Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Transformative Learning: Postgraduate Students' Reflections on a Community Engagement Program in South Africa

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Transformative Learning: Postgraduate Students' Reflections on a Community Engagement Program in South Africa

Article excerpt

Literature Review

Community Psychology and Active Citizenship

Promoting active and effective citizenship-that is, knowing and practicing your rights as well as uplifting others in the realization and practice of theirs-requires educational preparation (Mathebula, 2009). South Africa's transformation agenda, in particular the redress of inequality and the drive toward nation building, provides a strong motivation for developing community service programs that combine a civic component with service delivery and academic training (Perold, 1998). Since its inception, community psychology has had, at its core, the issue of social justice (Ali, Liu, Mahmood, & Arguello, 2008; Visser & Moleko, 2012). With this fundamental principle in mind, Prilleltensky and Nelson (2002) identified a critical psychology approach that focuses on assisting students to learn about social issues within the classroom and on utilizing class projects to promote active citizenship and activism. They emphasized the importance of service learning, wherein students are placed in environments that allow them to work collaboratively with disadvantaged communities.

Students in higher education settings tend to absorb information passively, whereas academics, especially, expect them to apply and integrate the information learned during lectures in various domains of their lives, such as in their families and communities (Mathebula, 2009). This is not a particularly useful method of promoting active citizenship, and Prilleltensky and Nelson (2002) suggest that, instead, staff in university departments and faculties should take a more active role in students' development. They should guide students to reflect on their experiences, facilitate mentoring and supervision, and discuss the real-life challenges that students face in trying to be social change agents (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2002). Moreover, Paulo Freire strongly argued that practical reason and knowledge are central to the work of ethical and political formation, and are integral to the action of creating culture and history (cited in Glass, 2001).

According to Meyers (2009), a teaching method like service learning, which links material taught in the classroom with the skills and insights that students may develop after volunteering in their communities, provides superior contextual understanding and awareness. One of the key goals in service learning is fostering the development of citizenship by integrating theory and practice so that students can begin lifelong involvement in social issues (Hatcher, Bringle, & Muthiah, 2004; Meyers, 2009; Simons & Cleary, 2006). In this study, we used a community engagement outreach placement as the service-learning method.

The Impact of Service Learning on Student Development

Community engagement describes a cluster of activities, including service learning, problem-based teaching, and research (Hall, 2010). McCarthy's (2001) concise definition of service learning links academic instruction with community service, and is guided by reflection; this simply stated definition was adopted for the purpose of this paper. A critical aspect of service learning is reflection, without which students' involvement remains a volunteering exercise that does not allow them to link their experiences with curriculum content, or with more considered analysis of the social conditions that give rise to service needs in the first place (Artz, 2001). The rural community outreach placement that we focused on in this study (described in detail below) provided students with this service-learning opportunity.

There is a growing body of literature that supports the numerous benefits experienced by students who engage in service learning. For example, Simons and Cleary (2006) found that engagement in community services promotes students' academic learning and social and personal development. Using an explanatory methods design, they examined the influence of a service-learning course on 142 undergraduate psychology students during 2002 and 2004 in Pennsylvania. …

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