Service Learning as Social Activism

Community service: Applying psychology to promote social change.

Posted Apr 25, 2011

If you went to college a while back, the idea of service learning may be a new one. It was certainly not an option when yours truly was a student, and I am the poorer for it. In essence, service learning involves providing students with opportunities to use knowledge gained in the psychology classroom in real world settings or in ways that can help members of the community. As you might imagine, service learning covers quite a lot of educational ground, everything from volunteering in social service agencies to creating projects that help the local community. There is also another form of service that should not be overlooked-service for the purpose of promoting social change. As you will see, such service is not a typical internship experience-but I am getting ahead of myself.

Why is service learning beneficial to students? Well, for several reasons. First, it brings psychology alive; what may often seem to be dry, abstract, or even complex concepts can be explored, executed, and understood in a "hands on" manner. Students truly learn (more) by doing. Second, students have a chance to discover new things through service. Some students, for example, learn about possible career or volunteer paths that would otherwise have remained unknown to them. Other students learn that working in certain places has great appeal to them, where others decide what seemed to be a logical career path turns out to be something they really do not want to pursue. Either conclusion is important. Third, service learning is a way to give back to the college or university, the local community, or the wider social world. Fourth, working for others is emotionally as well as intellectually satisfying (readers who are familiar with the basic tenets of positive psychology will know why this is so). And fifth, from a practical or pragmatic perspective, service learning may give students a taste of what's to come in the real world of work and responsibility once they leave the groves of academe.

Organizations usually welcome college student help via service learning projects for obvious reasons: most can use extra hands to do the work, not to mention motivated, enthusiastic, and sharp minds. Like students, organizations also want to "give back" and hosting students as interns, for example, allows them to do just that. Exposing students to their clients, too, is an important form of education, one that helps groups with social missions and community roots share their goals with an educated group of young people that might otherwise miss a valuable message.

Psychology faculty members undertake service-learning oriented projects in their classrooms for a variety of reasons, as well. Chief among them may be the opportunity to show students how psychological theories and research findings actually can be used. To paraphrase Kurt Lewin, the father of action research as well as social psychology, psychology must be about more than just producing books and papers. Some ideas need to transcend their intellectual origins and be applied to improve daily life or ameliorate suffering. I think many colleagues who integrate service learning into their courses also want to follow George A. Miller's well-known admonition to "give psychology away" so as to educate and help humanity simultaneously.

One of my colleagues routinely teaches a course on the Psychology of Women. Service learning in the form of action for social change plays an important role in the class. My colleague shows students that one of the tenets of Feminist ethics is that, like any good ethical theory, people should be moved from "thinking about the good" to actually "doing the good" to create a more just and caring world. Volunteering, social action, and other forms of this activist service learning are obviously part of this process, creating an important venue for psychology as well as an excellent form of liberal education.

This semester, for example, my colleague's students organized a Take Back the Night (TBTN) March and Rally on our campus. As you may know, TBTN activities are peaceful protests aimed at making people aware of domestic violence and abuse, social problems that primarily affect women and children. Students and faculty members worked for weeks to plan for a series of events that culminated in march on campus and through adjacent neighborhoods that drew several hundred people. Other students took part in preparing for a YWCA Race Against Racism that raised funds for use in community-based efforts to promote diversity. Still other students planned a Day of Silence to draw attention to bullying, harassment, and name-calling aimed at LGBT people. (Participants remain silent until the end of the designated day, when a "Break the Silence" discussion is held.)

As you can well imagine, these kinds of social change focused service learning opportunities tend to be much more engaging for students than the usual research paper (although all students who take part in these activities do library research to prepare for their roles, just as they maintain journals or write blogs and other self-reflection exercises). Service learning opportunities are transformative experiences for students-the skills they acquired throughout the psychology major come together in a challenging, meaningful, and positive activity that benefits others. What could be a better lesson demonstrating that the science of psychology is also very much a liberal art?

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