community, and allowed for meaningful feedback
opportunities (pp. 24-27).
In NSSE’s (2012) recent report, high impact practices such as study
abroad, research with faculty, and service learning were mentioned; however,
only service learning is widely offered on community college campuses. The
American Association of Community Colleges reported that 60-70% of
community colleges have service learning on their campuses (Jeandron &
Robinson, 2010, p. 4). Because service learning is widespread and a high-impact
practice, service learning may be one solution to student attrition. In addition,
for students to perceive that service learning has value, studies by Bringle and
Hatcher (2000) and Furco (2002) determined that the college must support and
fund service learning.
Service Learning Promotes Engagement and Builds Social Integration 3
One way to support service learning would be through a campus-wide, or
institutionalized, approach through providing funding, office space, and college
personnel (Gray, 2000). With institutionalized service learning, faculty members
could coordinate with service learning personnel to integrate service learning
activities into their courses. More institutionalized co-curricular service learning
opportunities would also attract student leaders. Such an institutionalized
approach would provide more credibility to the service learning program and
There are numerous research reports and articles about service learning
activities at community colleges throughout the country; however, in a 2011
review of the literature, Taggert and Crisp (2011) found only 17 empirical studies
specifically related to service learning at community colleges. This descriptive
case study sought to close that research gap and answer the question of how
service learning was structured, supported, and operated on one community
college campus in the Pacific Northwest.
Institutionalized Service Learning
After visiting dozens of college campuses for a national study on
expanding community service, Gray (2000) identified the need for colleges to
have a campus-wide structure for service learning to be effective.
Institutionalized service learning becomes “academic fabric,” or a central part of
the college’s environment (Furco, 2002, p. 40). However, creating a campus-wide
approach takes time because systems must be developed and integrated
throughout the campus.
Service learning research has found that students participating in service
learning activities developed academic, personal, interpersonal, and social skills
and had greater persistence for course completion and retention (Conway, Amel,
& Gerwien, 2009; Bringle, Hatcher, & Muthiah, 2010). Tinto’s (1975) persistence
model demonstrated that integration into academic and social systems related
directly to persistence. Service learning allows students to integrate into such
academic and social systems and to build connections with faculty members,
students, and members of the community. These connections also allow
students to learn about and understand different people and cultures as was
found in Keen and Hall’s (2009) longitudinal study of co-curricular service
learning experiences of Bonner Scholars from 23 campuses.
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College administrators may provide a solid foundation for service
learning by providing funding, space, and staffing (Gray, 2000). Additionally,
Furco (2002) found that collaboration between faculty and support personnel
was important for institutionalization. Having a solid foundation and
collaboration gives service learning permanence at the college and indicates a
value to students, campus personnel, and the community. Institutionalized
service would then become “routine, widespread, legitimate, expected,
supported, permanent, and resilient,” rather than a marginalized practice
(Kramer, 2000).
Methodology of the Study
This qualitative case study sought to describe institutionalized community
college service learning on one campus through document reviews, campus and
online observations, interviews with service learning coordinators, an online
student discussion forum, and member checking. The primary research question
was, “How is institutionalized service learning structured, supported, and
operated on a community college campus?” My role was an observer, I had no
personal or professional connections to the campus, and I was the only person
responsible for data collection and analysis.
Experienced service learning experts suggested that I focus on one
community college in this study, and I confirmed that the college had an
institutionalized service learning program and was convenient for me to visit.
Description of the Research Site
I used pseudonyms throughout the study to protect the identity of the site
and participants. Northwest Community College (NWCC) was accredited by the
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and provides 2-year
transfer programs, professional/technical education, and basic skills instruction.
The college is located in a metropolitan area and enrolled fewer than 20,000 each
quarter. Academic instruction included about 500 part-time and 200 full-time
faculty members.
NWCC had two official service learning programs: 1) the curricular
Service-Learning Program (SLP) and 2) the co-curricular Northwest Leaders
Program (NWLP). Both programs were within the career department of the
student services division, and each program had coordinators and two work-
Service Learning Promotes Engagement and Builds Social Integration 5
study students. The part-time SLP coordinator was responsible for NWCC’s
service learning activities, and SLP had responsibility for coordination of
curricular service learning and communication of all service learning activities.
