Students apply course concepts through service-learning

University of Nevada, Reno students gain real-life experience through community-based learning

11/15/2013 - By: Nicole Shearer
University students helped clean up graffiti as part of the Nov. 2 ASUN Civic Engagement and Service-Learning Conference, one of many service-learning efforts on campus.

Students at the University of Nevada, Reno are constantly encouraged to step out from behind their books, computers and mobile devises and become a part of something bigger. Whether it's joining one of the more than two hundred student clubs and organizations, participating in academic-oriented competition teams, or volunteering at a community organization or event, the University emphasizes the importance of students getting involved. This semester, service-learning, a teaching method designed to promote student learning through meaningful experiences with community partners, has been brought to the forefront of programs in which students are encouraged to participate.

Service-learning is not new to campus as many instructors have included it as part of their coursework for years. What is new, however, is the establishment of a new office on campus, Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, to support and assist faculty, students and community partners in this endeavor.

"The office is a tangible manifestation of the University's continued commitment to enriching the academic experiences of our students through meaningful community-based learning," University Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Carman said.

The Office of Service-Learning is currently working with 14 classes, which offer service-learning for credit this fall. Though often compared to internships or volunteerism, the program differs significantly in that community partners serve as co-educators. Community partners offer students a valuable venue to connect course concepts to community needs. Through the process of reflective activities, students benefit from critically thinking about their work in the community and how it ties back to what they are studying in the classroom.

"Service-learning integrates three core concepts: knowledge, action and reflection," Marlene Rebori, director of Service Learning and Civic Engagement, said. "We work to integrate the campus, classroom and community through meaningful learning partnerships."

Sarah Blithe, assistant professor of communication studies at the University, said that service-learning brought a new depth to her intercultural communications class.

"Students are realizing the benefits and difficulties of engaging in communication with people who have different life experiences," Blithe said. "Saying that intercultural communication is complex and susceptible to misunderstanding during a lecture only goes so far. When students actually experience the difficulties of intercultural communication-and the joys of crossing communication boundaries-their understanding of the course concepts increases exponentially."

Currently, the University has more than 350 students connecting to service-learning opportunities this semester. Many of these opportunities often culminate with a service project in which the students play an integral part. Two of these projects are coming to fruition this month:

  • Four Seasons at Pyramid Lake, a new exhibit at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Museum
    10    a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 16
    As part of Blithe's intercultural communications class, service-learning students helped put together new exhibits such as a veteran's exhibit. They also digitized some exhibit material.
  • Welcome to the Family Table, a musical celebration for the prevention of violence against children with disabilities
    6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 26
    As part of the University's Gender Race and Identity 201 class, service-learning students have helped the Sierra Association of Foster Families with event promotion, graphic design, event DJing and talent recruitment. Additionally, some of the students will be performing in the event.

These events showcase two of the partnerships working with the Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement. Other community partners include the American Red Cross of Northern Nevada, Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Project Solution, Reno Bike Project and the Washoe County School District. For a complete list, visit http://www.unr.edu/service-learning.

"I think the service-learning class is a great way to connect with what you're learning in the class, with hands-on experience," Devon Barnard, senior sociology major and intercultural communications student, said. "In my work with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Museum, I have learned so much about the Paiute culture including their values, social norms, and how they communicate with one another. The entire experience has prepared me for a career in occupational therapy. We are all different when it comes to our culture, and gaining experience through working with a culture different than my own has helped me prepare for situations in the workforce."

In 2010, the University joined "Campus Compact," a coalition of nearly 1,200 universities and colleges around the country dedicated to increasing awareness and involvement in service learning. Since then, a number of campus groups have begun to promote such efforts.

"Service-learning is really a win-win for all involved," Rebori said. "We know from past research that service-learning can increase student retention, inform and strengthen faculty teaching, and help address community needs. University students and faculty have a lot to give, as well as a lot to receive from our community. This office serves as a bridge to help build and strengthen community partnerships."

For more information on Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, or to become a partner, visit http://www.unr.edu/service-learning.


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