As colleges and universities seek to prepare students for professional careers in a diverse, global society, the attainment of cultural competence is an essential capacity that can no longer be overlooked. Cultural competence involves the awareness, knowledge, and skills needed to engage and collaborate meaningfully across differences through interactions that are characterized by mutuality, reciprocity, and respect. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), for example, has recognized the importance of global competence as part of a coherent approach to general education requirements. The AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers initiative emphasizes global engagement and the enhancement of cultural awareness that promotes the potential for students’ active citizenship and greater career fulfillment.

Service learning provides an important bridge to cultural competence in the undergraduate experience. Yet it is often viewed as a co-curricular activity, to be pursued outside the classroom and at the student’s own initiative. By contrast, course-based, academic service learning is a form of experiential education that takes place in credit-bearing courses guided by faculty. It is part of the academic curriculum in which structured activities in the community give rise to reflective activities, such as in journals, discussions, and papers. Such curricula can have significant diversity-related outcomes, such as increased understanding of social stratification, privilege, and the impact of differential access to opportunity.

Research findings indicate that course-based service learning has positive effects on critical thinking, writing, and related academic skills that exceed those of voluntary community service activities. Consider the findings of a study of 22,236 students by Lori Vogelgesang and Alexander Astin that compared the academic outcomes of students who had engaged in course-based community service versus other forms of community service and of students who did not participate in any service as undergraduates. Course-based service learning had a greater effect on all academic outcomes than did generic community service. Students involved in course-based service learning also exhibited greater commitment to promoting racial understanding and to activism.

One of the most important outcomes of service learning is civic engagement and perspective-taking or a pluralistic orientation that yields the ability to work cooperatively with diverse others and incorporate multiple perspectives. Yet research indicates that most institutions have not made perspective-taking a major educational focus. Furthermore, critical service learning moves beyond the incorporation of community-based service learning into coursework to address issues related to social justice.

Why has there been resistance to course-based service learning, and what approaches can deans and department chairs adopt to strengthen their support for such programs? As Dan Butin points out, service learning is frequently addressed by the most marginalized and least powerful faculty, including minorities, women, untenured faculty, and those in the “softest” disciplines such as education and social work. Nonetheless, in nursing, counseling, community health, physical education, and agriculture-related fields, a positive correlation has been made between service learning and cultural competence. And as Butin notes, service learning, when conducted as voluntary community service, can signify a luxury accessed by only a privileged few white students. Another common issue in service learning is the adoption of a deficit-based approach toward external communities that fails to recognize the reciprocity of the learning experience.

Given the data that validate the diversity learning outcomes resulting from course-based service learning, what are key insights from the research literature that will assist deans and department chairs in the successful development of such programs?

  1. Connect diversity-related service learning goals with university and college missions
  2. Ensure clear course objectives and defined projects and activities related to service learning, in the syllabus, that involve reflection and evaluation
  3. Facilitate ways to bring community- based learning into the classroom in addition to creating experiences outside the classroom
  4. Examine the potential for departmental curricular redesign to incorporate service learning into course objectives through collaborative faculty work
  5. Explore the potential for research and scholarship resulting from service-learning projects, and coordinate with relevant institutional review boards
  6. Consider how service learning can be incorporated across the curriculum, such as in STEM courses

Important resources for development of critical service learning programs include the following:

  1. The Campus Compact, a coalition of nearly 1,100 members, is a national educational association, devoted entirely to campus-based civic engagement, that provides a wide array of resources in support of service learning. The Engaged Department Initiative launched by the Campus Compact led to the adoption of similar initiatives in different geographic areas, such as in the Campus Compacts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, as well as the California State University system. In addition, the Cultural Agility Collaboration begun in 1994 by the Minnesota Campus Compact with 37 colleges and universities provides a leading-edge example of multicultural service learning.
  2. The Carnegie Foundation’s Classification for Community Engagement, now housed at Indiana University Bloomington’s Center for Postsecondary Research, is an elective classification held by 361 colleges and universities that involves documentation of mission, institutional identity, and commitments as well as evidence-based practices that identify intentional practices of engagement.

For example, take the comprehensive infrastructure for service learning and community engagement at the Ohio State University (OSU), which has attained this classification. The university has four institution wide goals that include outreach and engagement. OSU designates courses approved as service-learning courses with an “S” suffix, and such courses must make the connection between academic content and service and provide mutual benefit for all involved. Such courses must meet defined outcomes, including the connection students make between concepts and skills acquired in an academic setting and community-based work. Courses need to involve student reflection on the impact of service learning, as well as evaluation. In addition, the university has a broad framework for faculty promotion and tenure that allows colleges and academic departments to incorporate engagement scholarship into procedures and rules in support of their unique missions.

  1. Service Learning Centers such as the Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement at Michigan State University (MSU) provide a wealth of resources. The MSU model emphasizes the cocreation and application of knowledge through a partnership that assists both the student and community partner to address issues. The center provides faculty with the resources needed for establishing service learning within academic courses, including an extensive tool kit and the establishment of community partnerships. A Tools of Engagement website assists undergraduates in developing community-based research and engagement skills. In another example, the University of Nebraska at Omaha has a Service Learning Academy that assists in curricular development for the P-16 Initiative, which connects academic experiences with community needs.

In a recent survey, Seth, a white male sociology major who recently graduated from a public Midwestern college, explained, “I work in higher education and student affairs to create an inclusive learning community. I see these courses as influential to my practices and worldview.” The learning outcomes from academic service learning can have significant impact on students’ abilities to make connections to social issues, relate workplace interactions to larger society, and deepen their cultural competency as they navigate within a diverse, globally interconnected world.

Edna B. Chun and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Edna Chun is chief learning officer and Alvin Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.

Reprinted from Academic Leader, 32.2 (2016): 4, 5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.