NWLP had two volunteer coordinators (a faculty member and a full-time
employee in the career department); however, the faculty member participated
only in a weeklong spring break activity. Funding for SLP was through the
general fund, and NWLP was funded through student fees.
Collection of the Data
Data collection began with the document review, and I collected,
analyzed, and coded data from documents, observations, interviews, and online
discussions in a spiraling technique, as suggested by Creswell (2009).
Throughout the data analysis, I used Bazeley’s (2009) describing, comparing, and
relating technique. Using these approaches in tandem kept me from being
overwhelmed by data as I moved from document reviews to interviews, to
observations, and finally to the online discussion forum.
I interviewed two service learning coordinators who had direct
knowledge of the service learning programs and the campus. Student
participants were chosen based on whether they were over 18 years of age and
had been involved within the last year in service learning at the college.
The most difficult part of the study was finding student participants. The
service learning coordinators identified 12 students who were willing to
participate. Of those 12 students, 7 completed the online consent form, 6
enrolled in the secure discussion forum, 1 withdrew, and 1 did not contribute to
the forum discussions. Four students participated in the semi-structured
discussions. For the online discussion forum, students replied to the prompts,
and there was some discussion between participants. Perhaps due to the small
participant size, there were no discrepant opinions about service learning within
the student group.
Research Study Findings Related to Institutionalized Service Learning
Before I began my study, I assumed that institutionalized service learning
meant one structure for service learning throughout the campus because Gray
(2000) emphasized that a campus-wide structure was the most effective.
However, service learning on NWCC’s campus was much more organic with
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activities spread throughout the campus in differing formats. Previously at
NWCC, there had been a full-time service learning director, and during that
period, curricular and co-curricular service learning activities were coordinated
within the same unit. However, with the ebb and flow of funding resources and
program changes, NWCC’s service learning was separated into two official
programs (SLP and NWLP) and many student club activities. While the number
of disciplines offering curricular service learning decreased, as shown in Table 1,
the number of service hours increased continually since the high point for faculty
participation in 2009-2010.
Table 1
Annual Academic Service Learning Participation Data
2007 to
Number of service learning
2008 to
2009 to
2010 to
2011 to
2012 to
Number of disciplines
Number of students
(of ~20,000 population)
Percent of full-time faculty
Total number of hours
Average hours per student
members are not mandated to report the service learning hours performed by
students. bFaculty cohort program ended at the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic
year. Data provided by SLP manager as reported by faculty members.
NWCC made clear distinctions between their two official service learning
programs: SLP for curricular, one-time service learning experiences, and NWLP
for ongoing co-curricular activities. Service learning within student clubs was
not included within the formal programs, and NWCC tracked only the curricular
service learning reported to SLP. However, students in this study did not
recognize those differences—when asked about their service learning
experiences, students combined curricular, co-curricular, and student club
Service Learning Promotes Engagement and Builds Social Integration 7
For the students, service learning was about making a difference in their
communities and helping others. These students reported building connections
with their faculty members, service learning coordinators, other students, and
members of the community. These students also reported that they became
socially integrated with their campus and communities. For example, one of the
students, Victoria, expressed how she found all of her projects to be rewarding:
In just those few hours that you are spending, whether it be reading a
book to a child, helping a school host a community helping event, or
weeding for your college, those few hours in the end make a huge
Conversations with other volunteers in the community were important to
the students. Rosanna stated, “I've especially liked volunteering with the local
hospital, where most of the volunteers are retired and have their whole lives to
talk about in conversations, and have advice to give based on their experiences.”
Another student, Angelica, had a similar experience, and she stated, “The people
we work with are always amazingly kind people.”
Students also mentioned making connections with the individuals they
were serving in the community. These types of connections helped students
understand and talk about difference, which was found in Keen and Hall’s (2009)
longitudinal study of scholarship students performing extensive co-curricular
service over 4 years. For example, while reflecting on a winter break activity to
serve a Christmas meal for senior citizens, Rosanna recalled:
When we served luncheon to the seniors, they graciously allowed all the
[service learning] volunteers to sit down and eat free lunch too! There
were a lot of us, so I was surprised they were so willing to do that. That
also allowed us some time to talk to each other, which I think is one of the
greatest rewards in volunteering—relationships with fellow volunteers
and coordinators.
