March 05, 2012

New center will enhance service-learning

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new Center for Service Learning and Volunteerism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will enhance the connection between volunteerism/service-learning and classroom curriculum, while serving as a central resource for faculty, staff, community partners and students interested in service-learning.

Each year, thousands of students donate time and effort to help others in a variety of ways, and many classes incorporate a service-learning element.  But, up until now, the various elements operated independently.

Chancellor Rita Cheng expressed her appreciation to the Service Learning Committee, whose work led to establishment of the center.

“Serving others has long been a core value for our students, faculty and staff,” she said.  “I am excited about the synergy our new center will create as we integrate volunteerism and service-learning into the classroom, and about creating expanded opportunities to meet the needs of our communities.”

Pete Gitau, associate vice chancellor and dean of students, noted, “We are showing that learning doesn’t stop when you get out of the classroom.  This program will provide a very good model of how to integrate and connect in-class and out-of-class learning experiences.  It has the great potential to enhance our students academically as it turns our students into adults who are engaged in the community.”

He said the new center will benefit all involved in a number of other ways as well.  Faculty who want to utilize a service component in their coursework will get ideas for helping their students learn theoretical material through application, and faculty will be able to network regarding the connection between service-learning and curriculum.  Moreover, as students plan their coursework selections, they will be able to learn about service opportunities and classes that incorporate service- learning.

Between August 2010 and June 2011, SIU Carbondale students contributed more than 45,580 hours of service, with 3,100 students logging their service through Saluki Volunteer Corps.  They partnered with more than 60 nonprofit organizations to meet community needs and raised more than $85,685 during the 2010-2011 academic year to benefit local, national and international causes and organizations.

And that’s just part of the story.  Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps members each completed 900 hours of service, logging more than 7,000 total hours tutoring, mentoring and helping more than 300 children in three school districts around the region as well as the Boys and Girls Club in Carbondale and the Illinois Masonic Children’s Home.  Mythili Rundblad, coordinator of service-learning and volunteerism, said 70 percent of the children the University students worked with improved their reading scores and academic skills and increased their homework completion rates. 

Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps is one of the first and longest-running national service programs in the state, according to Rundblad.  The program currently received a three-year cycle of competitive grant funding, something that happens nationally only to outstanding programs that demonstrate significant outcomes based on data, she said.

The University’s student volunteerism and service-learning hasn’t gone unnoticed either.  Every year since 2007, SIU Carbondale has earned a spot on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, a designation from the Corporation for National and Community Service, in collaboration with the U.S. Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development, Campus Compact and The American Council on Education.  The designation demonstrates a commitment to volunteerism, service-learning and civic engagement.  

The University also received another accolade, the Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Award, in 2006 as the best campus/community civic engagement program in Illinois.  Rundblad authored the award application.

Throughout the University, many faculty members implement service-learning elements in their curriculum.  Students learn by doing, by helping others meet needs and solve problems.  And they get credit hours, too.  Gitau leads a study abroad service-learning trip to Kenya each year and said it makes a remarkable impact on the student participants and the community members they help, and the University students are able to earn course credits as well.

Gitau said he anticipates there will be even more opportunities for students to earn credit for their service-learning as the center kicks into high gear.  The center is located on the third floor of the Student Center.  The co-directors are Rundblad and Roudy Hildreth, political science assistant professor. 

“I am thrilled to be the co-director for the Center for Service Learning and Volunteerism and to work with my colleague, Roudy Hildreth.  While we have strong civic programs in Saluki Volunteers Corps and AmeriCorps National Service, the new Center will help us enhance and expand service-learning efforts already being done on campus,” Rundblad said. 

Gitau chaired the Service Learning Committee.  In addition to Rundblad and Hildreth, others serving on the committee include:  Jim Allen, associate provost for academic programs; Cynthia Sims, associate professor in workforce education; and Charla Lautar, director of the School of Allied Health.  Although this committee has been at work just a couple of years, a 2005 committee recommended establishment of a center and Allen said that in reality, this center has been a work in progress for many years, largely due to Rundblad’s efforts and contributions.

“She has been a spark plug, the prime driver for this from the very beginning and then Dr. Gitau brought it all together and the chancellor has made it a reality,” Allen said.

He said as volunteerism and service has grown among SIU Carbondale students, it’s become very apparent that they are meeting important community needs as they learn, that their service pervades their education and research.  Thus, he said it seemed a natural conclusion that there should be a more formal network to connect service-learning with curriculum, to better allow students to get course credit, not just a notation on their transcript, for documented service work, and to enable faculty to work together in implementing service-learning in their courses.

“All the stars have fallen in line and we now have the basis for a new beginning.  We want to involve as many people as we can on campus and in the community as our students meet the needs of the community and bring their experiences back into the classroom as engaged learners,” Allen said. 

The center will develop curricular and co-curricular programs that support faculty scholarship and enhance the service engagement of faculty, students and the community within a close, mutually beneficial and structured relationship, Gitau said.

“Our vision for the center is to develop, enhance and expand service learning at SIU.  The evidence is clear that service-learning increases student academic achievement and retention.  We are fortunate to be able to build on the excellent work by faculty, staff, students and community partners who are already doing service-learning,” Hildreth said.