It’s been years since Carole Lapidos was a middle school student, but she hasn’t forgotten just how hard it can be.
“Listening to cattiness and the name-calling, we realized it’s really difficult to be a girl in middle school,” she said. “So we decided to do something about it.”
Lapidos saw that these students needed guidance — from someone they could really look up to. That’s when she got the idea to bring female students from the University of Michigan into these middle schools, giving the preteens real-life role models.
So in 1997, Lapidos helped develop “It’s Great to Be a Girl,” (IGTBAG) a sociology class at Michigan that pairs undergraduate women with middle school students, with a focus on building confidence.
“I remember being really insecure and unkind to myself — and others — at that age,” said Grace Goudiss, a junior at Michigan and a “Femtor” with IGTBAG. “I remember how individual attention can make a difference, especially from a cool older girl.”
IGTBAG — or Sociology 389, as it’s listed in Michigan’s course guide — is just one example in the growing movement to combine lecture with work in local communities. Today, nearly one-quarter of universities incorporate service-learning classes in their curriculum, allowing students to earn credit while volunteering.
“Students today face real financial challenges that make it hard to find time to volunteer,” said Kimberly Silcox, the director of the Center for Community Engagement at Eastern Connecticut State University. “We try to combine service-learning with coursework so all students can take part in the community.”
In 2010, about 26% of college students across the country volunteered, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service — a figure that continues to decline. As tuition costs continue to rise, many students are forced to work more hours, leaving little time for community engagement. In response, colleges around the United States are making community service a priority in academics, with some schools even making it part of degree programs.
“Students who were actively volunteering in our programs said, ‘You know, this work we’re doing doesn’t show up on a transcript,’ ” said John Reiff, director of the Office of Civic Engagement and Service-Learning (CESL) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “And they asked us, ‘Could you do something about that?’ ”
In response, CESL created a certificate in Civic Engagement and Public Service. Similar to a minor, the certificate allows students to combine coursework from multiple concentrations with community service, letting them not only participate in the community, but also connect the classroom with the real world.
This type of connection, said Phillip Motley, an assistant professor in communications at Elon University, is crucial in preparing students for post-undergraduate life.
“Working with real-world clients is a lot different than an in-class project,” Motley said. “You learn more about the professional world when you’re dealing with people outside of lecture halls.”
Over the past two years, Motley and his colleagues developed classes that combine journalism, multimedia and Web publishing with community service. Last fall, the class took the students to Loaves and Fishes, a food bank in nearby Burlington, N.C., where students worked together to make multimedia profiles of the bank’s staff, volunteers and clients. Motley said the class not only allowed students to test their journalistic and technological skills, but also forced them to consider socioeconomic challenges that exist right in their backyard.
“It’s one thing to talk about how the media represents the poor and underserved,” Motley said. “It’s quite another to see it yourself.”
While students may be eager to get involved in the community, Silcox says it’s critical to balance the needs of both undergrads and the organization.
“It’s important that we don’t create additional burdens for the community,” she added. “We have to create mutually beneficial relationships.”
Community service should be considered as a requirement for graduation, said Jasymne Alexander, a senior at University of Texas at Austin. Alexander’s senior seminar course required her to intern at a community organization.
“If more people volunteered before graduating, our communities could be in much better shape,” she said.
Goudiss agreed. “Socially conscious engagement with the world is just as essential as other graduation requirements,” she said. “Students should be asked to go beyond our personal enlightenment.”
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