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November 16, 1999


At Spring Hill College, Service-Learning Enhances Student Learning While Addresses Community Problems

by Elliott Lauderdale

I met with Dr. Kathleen Orange, an associate professor of political science, in the Spring Hill College Albert S. Foley, S.J. Community Service Center. The center’s namesake was a committed Jesuit who worked with Joe Langan on Mobile’s movement for civil rights. Father Foley was a sociologist who was instrumental in developing Head Start and the Job Partnership Training Act in Mobile.

Kathleen Orange is the Director of the Foley Center which continues Albert Foley’s involvement in addressing significant problems in the Mobile community. Since 1991 some Spring Hill students have received community service scholarships which pay for approximately one-fifth of their tuition. In exchange, the students, which now number more than two hundred, contribute three hours a week to support the Foley Center’s initiatives. In order to concentrate their limited resources the Foley Center focuses on redressing what Jonathan Kozol called savage inequalities in the U.S. educational system.

In Mobile some students receive an unequal education because of where they live or because of their families’ resources. Class divisions in K-12 education sometimes effectively limit children’s opportunity to attend higher education. The problem with low SAT scores has been with us for a while, but the new graduation requirements will likely bring home this inequity in an even more powerful way. When it comes to educational opportunities in Mobile, Dr. Orange sees there are two classes: haves and have nots.

Eight years ago Foley Center students began tutoring in Palmer Pillians and Azalea Middle schools, and five years ago, Elizabeth Chastang Middle School was added to the targeted schools. Now they work in these schools and in six elementary schools. Because of the evidence that she has accumulated during reflection sessions conducted during and after students’ work in the school, Dr. Orange feels more students should have such an opportunity to engage in community service. While Spring Hill College students learn about disadvantaged young people, they also learn about themselves. Students begin college thinking of diploma and future salaries, but Foley Center students come to achieve a greater humanity. Students reflect that their visit with their little brothers and sisters is the most important part of their week. One pre-med student said she was more motivated to study because she can see the need for her future in her community. Curiously, some students say they never felt as needed nor as much an interdependent human being. Dr. Orange noted the important educational goal of personal development: students learn who they are and who they can be. Students feel they learn as much from their relationships with young people and their teachers.

Praising Dr. Edmund Tsang’s program at the College of Engineering of the University of South Alabama for having engineering students design and build teaching aides for school science teachers, Dr. Orange noted that in a liberal arts college they sometimes have difficulty finding courses which can help meet the many practical needs of the community. Sociology, developmental psychology, theology, American government and English as a Second Language are courses that currently offer students an opportunity to participate in service learning. Students from the community are also invited to Spring Hill to both play and get a sense of the college experience. Spring Hill College has been helping Catholic Social Service, which runs the regional Refugee Resettlement Center, to help refugee families. In addition to schools, students work with L’Arche, senior citizens, day care, Big Brothers and Sisters, and Rolling Readers. Spring Hill College is designing an integrated social science course that incorporates service learning.

Service learning is more than community service. Students are given credit for the learning that flows from the experience of serving their communities. Service learning is directly linked to curricular goals. Students are asked to complete oral or creative or written course assignments in which they systematically reflect on and synthesize their experience and observations. These forays into a complex social situation test the knowledge, inquiry skills and values that are part of course goals. Edward Zlotkowski of the American Association for Higher Education emphasizes the importance of “enhanced learning” as the horse pulling the cart of “moral and civic values.”

A 1996 Rand Evaluation of Learn and Serve America: Higher Education found student participants in service learning “exhibited a greater sense of civic responsibility, higher levels of academic achievement, and more growth in life-skill like leadership, self-confidence, and interpersonal skills.” Fred Newman, in a chapter in Barbara Jacoby’s 1996 book, Service- Learning in Higher Education, noted that students learn to face uncertainty, conflict and ambiguity, while not neglecting the need to act. Furthermore, Newman notes students acquire a morality of public policy and personal choice, an ability to address issues in a strategic way (with a sense of scope and priorities), more personal civic commitment, and practice in authentic discourse which builds meaningful relationship and interdependence. Dr. Orange referred to the importance of a hermeneutic shift by which we see the world from others’ perspectives through service learning.

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