Service-Learning Changed My Life

Version 2I am forever grateful for the liberal arts education that included meaningful community-engaged service-learning. (Thank you Oberlin College!) I continue to wrestle with ways to bring the humanities and real service-learning* into my own work teaching undergraduate nursing students. The combination of a grounding in the humanities (in my case medical ethics through Biology and Religion majors) and service-learning, changed my life—and my career—for the better.

In my sophomore year at Oberlin, I took a child psychology course with Dr. Friedman that included a service-learning opportunity of working as a Big Sister or Big Brother to a child or young teenager at a children’s group home on the outskirts of town. Starting in that course and continuing until I graduated and left Ohio, I was the Big Sister for a young girl (she was 12 when I started working with her and I was just 18). I took her on weekend outings around the college town, taught her to swim in the college pool (I was a lifeguard and swim instructor), and visited the town’s Santa for a photo that I treasure. At the time I started working with my little sister I was a pre-med Biology major and thought I had my future life and career clearly charted. But that service-learning experience, accompanied by further private reading study on child abuse with Dr. Friedman, led me to medical ethics and on into a career in nursing.

It is instructive to re-read one’s college term papers. I am fortunate that my mother, who was my best proof-reader, kept all of my early writing going back to my age 7 haikus, and she gave them to me in a package before she died. (Thank you Mom!) Here is an excerpt from a term paper titled “Child Abuse: A Wider and Closer Look” that I wrote for Dr. Friedman in 1979:

“Who would contest that poverty creates the most stressful situation imaginable? If we want to truly treat child abuse, we have to face the fact that poverty is a very real influence. How can anyone possibly cure poverty? That question touches a sore spot in all of us comfortably full and well-clothed individuals. We recognize an inconsistency in our moral structure and in our social structure. The harming of children—all of the legislation, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and self-help groups in the world won’t cure it. The idea of changing our society is radical and frightening because we would have to risk losing what we have and feel safe with. How long will the present interest in child abuse last? Will we take the chance and try to cure child abuse, or will we continue placing Band-Aids on the sore, with our heads turned away from the real problem?”

Indeed, four decades after writing that paper I continue to ask similar questions—and to work towards finding solutions to those big, wicked problems. But it was my foundational liberal arts education combined with service-learning that is what prepared me for my life and my career.

* Real service-learning is (as defined by the University of Washington Carlson Leadership and Public Service Center):

“Service-learning is a learning experience that combines service with the community with structured preparation and reflection opportunities. Service opportunities are tied to academic coursework and address concerns that are identified and articulated by the community.

As students engage in service-learning, they learn about the context in which service is provided, the connection between their service and their academic coursework, and their roles as community members.”

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