I used to perceive service-learning solely as a way to meet a university requirement or to make students feel accomplished about doing something meaningful with our education. Although I do not look down on this attitude, I now see that there is more to service-learning than simply those reasons. During my service-learning course last year, I volunteered at a homeless shelter in the Tenderloin, asking clients questions about homelessness. I got into a conversation with one of the clients there who was very critical of our intentions. He said there was a similar group there the week before asking the same questions and nothing had changed. He asked me, why did I think what I was doing would lead to change? Whom exactly did I think I was helping? And why wasn’t I talking to people out across the street, away from my cozy group of friends?
His skepticism made me see service through another’s eyes. Maybe, he was wrong and I was making a difference. But, maybe I wasn’t. The point is, service-learning experiences are not always clear, always perfect, or always heartwarming. Sometimes the point is to see the huge disparity between what we, as service-learners, are trying to achieve and what we are truly accomplishing. We are also there to see the discrepancy between what we are told about social issues and what we actually experience. Sometimes we see the immense distinction between our good intentions and what the end result really is.
To further explore these issues I became an Advocate for Community Engagement (ACE) to coordinate service-learning projects. Service-learning aims to equally benefit students and the community through service that relates to academic coursework. In the process students have the opportunity to open their eyes to these disparities, to inform class concepts with community realities, to practice the mission of USF, and truly, not shallowly, educate our minds and hearts so that we may become agents for social change. I know it sounds like a tall order, and certainly idealistic, but we have to start somewhere.
ACEs work for the Office of Service-Learning and Community Action as well as at specific non-profit organizations within San Francisco. We act as liaisons between the non-profit, faculty, and students in service-learning classes at USF. We hold orientations, develop relevant service projects that relate to coursework, and facilitate written and oral reflections to connect ideas from the non-profit to the classroom and to larger social issues.
Performing research, serving a meal, tutoring a child: these are the first steps to starting real social change. Service-learning at USF provides the unique opportunity to go deeper, to get outside of the island that is USF, and to examine the hard questions through direct community engagement. Why do people suffer while others look on complacently? Why do our institutions seem to serve the rich rather than the poor? How can we shape the world to suit our real needs and not needs our consumerist culture?
The shelter client challenged me to take an honest look at these questions and I challenge you to do the same through service-learning.