THE BLOG
12/06/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Learning to Serve, Serving to Learn

I am often asked how well our college of the liberal arts and sciences prepares students for jobs and careers. We like to think that a liberal arts education prepares students for life, and that jobs and careers are only one part of that. But our research shows that employers value graduates who have strong critical thinking and analytical skills, who can read and write well, and who are great communicators.

Still, we also know that the ivory tower is a thing of the past. A public university like ours has a responsibility to its students and their parents to introduce students to the realities of the workplace, to show them how their learning can be applied. At the University of Mary Washington we address that duty with our experiential learning requirement. It is a part of our core curriculum.

There are several ways that students can fulfill this requirement. For example, a number of students elect to undertake service learning projects while others enroll in internships. The internship, arguably, is closest to a real-world work experience. Our students intern at state and federal government agencies, Congressional offices, non-profits, and for-profit companies and corporations. But just doing the work is not enough to fulfill our requirement. All student interns must also do a final project or paper for their faculty sponsor that connects their classroom learning with their work experience. I agree with professor David Thornton Moore of New York University, who recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that an internship needs to be an educational experience.

For some UMW students, an internship is their first bridge to the real world of work. But, at Mary Washington, service learning is another path, and one in which we take great pride. While service learning is not a new concept -- after all, the idea of preparing students for public service in America dates back to the founding of Harvard College in 1636 -- we place a very strong emphasis on service sector work and volunteerism. For years we have been listed at or near the top of the list of small colleges that send the most students to the Peace Corps. We also have a student-run office, Community Outreach and Resources (COAR), which links up students and their clubs or teams with non-profits that need volunteers. COAR can put student volunteers into projects that range from helping out at nursing homes to walking dogs at animal shelters to cleaning up our streams and rivers. I am proud to say that this kind of work has won us a place on the President's Community Service Honor Roll for four consecutive years.

Many of our academic courses include a community service component. Psych 350, our Psychology of Women course, requires 20 hours of work at women's shelters, child care programs and the like. Students in our elementary classroom management course worked with a struggling low-income after-school program to develop a more effective way to run its classes. "The UMW students took what was in their textbooks and applied it to real life," says Christina Eggenberger, Director of Service for UMW's Student Affairs office.

One of our professors, Debra Schleef, teaches a sociology course on quantitative research methods including study design, sampling and analysis. Her students are able to work with community organizations to devise and administer studies of special populations. One group, for instance, worked with the Rappahannock Area Office on Youth to survey high school students about high risk behaviors like drug use, sex, self-cutting, and suicide. Other students surveyed people who had passed though a local drug court to determine whether the court's remedies had been successful. Some students visited jail to interview those who had stumbled, or met with people on parole. A local farmer's market used Dr. Schleef's class to survey its patrons to learn about strategies that would bring more people into the market. "To me, it's about not just doing research but also engaging in the world around you, engaging in people other than yourselves, people who are not at your university," Dr. Schleef said.

We need to make a distinction here between community volunteer work and service learning. We want to encourage all of our students, organizations, clubs and teams to do volunteer work at local non-profits. But if you choose to satisfy our experiential learning requirement by doing service learning, then you are required to reflect on your experience through class discussions, papers, journals, and give-and-take with your professors. We want our students to think about how the work they are doing can impact real people in a meaningful way.

Is there a direct link between experiential learning and getting one's first job? Well, some student interns do get hired by the organization or company that sponsored them. But more often the linkage is less direct. For instance, students who do social work for an internship may decide they really want to work in that field, but may feel they first need to get a master's degree. Sometimes students doing internships or service learning discover what they don't want to do.

And sometimes they find exactly what they want to do. Take Bobby Tillett, a young man who graduated from our university last year.

While at Mary Washington, Bobby worked at our community outreach office and led groups of students to spend their spring breaks with Habitat for Humanity. That experience, he said recently, energized and focused him on working in the service sector. Since he was interested in environmentalism and the outdoors, he joined the Montana Conservation Corps after graduation "I'm not keen on making a ton of money," Bobby told me. "I just want a purpose in my work life, and I want to be doing something I am very passionate about."

I feel confident Bobby will succeed and I am proud to know that he learned about purpose and passion at our college.