Service Learning – Student and Community Symbiosis

Service Learning – Student and Community Symbiosis

(Photo courtesy of Jen van Heerden)

Service learning overview

The concept

‘Service learning’ is an educational approach that promotes learning through the development of a symbiotic relationship between students and communities.

The benefits that can be derived from service learning are many (Conway, Amel, and Gerwien 2009; Eyler, Giles, and Braxton 1997):

  • critical thinking skills
  • professional development
  • a sense of responsibility
  • an introduction to ‘real-world’ problems
  • an awareness of the interdisciplinary nature of everything
  • networking skills
  • access to knowledge and expertise outside of Stanford
  • improved communication skills

…just to name a few.

Many courses and programs at Stanford University include service learning components. In particular, the Haas Center for Public Service works hard to promote a wide variety of quality, community-based ‘service learning’ opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students. Last year’s SUES (Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University) report acknowledged the benefits derived from service learning and stated that an increase in community-based education was among its initiatives for the future.

I recently spoke with several people at Stanford about service learning programs offered through the university to get insight into how these programs are implemented and how they improve student learning.


Julie Reed, Associate Director for Community-Engaged Scholarship at the Haas Center, focuses much of her time on service learning course construction. Reed works with Stanford faculty to design and develop service learning courses, helps community partners learn how to be co-educators, and provides guidance for graduate students interested in pursuing careers in this field.

Carolyn Ross, former director (2003-2007) of the Stanford Program in Writing and Rhetoric's (PWR) Community Writing Project, who continues to teach service learning PWR courses in the CWP.

Jen van Heerden, Service Learning Assistant for the Stanford Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP) in Cape Town, helps integrate Stanford students into their local communities in Cape Town.

Some of the Service Learning Programs at Stanford

Reed, who has extensive experience with service learning programs at various schools, has found that Stanford’s programs are unique in a couple of ways.

Firstly, the hard-working nature of Stanford students allows for early introduction of programs, giving students the option to carry out projects with community partners from as early as freshman year through senior theses.

Secondly, at Stanford, it is common for faculty initiating service learning courses to already have their own community partners, locally and/or internationally. Even so, the Haas center still provides support for faculty looking to connect with other organizations. In addition, the faculty and staff involved with service learning programs have developed a central, open-access community partners database.

According to Reed, the format of service learning courses at Stanford varies widely. While some courses revolve around a community-based project, others may have only one such assignment. Reed describes the whole field of ‘service learning’ as moving away from direct service that any volunteer could do and towards project-based work based on what students are learning in class. In that respect, it’s not about the number of hours a student spends at an organization, but rather the final output.

PWR Community Writing Project

Ross described the PWR Community Writing Project as a hands-on program where instructors structure at least one of their major assignments as a service learning project, matching up students with non-profit organizations in the community.

As an example, last winter Ross taught a PWR 2 course that worked with scientists doing climate change studies to communicate the science of climate change to public audiences using short videos. Ross’ students, in collaboration with the Leopold Leadership Program at the Woods Institute, interviewed several climate change scientists and subsequently made short videos for the governor’s office of planning and research. You can read more about this project in the Stanford News Service's March 2013 story.

BOSP in Cape Town

The BOSP in Cape Town was introduced in 2010. It is one of 11 BOSP centers. Each center has a specific theme; the Cape Town program focuses on community engagement.

The Cape Town program hosts undergraduate students during the winter and spring quarters, and a selection of research students over the summer. Students typically stay for only one quarter, but it is possible to extend a student's stay over multiple quarters.

While in Cape Town, students take a full academic course load and complete a service learning placement. Typically, on Mondays and Tuesdays, students take classes with local faculty and Stanford faculty members on campus; on Wednesdays and Thursdays, they attend their service learning placements; and on Fridays, they participate in cultural activities.

While at their placements, students support local staff through a variety of tasks. Students can choose an organization within a sector (e.g., urban agriculture, community health, social enterprise, youth development), but what they actually do ultimately depends on what that organization needs help with and what they have the capacity to host.

The Cape Town program curriculum includes a weekly service learning seminar which counts for 5 academic units. This seminar is designed to progressively bring the whole quarter together and help students make sense of their experiences through personal reflection and group discussions.


Across the board, it seems that the largest hurdle to overcome with Stanford service learning courses is the brevity of the quarter system. It is challenging to connect students with an organization for only 10 weeks. While some students continue working with their partner organizations, most leave at the end of the quarter.

As such, it is of the utmost importance that both the students and community partners understand the goals and scope of the project. The symbiotic nature of service learning implies that everyone should benefit from the partnership.

Benefits of Service Learning

As Reed stated, “what you read in a textbook is rarely black and white.  One’s goal should not be to learn answers but rather to learn how to ask questions.” Real life is not confined to one subject; it is extremely interdisciplinary, and students need to learn how to transfer theory to practice in a messy world.  Service learning delivers this practice.

According to Ross, many of her students in PWR dream of being an “academic writer” and have no sense of what it means to communicate with the real world. The PWR Community Writing project teaches them the importance of writing for everyone. She explains that the lessons they learn in the CWP on succinctness, clarity, and straightforwardness make them all-around better writers.

Van Heerden explained that the Cape Town program grounds student learning in a concrete way. Students’ interactions with the community allow them to understand issues as they happen in context and to understand that learning is a social process, between people and through people.

According to Van Heerden, watching students engage with people who are HIV-positive and realize that the illness doesn’t define people in the way they thought it would, has been one of the most powerful experiences she has had in her position in Cape Town.

In a good service learning experience, students will learn more than they can give in 10 weeks. Stanford’s service learning programs aim to show that we don’t have all the expertise here at Stanford. Stanford students are incredibly creative, and they can bring a whole new project and idea to life at their organizations in a short amount of time. Often, their ideas remain and persist in other forms after they leave.

In short, with service learning, everybody wins.

What's your experience with service learning?  Thoughts on it?

Mandy McLean is a graduate student in Environmental Earth System Science.

Upcoming Service Learning Opportunity

The Haas Center is offering a service-learning seminar for faculty Oct. 10-11, 2013.  Deadline for proposals is Friday, Sept. 27, so apply now.  See the seminar flyer.


Conway, James M., Elise L. Amel, and Daniel P. Gerwien. 2009. “Teaching and Learning in the Social Context: A Meta-Analysis of Service Learning’s Effects on Academic, Personal, Social, and Citizenship Outcomes.” Teaching of Psychology 36 (4) (October 13): 233–245.

Eyler, Janet, Jr. Giles, Dwight E., and John Braxton. 1997. “The Impact of Service-Learning on College Students.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 4 (Fall): 5–15.

See also: Stanford Report on a graduate service learning course that travels to Sierra Leone.