By Lalita Llerena, Community Engagement Specialist, Florida College Access Network

When you think of succeeding in college, you often only think of grades, credits and other academic measures. But there are several other social and civic factors that contribute to someone’s ability to stick with the program and complete postsecondary education. I recently had the honor of personally witnessing one of those factors: service-learning. It’s a concept not often referenced in the higher education realm. What is common knowledge is the more engaged students are with their campus environment, the more likely they will graduate. Service-learning is one of those ways to get college students more involved. It incorporates community work into the curriculum, giving students real-world learning experiences that enhance their academic learning while benefitting the community.

As part of their service project at the retreat, Stephanie Walker, AmeriCorps VISTA & Leo Davila, College Access AmeriCorps member, helped with gardening at the DeVos-Blum Family YMCA in Boynton Beach.

Now, I can spend time detailing the proven research connecting student success with civic engagement. But, hey, I’ll leave that to our senior researcher to consider for a future policy brief. Instead, I decided to hit the road and discover first-hand what service-learning is all about.

Earlier this month, I attended the 2012 AmeriCorps & Connect2Complete Service Retreat at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. For three days, I mingled with a crowd of AmeriCorps VISTA members, College Access & Success AmeriCorps members, campus coordinators and Connect2Complete peer advocates. The retreat was hosted by our partners at Florida Campus Compact (FL|CC), a membership organization made up of more than 50 college and university presidents committed to helping students develop the values and skills of active citizenship through participation in public and community service.

Now, if you’re as lost as I was when I first arrived, let me break it down for you. VISTA stands for “Volunteers In Service To America.” FL|CC AmeriCorps VISTA members are college graduates placed with colleges, universities and community organizations to improve education and address societal needs through campus-community partnerships, applied civic education and engaged citizenship. AmeriCorps VISTA members serve full-time, year-long terms. While in service, members receive a very modest living allowance and are eligible for healthcare and other benefits. Their sole purpose is to serve and they’re not allowed to have another paying job. Talk about commitment.

Then there are the College Access & Success AmeriCorps members, college students who serve as mentors to at-risk youth and/or first generation, low-income students to help them get into college and graduate. College Access is a part-time AmeriCorps program, and students can choose to serve 300 or 900 hours.

Finally, under the Connect2Complete (C2C) pilot program, college students serve as peer advocates to first-year college students enrolled in developmental education courses. The goal is to better engage those students with their campus and community so they can achieve academic success.

All these members have “service” in common and they’re clearly driven by something deeper than just finding a job that pays the bills. They’re looking for something more meaningful. Leo Davila is a College Access AmeriCorps student with Polk State College. Growing up in a rough neighborhood himself, he is passionate about mentoring at-risk youth. “I guess I could say I was a delinquent kid but I learned at an early age where I needed to step up my game and so hopefully through my actions, through my change of heart, I can try to teach them that even though they’re still young and they don’t understand that eventually they will. Hopefully I can give back to them,” shared Davila.

As I spoke with other students like Davila, one common theme stood out; a concept many members refer to as the ‘aha’ moment. They view this as a powerful turning point they reach while volunteering. AmeriCorps and C2C members either personally shared their particular ‘aha’ moment when they discovered the role they were meant to play in life or they referenced the ‘aha’ moment as a goal they aimed for while completing their service hours. “The members that we work with sign up for a term of service which is sometimes up to a year and throughout that year, they’re learning a lot about what their role is in society and as citizens. And sometimes it takes challenges to actually achieve that ‘aha’ moment but when they do, that’s when the real learning takes place and they figure out how they can implement that in their own lives moving forward,” said Courtney Kuntz, FL|CC Director of Programs & Development.

The last day of the retreat, I got my hands a little dirty with the AmeriCorps and C2C members. All the attendees were split into groups and each performed a different service project, including beach clean-up, butterfly garden restoration, assisted living help and soup kitchen work. My group helped clean and sanitize YMCA preschool classrooms to transition from summer to fall classes. And I’m not talking about stacking books or organizing lesson plans. Our group was on our knees pulling playground weeds, scrubbing and sanitizing furniture and toys, painting walls and climbing ladders to clean hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. My favorite moment as I helped paint one of the interior walls, is hearing a group of young children repeating an upbeat chant in the next room. I peeked through the door window and saw dozens of smiling young faces cheering as loudly as they could with their instructor. I guess you can call that my mini ‘aha’ moment at the time. You see, as we scrubbed dirt and cleaned windows, it could feel like just another job. But those kids’ vibrant cheers reminded me who I was doing this for and it made it all worth it. Another meaningful moment was seeing the teachers’ reaction when they found out nearly a dozen volunteers were there to help set up their classrooms. They were extremely surprised and grateful. What our group was able to accomplish in just a few hours as a team, most likely would’ve taken the YMCA staff days to complete.

Ok, so no big deal; I volunteered for two hours out of my day. Big whoop. The people I shadowed do it on a daily basis, with very little to no pay. Most of these are college-educated folks doing manual, grueling labor all for the betterment of their community and themselves. Tuyet Nguyen, an AmeriCorps Vista with Stetson University, said, “I just have a passion to serve. It’s very rewarding to me to be able to help others out because I know what it’s like to be helped. I came here not too long ago from Vietnam, from a refugee camp, so without help I wouldn’t be here — that’s why I’m giving back. ”

One of the program’s requirements after a service project is reflection time, which can take written, verbal or artistic forms. “You have to take some time to sit back and think about what it is you’re doing and how you can have the most impact,” said Kuntz. As AmeriCorps and C2C members reflect on the project afterward, they start discovering hidden strengths and passions. It’s not uncommon for a volunteer to gravitate toward a duty that best suits an uncovered talent. For instance, one of the YMCA teachers noticed me painting during our service project and asked if I were an artist. “Not really,” I said. “Oh, just by the way you’re holding that brush, I thought maybe you painted in your spare time,” she said. Ha! You know what? I do. I enjoy painting for fun and I guess I can be creative as a journalist, but I never really considered myself an artist. I guess I subconsciously recognized this strength and eagerly reached for the paintbrush when the duties were handed out to our volunteer group. It’s funny how I didn’t put two-and-two together until it was casually pointed out to me. Little moments like this turn into bigger, deeper moments for AmeriCorps and C2C members who do this day-in and day-out. Not only do they give back to the community, they give back to themselves. They discover a passion for something, whether it’s mentoring kids or working with the elderly. They find profounder meaning in their lives and, in turn, want to complete their education so they can start their careers in that particular field.

“You can only get so much in the classroom. You need to actually go out and mingle in the community because that’s who you’re going to serve after you graduate,” said Carlene Webb, AmeriCorps VISTA member and Service Learning Coordinator for the Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy at Miami Dade College.

So there you go. I went straight to the sources of service-learning to find out how and why it can encourage students to succeed in college. It didn’t take long to discover the strong correlation between the two. In fact, I witnessed it up-close, on my knees with a paintbrush.

~Click here to see more pictures from the 2012 AmeriCorps & Connect2Complete Service Retreat

~Follow Florida College Access Network on twitter @FloridaGoal2025


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