Empowering University Students in Their Own Neighborhood

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— University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Introduction Empowering students in higher education to use their leadership skills for creating change on campus and in their communities is a powerful learning experience in civic engagement and volunteerism that will serve students and their communities well into the future.

This story describes the creation and implementation of a student-led service learning project at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) and how it impacted both the participating students and the surrounding community. By responding to both campus town-gown issues as well as community needs following a major fire, the student-driven experience fulfilled multiple goals and contributed to student learning. The initiation by the students also created movement to design a formalized UCCSserves program on the campus. Through data collected following student participation in the projects, as well as interviews with campus and community professionals involved in collaborating with the students, the context and outcomes of this student-driven service learning experience is described. Suggestions are included for capitalizing on student-initiated projects to promote student learning and leadership development and the institutionalization of service-based learning experiences in higher education.

Background The reason and method of initiating this service-learning project by the Student Government Association (SGA) at UCCS is two-fold. While the students sought to help the community, they also strived to improve their image due to strained town-gown relations. As a growing institution with a 27.5% increase in enrollment over five years from 2010–2015, growing pains occur as the infrastructure strives to keep up with the demands of the student population. Parking is a heavily contested issue on many campuses and their surrounding communities. The encroachment of students on residential areas surrounding campuses has caused strain when large numbers of students, seeking ways to save precious funds, began parking in areas adjacent to the campus. The students’ choices brought additional congestion and littering to a previously quiet neighborhood. Although the reasons for giving back to the community may have been reactionary, the impact was positive.

Ultimately, measures were taken to create parking zones in the affected residential areas, which mediated the parking concerns of residents. However, impacted relationships needed to be repaired between the students and the Colorado Springs residents by the rapidly expanding student population at UCCS. Student leaders from SGA developed a plan to utilize the expanding student population as a resource to promote good will in the community. The Director of Student Life, who assisted with their planning, shared:

SGA’s goal really was to get out there and to make sure that: people in the community knew that student government and students were wanting to be positive; and have a positive relationship [with the neighborhood]; to foster a positive relationship with the community to build bridges; to make sure that the community saw positive students and students that wanted to assist, versus the folks that were blocking their driveways and throwing trash on the lawn.

The students determined the site locations and partnered with various other student groups in order to increase participation. With a multitude of small scale opportunities available in the co-curricular arena, partnerships and collaboration are key for success, which was demonstrated by this project. University staff then provided resources to ensure risks of participation were managed and emergency plans were in place if needed. Student groups often have plans that are inconsistent with best practices related to safety or do not consider back-up plans; thus, involvement by staff in student-initiated and student-led service learning opportunities continues to be key to project success.

Peer Influence Among the mysteries of co-curricular involvement in higher education is the way in which to encourage students to participate in activities, events, programs, and other learning experiences outside of the classroom, void of any tangible benefit (course credit, financial incentive, fulfillment of a judicial sanction, etc.). Students developed the service experience, as well as promoted the opportunity to their peers, yielding 45 student participants. As students chose the sites for the service-learning experience, student buy-in was strong, thus avoiding at least one of the impediments to implementing service-learning initiatives (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000; Eyler & Giles, 1999). Participants were offered opportunities to serve in a neighborhood clean-up in the area adjacent to the campus, or to serve an area visible from campus that was destroyed by a natural disaster. The goal of the one-day project was to provide them with an opportunity to serve their city, while promoting student-community collaboration efforts.

Service Impact The clean-up of the nearby neighborhood entailed raking leaves and picking up trash to strengthen the connection between the neighborhood and the university students. The fire restoration work occurred in an area of the city devastated by the worst fire in the state’s history. This natural disaster had a profound effect on the region and its residents, as approximately 18,000 acres of land burned, over 35,000 people were evacuated from the site, and more than 300 homes were destroyed. Students working on that project were transported from campus to the site to seed, rake, and install erosion control barriers. In this effort, student organizers partnered with Friends of the Watershed, a local community organization, to improve fire restoration in the area. The Volunteer Coordinator with Friends of the Watershed remarked:

The goal was to instill in campus volunteers the importance of service-learning and community partnerships in order to support further service opportunities. My organization’s goals were to engage and educate the community regarding the impending impacts of the fire, including potential flood risks, damage to homes, the water supply, and potential loss of life — and to mitigate these issues on the ground and in people’s minds.

Student Learning A total of 45 undergraduate and graduate students participated in the service project. In order to understand the impact of their participation, students were asked to complete a survey about their experience. The survey included a Civic Participation scale, a College Education’s Role in Addressing Social Issues scale, and included open-ended questions. The Civic Participation scale measured students’ opinions about involvement in the community and supporting those in need (Weber, Weber, Sleeper, & Schneider, 2004) and the College Education’s Role in Addressing Social Issues measured students’ attitudes about the role of college in serving the community, promoting social change, and helping the disadvantaged through the curriculum (Weber, Weber, & Sebastian, 2008). Twelve of the students who participated in the outdoor restoration work responded to the survey, and six who were involved in the neighborhood clean-up also responded.

