Dr. Joanne Gilbert's Experience
I view service-learning as a way for students both to value difference and make a difference. Through service-learning pedagogy, I hope to help students overcome the tendency to stereotype others, and to give their time and energy to those who need it most.
Service-learning projects offer an array of challenges at moral, ethical, logistical, intellectual, social, emotional, and even spiritual levels. As previously mentioned, my students have struggled with issues spanning the spectrum from mere scheduling difficulties to providing empathy and comfort to those dealing with major life trauma.
Like my students, I have grappled with the dilemmas which invariably accompany service-learning. I have had to tackle the tough questions that plague all of us involved in service-learning. For example, like many others, I am concerned about students viewing service-learning as a one-way communicative endeavor in which they provide service to those in need. As Margot Kennard (2000) notes,"I am constantly challenged by the question of how to move students beyond a superficial self-serving notion of service to a view of service that values a collaborative, partner relationship with the communities we work with" (p. 46). Kennard discusses the disappointment she feels when students speak of feeling good after helping those "less fortunate," and ultimately maintains that "students move beyond paternalistic service when they develop a sense of care and connection to those community members they are serving" (p. 46).
At a recent MCC conference, I moderated a student panel discussion during which one student commented on precisely this notion. He spoke of the discomfort he initially felt at the arrogance of his position (i.e., "I am here to help you"), and the relief he experienced upon realizing that he was benefiting from the interaction as well. Furthermore, each time my students complete a service-learning project, I am heartened by their reflections; many of them do seem to understand the reciprocal nature of true service-learning.
Undoubtedly, my service-learning projects have accomplished a great deal in both developing students' abilities and in serving various community members....the learning and student community partner interaction often continues far beyond the course ... Indeed, these projects affect the students and the community in powerful and life-changing ways. Populations such as senior citizens, juvenile offenders, survivors of domestic violence and grieving families gain companionship and increased self-esteem. Students, too gain companionship as well as the knowledge they acquire from the experience and wisdom of their community partners. Students learn that compassion and respect for others is key to understanding multiple perspectives. Students learn to listen, to reflect, and to value difference. Most important, students realize the commonalities that exist among all of us. No longer do they default to cynical reactions and stereotypes of certain populations; now they appreciate the unique individuals who comprise these populations. No longer are they focused solely on their own gains; they are gratified and excited by giving to others. It is difficult to measure the impact of such experiences, but apparent that both the service and the learning continue for all involved.