Keeping Up with the Millennials: Service Learning as the Latest Trend

Kelli McErlean
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: January 23, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161487

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, service learning, millennials

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.


What does it mean to be a millennial? What makes this generation of college students different from their Generation X or baby-boomer counterparts? Millennials are sociable, well-educated, and optimistic individuals, who “tend to gravitate toward group activity, believe it's 'cool to be smart,' and are fascinated by new technologies” (Oblinger, 2003, p. 38). For example, 90 percent of college students have a Facebook profile, and 75 percent check it at least daily (Hunter, 2008). Also growing up with a mindset toward service, “83% of college freshmen said they had volunteered at least occasionally during their senior year of high school” (Hoover, 2007, para. 10), and “50% of high school students reported volunteering in their communities” (Raines, 2002, para. 17).

Millennials should be encouraged to continue their commitment to others through service-learning opportunities in college. Not only will the people served by students benefit, but also service learning can help students make the most of their higher educational experience by linking what they learn inside the classroom to experiences outside of the classroom. Millennials are confident, goal-oriented, civic-minded individuals, who seek to be challenged (Raines, 2002). Service learning provides challenges for students to establish self-authorship and take control of their perspectives and world views (Baxter, 1999).

Service-learning initiatives are ideal opportunities for faculty members, student affairs professionals, and academic advisers to partner on a common project. Faculty members can integrate service learning into their curriculum, student affairs professionals can help supervise the activities that take place outside the classroom, and academic advisers can educate students about these service-learning opportunities and help students find meaning of their experiences and the impact of those experiences on their self-identity. Students can be transformed and deeply impacted by engagement in these activities, as long as they are provided with the appropriate settings and resources to do so. This article will discuss service-learning outcomes and the role of advisers in promoting service-learning initiatives. It will also discuss resources about service learning and best practices of various institutions.

Service Learning

Service Learning Defined

Service learning focuses on experiential learning that addresses real-world concerns as a venue for educational growth. “The service experience provides a context for testing, observing, or trying out discipline-based theories, concepts, or skills” (University of South Carolina, n.d., p. 8). Service learning also enables students to develop a sense of commitment to the surrounding community, while preparing them to be full and responsible participants in their personal and professional lives (University of South Carolina, n.d.).

“Service learning students are assigned challenging community tasks, which take into account the community's assessment of its own needs, strengths, and resources to be leveraged” (University of South Carolina, n.d., p. 9). Students are required to actively participate in a service experience that responds to an actual need of the community being served. Service-learning projects can range from serving food at a soup kitchen to writing letters advocating for human rights. The type of project a student engages in usually depends on the institution, the surrounding community, and the students themselves.

Reflection is another main component of the service-learning process. Reflection is ideally conducted before, during, and after the service, so the transformation that takes place in students becomes more evident to them. Mark Cooper of Volunteers for America Corps stated, “Service-learning holds up a mirror for us to see ourselves, a microscope for us to examine our society, and binoculars for us to see what lies ahead” (University of South Carolina, n.d., p. 24). Through the reflection process, students are able to learn about themselves and their values, while thinking about their experiences and what they learned about the people and the agency they served. They also use this time to think about the complexity of the social issues surrounding their service experience and how they might be able to help solve the issue. This period of reflection is vital in the development process that happens through service learning.

Learning Outcomes of Service Learning

Service learning can have a great impact on students, as well as on the faculty, the institution itself, and the surrounding community. A 2004 study exploring service learning as a contextual influence on identity development and self-authorship outlined four specific outcomes: discovery of relationships with others, realization of one's privileges, changes in one's priorities, and increased openness to new experiences (Jones, 2004). The paragraphs below discuss the meaning of these outcomes and how they contributed to the growth and formation of students' identities.

The Role of Academic Advisers in Service Learning

Academic advisers have a responsibility to facilitate the process of growth in students. With the help of their advisers, students can grow and mature as individuals. Advisers need to be able to “identify relevant and desirable student learning outcomes and development outcomes and provide programs and services that encourage the achievement of those outcomes. One of the most important outcomes of academic advising is self-discovery ....” (Texas Tech University, 2008, para. 4). Students are mainly responsible for their academic successes; advisers are simply there to offer guidance and information about various opportunities that aid in students' growth and development.