Civic participation. The Civic Participation scale indicated that the participants had positive responses to involvement in the community and to supporting those in need. The participants noted that the service projects were valuable and their time and effort was well spent serving in the community and supporting those in need. Many students expressed they actualied their concern for the local community by participating in the service-learning initiative. One stated, “[My service] made the community feel like students care about the local neighborhood.” Another noted, “I wanted to strengthen the university’s relationship with the [nearby] neighborhood as I’d heard there had been some negative feelings between the two communities before.” Students shared that they enjoyed the projects and were proud of their work to beautify the areas and to create awareness about the importance of helping neighbors and building community.

Students who served in the burn area reflected that even a few hours made a difference, and it humbled them “to be a part of problem-solving efforts” in the local area. One student said, “I wanted to help with the issues in the burn area. I feel we were all affected by the fire this summer, and we should all be doing a part to help the community.” Another shared, “The fire affected so many community members and I thought that helping with the restoration was a good way to reach a lot of people.” These students particularly noted feelings of increased compassion for those affected by the fire, as the physical scars to the grounds and the emotional scars to the affected individuals were clear. One student indicated, “[I have] a sense of gratitude to the firefighters for all of the hard work they do. I was also able to realize the amount of damage the fire caused and was able to empathize more with the fire victims.”

College education’s role in addressing social issues. Although a greater array of responses were seen on the College Education’s Role in Addressing Social Issues scale, the results revealed that the participants highly agreed that colleges should offer curricular opportunities for serving the community, promoting social change, and helping the disadvantaged.

Several of the students recommended that the university organize more service-learning opportunities through supporting student efforts and investing in an office utilized to house such initiatives. Students added that these efforts should have greater visibility in the community, and they would be willing to take part in future service projects. As one student indicated, “It will take more projects, and a greater display of dedication to convince [the neighborhood] that [the university] really wants to maintain a positive relationship with them. I’d love to try it again, and even be a part of the process.” Students also realized the importance of a sustained presence in local service efforts to ensure the community views the university and the students as resources to be called upon in times of need.

Students noted that their service increased their knowledge on the continued environmental issues of the fire. Upon listening to the forest rangers and professors discuss the environmental consequences of the fire, students shared a sense of pride in helping to restore the area and to protect it from future fire damage. One stated, “I learned that cleanup after major burns takes years and years to improve and restore, and that we should be having more prescribed fires to prevent future major burns.” The idea of rebuilding the community appeared to be an important motivator for participating in these projects. One student indicated, “I chose this project because the mountains are a very important part of my feeling of community in Colorado Springs, as they provide a sense of comfort.”

The Birth of UCCSserves

In dynamic higher education environments, change often is initiated due to student needs. This student-driven project planted the seeds (pun intended) for a formal co-curricular service-learning program. The interest and benefit resulting from this project, supplemented by responses to recent student involvement surveys, have demonstrated the need to implement more formal, on-going opportunities for students to serve their community. Now in its first year, the UCCSserves program has been included under the umbrella of Student Life and Leadership, which also includes student activities, clubs and organizations, and student government.

Future Recommendations

While the benefits to personal development through student-driven service learning projects are clear, the nature of this experience limited the ability to fully explore the impact of participation on student learning. Through the formalization of the UCCSserves program, purposeful reflection activities can increase the likelihood of developing higher-order thinking abilities that connect the experience with more complex experiences in the past, present, and future. Critical reflection practices result in analyzing, reexamining, and questioning situations within an extensive context of circumstances (Murray & Kujundzic, 2005). Eyler (2002) found that students who participate in intentional and structured reflection are more capable of analyzing and synthesizing complex events. University coordinated and sponsored service-learning efforts should be expanded to provide more opportunities for a sustained community presence, as they serve real-world needs and increase learning beyond the classroom. Students clearly saw a connection to their own service efforts by engaging in the community and learned a great deal about community needs, including their role and the role of the university in affecting social betterment and change.

Astin, A. W., Vogelgesang, L. J., Ikeda, E. K., & Yee, J. A. (2000). How service-learning affects students. Los Angeles: UCLA Higher Education Research Institute.

Eyler, J. (2002). Reflection: Linking service and learning — Linking students and communities. Journal of Social Issues, 58, 517–534. doi:10.1111/1540–4560.00274

Eyler, J. S., & Giles, D. E., Jr. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Murray, M., & Kujundzic, N. (2005). Critical reflection: A textbook for critical thinking. Québec, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Weber, J. E., Weber, P. S., & Sebastian, R. J. (2008). Social involvement and prior social involvement: Scale development and validation. Business Research Yearbook, 15, 573–578.

Weber, P. S., Weber, J. E., Sleeper, B. J., & Schneider, K. C. (2004). Self-efficacy toward service, civic participation, and the business student: Scale development and validation. Journal of Business Ethics, 49, 359–369.

About the Authors
Dr. Patty Witkowsky is the Coordinator of the Student Affairs in Higher Education master’s degree program at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Dr. Sylvia Mendez is an Associate Professor in Leadership, Research, and Foundations at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Sarah Elsey is the Retention and Recruitment Specialist in the Graduate School at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. The three authors studied this service project and developed the findings and recommendations based on their experiences working with students in both curricular and non-curricular arenas of higher education.

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Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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