By: NobleHour Special Contributor Natasha Derezinski-Choo
In my first semester at Duke University, I took a service-learning class called Civic Engagement and Enterprising Leadership. Service-learning is a form of experiential learning that incorporates service into the curriculum. Surprisingly, I found it was very different from my service-learning experiences in high school. Rather than completing my own projects as I had in the past, I was doing service in the context of a classroom setting.
DIFFERENT FORMS OF INDEPENDENCE
In my high school service-learning assignments, I was often independent in my choices of projects. It was up to the student to select a task and carry it out. It was the school’s role to approve the project for service-learning credit. Usually this meant working with a local non-profit organization rather than designing an entire plan. Furthermore, my high school service-learning projects were diversified. However, in my college service-learning class, the focus was on a single mission selected in the first few weeks of the course. This allowed for more focus, but it did not allow for more experimentation because we could not abandon the project for another one halfway through the semester. As college students, we have more independence because we are leading the project and are entrusted to complete more serious work that a high school student cannot accomplish. Additionally, we can use resources from the university to support our project, while high school service-learning programs usually require students to find support through community grants. With increased power and means, we are able to start a project of our own rather than latching onto something already under way.
The assignment for my service-learning class was to complete a civic engagement project to fix something on Duke’s campus. Along with two other students, I began Project Empower to address the issue of safety and security on campus, particularly for women. We wanted to counter the emotional state of feeling unsafe--rather than actual physical safety--by creating a "safe space" where women could come during the evening to engage in discussions, participate in stress relief activities, or study and keep to themselves surrounded by a supportive community. We received positive feedback from students and faculty who believed there was a need for this initiative on our campus. Now having completed the course, we will continue our service project during the spring semester.
College service-learning courses require more preparation and evaluation than needed in high school. The actual service is just a small part of the overall picture. Planning, class discussions, and reflection assignments took up most of our time. We completed research and interviewed experts from the Women’s Center to understand what initiatives may have already been started to address our project’s problem and how we could learn from these efforts. I found the advantage to this approach was that our project was more well thought-out and well-planned than service I had done in the past. We ensured our project would be impactful by constantly evaluating the service we had completed.
In high school, the service took up most of the project, while planning was simply an approval process and reflection was usually forgotten. Because my high school service-learning projects were conducted independently from the classroom, there was less accountability regarding reflection, evaluation, and improvement. Quantity was emphasized over quality.
THE CLASSROOM EFFECT
Although this big umbrella term of “service-learning” was applied to both high school and college experiences, the role of the classroom in college means our project focused more on learning, whereas in the past, high school was more concerned with service. By being more reflective in the classroom, I could more seriously see our project making an impact. While designing our own assignment, we also witnessed other endeavors. One group added more international cuisine to student dining, another increased awareness about a marginalized group, and one more improved orientation week for next year’s class. In all these efforts, we were bettering our campus, the community we recently began to call home. In addition, we were also given the opportunity to learn how to advocate for our projects and the needs of our community.
Being in such an intensive service-learning course taught me that making meaningful change is both difficult and achievable. At Duke, there are many different service-learning courses available. My course centered around understanding and participating in civic engagement, but other classes may offer a less intensive service component with a predetermined volunteer project. I strongly encourage you to talk to your peers, advisors, and professors to see what type of service-learning class you should take in your next semester. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn how you can make a difference at your school and your community.
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Natasha Derezinski-Choo is a student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She started volunteering in high school and hasn’t stopped since! Natasha enjoys writing poetry, cooking, and traveling. Wherever she goes, she always wants to experience something new.