In the Service of Citizenship: A Study of Student Involvement in Community Service

By Rhoads, Robert A. | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

In the Service of Citizenship: A Study of Student Involvement in Community Service


Rhoads, Robert A., Journal of Higher Education


A Study of Student Involvement in Community Service

Introduction

I learn more through my volunteer work than I ever do in any of my classes at school. Talking to people from diverse backgrounds provides so much insight that people just can't imagine. I study all these different theories in political science and sociology, but until you get a chance to see how the social world influences people's everyday lives, it just doesn't have that much meaning.

I have been involved in volunteer work ever since I was in high school, and I'll probably continue to do stuff like Habitat [for Humanity] until I'm old and gray. I get a lot out of working to serve others, and it's a good feeling to know that I have helped someone even if it's in some small way. It helps me to cherish people more and understand what life is all about.

The preceding comments are from college students who discussed their involvement in community service and the meaning they derive from such activities. Both of these students give voice to a form of learning that may be termed "citizenship education" in that a concern for the social good lies at the heart of the educational experience (Delve, Mintz, & Stewart, 1990). These students are reflective of others described throughout this article who through participation in community service explore their own identities and what it means to contribute to something larger than their individual lives.

In recent years, the role of higher education as a source of citizenship preparation has come to the forefront. In this regard, higher education reflects a rising tide of concern for national service and the common good, as programs such as AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, Habitat for Humanity, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters have evoked our most prominent leaders as well as citizens across the country to commit themselves to the service of others. The influence this national movement has had on the academy is most apparent in the growth of organizations such as Campus Compact and Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) whose memberships and influence increased dramatically in the early 1990s (Markus, Howard, & King, 1993). Professional organizations associated with the academic enterprise also have added fuel to the growing concern over social responsibility and citizenship. For example, in 1997 the call for proposals from the American Association for Higher Education Conference on Faculty Roles and Rewards specifically identified an interest in how community service and service learning contribute to a more engaged faculty. The 1996 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association was organized around the theme of "Research for Education in a Democratic Society," and at the 1995 American College Personnel Association Annual Convention, one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Robert Coles, addressed the issue of moral education when he called for greater commitment to service learning and community service.

Although it is hard to argue with calls to foster social responsibility among our students, our future leaders, there also is a tremendous need for clarification. With this said, the following key questions offer a guide for addressing some of the confusion revolving around community service: (1) Are community service and service learning interchangeable concepts or are there important differences? (2) What is the role of community service in engaging students as democratic citizens in a culturally diverse society? (3) Are there variations in the structure of service activities which produce different experiences for students? The first question is examined as I explore the relevant literature on community service and service learning. The second and third questions are addressed primarily through discussions of the theoretical perspective, findings, and implications. Thus, the latter two questions form the heart of the theoretical and empirical analysis offered throughout this article. …

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