Career development is not the primary purpose of service learning. As a teaching/learning strategy, service learning is aimed primarily at meeting community needs while enriching and enhancing academic course content. Still, service learning contributes to career development in various ways. Therefore, academic advisers should be prepared to provide guidance and answer questions about service learning.
In this article, I will explain how service learning works in relation to career development and preparation for the workplace. Furthermore, I will discuss the role of academic advisers with respect to service learning and career development.
Service learning intertwines community service with classroom instruction and critical reflection. It has two complementary goals: service to the community and student learning (Bowen, 2005). Like other approaches to experiential education, service learning involves learning by doing. What makes service learning special is that it involves learning by doing and by reflecting.
Students participating in service learning may help children learn to read, serve as mentors to school dropouts, program computers for an elementary school, organize exhibitions at local libraries, plan menus for soup kitchens, play games with the elderly in nursing homes, or build houses for homeless people. Students may operate emergency telephone hotlines, conduct voter registration drives, create databases for human service agencies, produce public service announcements for community-based organizations, design publications for nongovernmental organizations, prepare marketing campaigns for small businesses, or make environmental policy recommendations to a local government. These are examples of community service projects that may be integrated effectively into the curriculum.
Students are required to reflect on their service experiences in relation to lectures, readings, and classroom work. Typical reflection activities include discussions, journal and essay writing, and audio-visual presentations. It is through reflection that course instructors know whether student-learning and development objectives have been met. Students taking courses with a service-learning component receive credit not for community service but for the learning that they derive from the service (Bowen, 2005).
Many students equate decisions about college majors to career choices (Gordon, 1995). Consequently, as Bates (2007) points out, they expect their academic advisers to have adequate career knowledge to assist them in the career decision-making process. Bloch (2005) suggests that career development occurs through participation in the interweaving networks of education, occupations, and needs of the community, among other factors. Service learning clearly interweaves education with community needs, allowing students to participate in networks and explore occupations. However, when it comes to career development, service learning is the road less traveled by students (Webster, 2004). Yet, service learning supports career planning and professional preparation. Eyler and colleagues (2001) list no fewer than fifteen studies providing evidence that service learning contributes significantly to career development.
Through their participation in service learning, students can clarify their values and gain valuable insights into their personal strengths and weaknesses. They can develop both self-awareness and self-efficacy. A well designed service-learning project will allow students to acquire and hone professional skills, including teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and leadership, which are vital for success in the workplace. It will also allow students to exhibit productive work habits.
Further, service-learning assignments often support students' work in their majors and their career interests. As students provide service to the community, they can systematically examine career options and opportunities and gauge their readiness for the workplace. Students can use the experience to seek clarity about their career choices and to finalize their career decisions. Some have been known to change their majors and their career goals because of the kinds of experience they had at a community-service site. Moreover, research reveals that service-learning participants attach importance to finding a helping career (Markus, Howard, & King, 1993), such as social work or nursing, and often choose careers in a service-related field (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000). Also, as a consequence of their community-service experiences, some students may choose careers through which they can contribute specifically to the pursuit of social justice (Fisher, 1996).
Service learning provides motivations for choosing a career and can enhance the career-development process. It can help students gain marketable experience and a competitive edge. To ensure that it does, faculty and students should carefully design or select the service projects and service sites. The service projects and sites should facilitate the achievement of both the service and the learning goals specified in the syllabus.
Many students have reported that they landed their first real jobs at places where they did community service. Indeed, getting to know people in the community and in the workplace will yield higher returns than sending out scores of job-application letters and résumés.
Students who have not yet decided on majors or careers have unique, varied needs (Bates, 2007). Academic advisers need to understand the reasons for career indecision. According to Bates, common reasons include lack of self-knowledge, lack of world-of-work knowledge, lack of confidence, and difficulty narrowing down options. In this regard, academic advisers can play pivotal roles in helping students articulate their career choices based on an assessment of their interests, abilities, and experiences. With that in mind, advisers can provide guidance and answers specifically about service learning as an approach to preparing for careers. As they assist students with their educational plans, advisers should discuss the students' career goals and direct them to the resources and services available to help them reach those goals. On many college campuses, such services include those provided by a service-learning office.
Advisers should consider assisting students in the following specific ways:
- Encourage students to take advantage of opportunities for supervised practical application through service learning as part of their courses of study.
- Discuss with students the benefits of service learning, particularly in providing them with new contacts and new opportunities while they are building records of service to the community.
- Assist students with selecting appropriate community sites for service learning.
- Recommend that students participate in a service-learning internship (i.e., an internship that focuses as much on meeting a community need as it does on preparing the student for a career).
- Refer students to the service-learning office for resources and logistical support.
- Provide students with examples of the appropriate use of service learning to get their feet in the door at places where they would like to work.
- Help students, as part of the service-learning reflection process, to express a clear understanding of the complex world of work and to articulate the characteristics of a preferred work environment.
To provide effective service-learning-related advising, advisers should collaborate with faculty and service-learning program administrators. By combining their expertise, they will achieve more in helping students seize service-learning opportunities to explore careers, develop job-related knowledge and skills, and ultimately make the transition from college to work.
In conclusion, academic advisers should motivate students to engage in community service in such a way that they will use the service to enrich their learning and use what they learn to make wise career decisions. Students will then graduate as active citizens, who will not only make a living in the workplace but also make a difference in the community.