Students mentioned the connections built with faculty members and the
campus coordinators, and Victoria summarized those connections:
What really makes the service learning engaging are the people involved.
The coordinators have to show enthusiasm for what they are doing and
what they are working towards. The atmosphere has an effect too. If
everyone [the coordinator, the service learning participants, the audience
8 V. Arnaud
they are engaging] enjoys what they are doing then the event will go by a
lot smoother.
The students’ service learning experiences helped them give back to their
communities, allowed them to grow as individuals, and helped them better
understand those they were serving. Victoria participated in one of the summer
days of service, and she shared how the experience exceeded her expectations:
At the time, the weather was reaching into the 90s and this man wanted to
prance about in a furry raccoon mascot costume with no air conditioning
unit. I did not understand why he was so enthused until the end of the
day. I did not expect to dance along a mascot to entertain children and
help parents take photos. I did not expect I had to set up an overly
complex tent while a semi-truck threatened to flatten me. I did not expect
I had to help a lost child find his way back to his parents. But mostly I did
not expect to meet such wonderful people. Many people quickly offered to
help when tents were blown away, tables overturned, and papers flew
into the street. I do not even mean the rangers or the volunteers when I
say this. I mean the people who went to the event, relaxing and enjoying
themselves, stopped and helped us out when the going got tough.
Recommendations for Action
The purpose of this study was not to assess student engagement;
however, all of the students mentioned being engaged without being asked.
Student participants expounded on the connections they built with campus
personnel, students, other volunteers, and people in the community through
their service learning activities. Research by Karp, Hughes, and O’Gara (2008)
found that such types of social integration resulted in students persisting
through graduation. These social interactions were also found to be important
for persistence in Bringle, Hatcher, and Muthiah’s (2010) study with 11 Indiana
colleges. Service learning activities at NWCC involved teamwork and
collaboration, and most of the student participants in this study were involved
with multiple service learning volunteer events.
Institutionalized service learning on NWCC’s campus is widespread;
however, the college differentiates between types of service learning experiences
and only tracks curricular service learning. Based on this study, my
recommendations are:
Service Learning Promotes Engagement and Builds Social Integration 9
Create a campus-wide definition of service learning that could be
clearly communicated to everyone on and off campus. My suggestion
would be to use the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse’s (2012)
definition: “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful
community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the
learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen
Track all service learning hours that meet the college’s definition (as
determined above) and track whether those hours are curricular or cocurricular. This would provide more validity for the co-curricular
activities that are already happening on campus.
Implications for Social Change
This study contributes to social change by demonstrating how
institutionalized service learning could create a more engaged student body.
Students who are engaged with other people on campus have positive attitudes,
learn better, and stay in college (Engstrom & Tinto, 2008; Karp, Hughes, &
O’Gara, 2008; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Scrivener, Bloom, LeBlanc, Paxson,
Rouse, & Sommo, 2008; Simonet, 2008; Tinto & Love, 1995; Zhao & Kuh, 2004).
Thus, students engaged through service learning activities would be more likely
to persist through graduation and help increase community college graduation
rates to meet the 5 million more graduate challenge issued by President Obama
(The White House, 2009, 2013).
As community colleges seek ways to engage students and retain students
through graduation, they should place more emphasis on service learning.
Service learning is already on 60-70% of community college campuses (Jeandron
& Robinson, 2010, p. 4). As I found in this study, institutionalization does not
mean high staffing costs, as I had assumed from Gray’s (2000) analysis about a
campus-wide structure. Institutionalized is about the college having a consistent
definition and structure. Service learning is a high impact practice that has been
shown to engage students, and institutionalizing service learning will provide
more credibility to the services performed by students on their campuses and in
their communities. Campus leaders should expand their definitions of service
learning to include both curricular and co-curricular activities and provide
adequate support and funding towards those efforts.
10 V. Arnaud
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Service Learning Promotes Engagement and Builds Social Integration 13
About the authors:
Velda Arnaud
Velda Arnaud teaches business and leadership at an Oregon community college
and is engaged in campus activities. She received her Ph.D. in community
college leadership from Walden University. Her scholarly interests are service
learning and leadership. Velda has managed local and regional award winning
honor society teams. In 2013, Velda was the inaugural recipient of the Phi Theta
Kappa Marshall Leadership award, and she conducted a three-state leadership