One of these opportunities that advisers should be encouraging students to engage in is service learning. In order to guide students to participate in service learning, however, advisers need to educate themselves about service learning and the impact it can have on students' self-discovery. Advisers need to understand the components involved in this type of learning so that they can best advise their students on what courses to take or what organization to become involved with based on the individual needs of the student (Webster, 2004). Advisers “must help students weave a web of meaning for their college careers and at the same time teach them strategies for weaving webs of meaning in their vocational and personal lives” (Hancock, 2004, para. 2). Advisers can use available service-learning opportunities to help students make these connections between their academics and their personal growth and development. Below are some tips to assist advisers in encouraging service learning:

Best Practices

Just as every student is unique, so is each institution. Thus, service learning is integrated in different ways at different types of institutions. Two brief examples are included to illustrate how service learning has been integrated at two different institutions: DePaul University and the University of South Carolina.

At DePaul University, service learning is integrated into the academic curriculum. Associate vice president for academic affairs, Charles Strain, focuses on the moral development of students through the process of reflection in his courses (Strain, 2004). Strain utilizes two kinds of exercises at various stages throughout the course. First, he encourages students to think about what they are learning from the community leaders they are working with and the people they are serving. Second, they spend an entire reflection session focusing on the positive aspects and strengths of the communities and people they are serving. Using the two methods, Strain helps to prevent students from feeling superior to those they are serving and from thinking that their systems are inadequate. Instead, Strain encourages students to think about what the communities and agencies they work with are doing well, and how we can learn from them and their practices (Strain, 2004).

The University of South Carolina has created a Serving Learning Initiative, which represents collaboration among the university's Honors College, Community Service Programs, the Office of Student Engagement, and the Center for Teaching Excellence. A task force appointed by the provost created the initiative to ensure that a centralized entity on campus is responsible for coordinating and supporting service learning initiatives on campus. University 101, the university's first-year seminar, has also identified nine sections of the seminar as service-learning sections (University of South Carolina, n.d.). Students in these particular sections participate in a mentoring program with sixth-grade students and aid them in the transition from elementary to middle school. Through this mentoring experience, students hopefully gain insight into their own transitional process as well as how to best meet the needs of public-school students in the community (University of South Carolina, n.d.).

Additional Resources for Advisers

The following websites may be helpful for advisers who wish to educate themselves further about service learning and the impact it can have on students.


Advisers can help students take responsibility for their own growth and development by encouraging them to engage in service-learning opportunities. After educating themselves about the benefits of service leaning and learning about courses that incorporate service-learning opportunities, advisers will be able to encourage and support students who choose to participate in these opportunities. Advisers will be able to guide students in discovering their own identities by engaging them in reflective activities and by helping them to establish their individual world views and perspectives. By educating themselves about service learning, advisers will also be able to collaborate with faculty members and other administrators on campus to create the best learning environment possible for students. In order for service learning to have a deep impact, it requires “all hands on deck” among the administration, faculty, and staff of an institution. Because of their many encounters and meetings with a variety of students on a daily basis, advisers can become a vital and necessary piece in the integration of service learning into the campus culture.


American Psychological Association. (1993). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school redesign and reform. Washington, DC: Author.

Baxter Magolda, M. (1999). Creating contexts for learning and self authorship: Constructive developmental pedagogy. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Hancock, N. S. (2004, April 7). Developmental academic advising and learner-centered education. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 6(2). Retrieved October 21, 2008, from

Hoover, E. (2007, March 9). Here's you looking at you, kid: Study says many students are narcissists. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from

Hunter, E. (2008, February 29). Not how they used to be: Shifting trends among college students. Youthworker Journal. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from

Jones, S. R. (2004). Enduring influences of service-learning on college students' identity development. Journal of College Student Development, 45. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from

Oblinger, D. (2003). Boomers, gen-xers, and millennials: Understanding the “new students” [Electronic version]. EDUCAUSE Review, 38, 37–47.

Raines, C. (2002). Managing millennials. Generations at Work. Retrieved November 1, 2008, from

Strain, C. R. (2005). Pedagogy and practice: Service-learning and students' moral development. In N. S. Laff (Ed.), Identity, learning and the liberal arts, 103, (pp. 61–72). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Texas Tech University. (2008, August 28). Academic Advisors. Retrieved October 20, 2008, from

University of South Carolina, Office of Student Engagement. (n.d.). Service-learning handbook and faculty resource guide. Columbia, SC: The Carolina Service-Learning Initiative.

Webster, N. (2004, June 2). Service learning: The road less traveled by students. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 6(2). Retrieved October 21, 2008, from

About the Author(s)

Kelli McErlean is a graduate assistant for Career Services at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also pursuing a master's degree in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She can be contacted at