Service learning

Volunteer and Service-Learning Center: A Perfect 'Match' for Buffalo State

The Volunteer and Service-Learning Center (VSLC) at Buffalo State College is an integral part of the community—both on campus and around Western New York. And participation has boomed after just seven semesters of existence.

What began as just seven classes and 140 students in spring 2004 is now 38 classes and 850 students. For students, faculty, and community organizations, the VSLC is all about making matches.

"Service learning is a way to connect classroom learning with real community needs that we read about, learn about, and talk about every day—needs that are right in our own neighborhood," said Laura Hill Rao, coordinator of the VSLC.

In 2003, a planning committee grew out of the collegewide strategic planning process and out of discussions in the Faculty Advisory Board for Internships. Initially, the five committee members—Lisa August, associate director, Career Development Center (CDC); Fred Howe, professor, Educational Foundations; Douglas Koritz, assistant dean, Intellectual Foundations; Gary Welborn, associate professor, Sociology; and Stephanie Zuckerman-Aviles, director, CDC—met to discuss internships and develop ways in which Buffalo State could help the West Side Community Collaborative. The collaborative, an association of more than 30 nonprofit, community, and faith-based organizations, plus representatives from public and private schools who are committed to West Side revitalization, seemed like a perfect opportunity for Buffalo State to help the surrounding community. Then the planning snowballed into something much more.

"We are committed to enhancing engagement and outreach at Buffalo State," said Welborn, who also serves as faculty coordinator for the VSLC. "The creation of the Volunteer and Service-Learning Center stemmed not only from wanting to help the West Side Community Collaborative but also from the Strategic Plan. We wanted to address needs outside of the community, but likewise address the [academic] needs inside the [college] community, too.

"Thinking about our good partnership with the West Side Community Collaborative early on, it really set the precedent for focusing on the creation of long-term partnerships with other community organizations," Welborn added.

The committee developed a model with the seven initial service-learning classes and applied for the federal Learn and Serve America grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service—an organization also known for running programs such as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. Learn and Serve America provides support to schools, higher education institutions, and community-based organizations that engage students, their teachers, and others in service learning. Programs like these are having so much success nationally that Time magazine published a cover story called “The Case for National Service” in its September 10 issue—and its managing editor recommended that the government make national service a Cabinet-level department.

With support from the Research Foundation, Buffalo State received a perfect score on its grant proposal and was the only recipient from New York State in 2003 to receive the three-year grant. Upon receiving the funds, the college was able to create the VSLC within the CDC.

Zuckerman-Aviles says the VSLC is a perfect fit under the umbrella of her center. "The Volunteer and Service-Learning Center provides a centralized place for experiential education and employment within the Buffalo State community," she said. "It also fits into the evolution of the overall student continuum—providing clarity for students to figure out who they are and what they want to do for work after graduation."

In addition to organizing service-learning courses at Buffalo State, the VSLC provides volunteer opportunities for students, and also awards faculty fellowships with funding support from the provost. Faculty fellows receive a $1,000 stipend, service-learning course and conversion training, resources to assist with service-learning course development, and VSLC faculty support through the implementation of the course.

"Before the Volunteer and Service-Learning Center was created, there was no structured program for service-learning courses," said Rao. "Some faculty members were engaging in community service beforehand, and others had always wanted to incorporate it in their classes. Needless to say, we were surprised and thrilled in the interest for fellowships. We've granted about a dozen each year."

Welborn views service learning as "another pedagogical tool," saying that it offers a fresh look at experiential education. "It celebrates what people have been doing for years," he said.

The VSLC facilitates matchmaking between students, faculty, and community organizations. Besides the West Side Community Collaborative, some of the partnering organizations include the Asarese-Matters Community Center, Belle Center, Journey's End Refugee Services, and Loaves & Fishes Dining Hall. Common services include helping youth with after-school tutoring, recreation, and art projects, as well as providing advertising, marketing, and public relations assistance for nonprofit organizations.

Service-learning class assignments can be hours-based or project-based. The VSLC meets with professors to discuss learning objectives and determine how to adjust their syllabi. The center also offers ideas and suggestions for community partnerships.

"The important part of our planning is that all involved understand that service and learning should be of equal benefit," said Rao. "To make the process run smoothly, we offer an orientation to the class, where we’ll explain the benefits and expectations of service learning. We also help with logistical matters such as providing directions, arranging transportation if needed, and even giving tours of the community."

The VSLC also provides faculty members with a handbook, which includes training on how to access ANGEL to search for community organizations (available to VSLC members only), pre- and post-surveys for all participants, helpful forms such as hours logs, and directions on how to provide effective reflection activities. "The reflection activities are a very important part of service learning," said Rao. "It brings back reactions into the classroom, and ties the learning portion of the service back into the syllabus."

"Our model works," says Zuckerman-Aviles. "It doesn't create a ton of extra work for the faculty, and the structure allows them to focus more on their students while we focus more on the community organizations. Service learning really fits the mission of Buffalo State, and creates a great 'marriage' of people on campus. The center’s creation really bridged student affairs and academic affairs."

Faculty members do not necessarily need to be fellows in order to convert their classes to—or create new—service-learning classes. "We want to get connected to other professors who are already engaging in aspects of service learning, as well as those who want to be," said Rao.

Welborn agrees. "There is room for a full range of programs," he said. "Professors should know that service learning lends authenticity to our [classroom] work. The Volunteer and Service-Learning Center taps into a rich and deep culture in our community."

As for the boom in service learning's popularity, Rao thinks that students and faculty appreciate the opportunity to "learn by doing" and understand the importance of civic engagement. "During the 2006–2007 academic year, students performed 23,000 hours of service," she said. "At the beginning, students often have apprehension—whether it's fear of the community, struggles with time commitment, or that they simply don’t want to go through with it. But at the end of the class, most students come away saying how much it helped them—whether it's personal growth, better understanding of course material, a good fit for career goals and their major, or all of the above."

According to Zuckerman-Aviles, service-learning classes also provide direct benefits for the workplace setting. "Not only does it help students make an investment where they live," she said, "but also it helps them to better embrace diversity. These values are so important to have in today's working world."

The VSLC is currently supported by the college's "Investments in the Future" funds, and looks forward to continued college support. No matter how the VSLC evolves in the future, one thing is for certain—it will continue to bring energy to all involved.

"Community organizations love the new ideas that students bring," said Rao. "And faculty members can get reenergized about teaching. We can make an impact in the community and provide real opportunities to make a difference, while at the same time engaging in really effective learning."

Zuckerman-Aviles says that service learning will only continue to increase in popularity. "Our professors are realizing more and more that this has both academic value and tremendous impact on students," she said. "Buffalo State is committed to applied learning, and I'm hard-pressed to think of a better example that embodies inquiry and action—the school's mission—than service learning."