W&M service-learning takes students further

  • Pelco on service-learningLynn Pelco discusses service-learning at the College of William and Mary.

    Pelco on service-learning

Every day across the nation, college students deliver meals to the elderly, pick up trash along the highways, and build houses for complete strangers. Although the students can walk away from their experiences with broadened horizons and good feelings, they may not take away much real learning.

“Helping to deliver Meals on Wheels and swinging a hammer for Habitat for Humanity are very worthwhile activities, but in terms of adding to the learning on a deep level, they may not be enough,” said Lynn Pelco, William and Mary’s Sharpe Professor for Civic Engagement.

But by having students partner with faculty and community members to incorporate academic learning into service, students can take their service further and become leaders in civic engagement. And Pelco is helping William and Mary students do just that.

“The very wonderful thing about the William and Mary students is that they are seeking out what I call thick civic engagement activities,” she said. “They are helping to build homes, working in soup kitchens, traveling to developing countries--they see the issues and they come back to the resources we have in our faculty at the College and say, ‘Teach me how to think through these problems. Give me the skills, the knowledge and the wherewithal to go out and make a difference so that people won’t need a soup kitchen.’”

One of the primary ways that students at William and Mary have become involved in service-learning is through the Sharpe Community Scholars Program. The program accepts about 75 freshmen annually and involves participating students in coursework that integrates community engagement and academic learning. Sharpe Scholars, their faculty instructors, and community partners work collaboratively to develop community-based research projects, and throughout the year the Sharpe Scholars work to implement these projects.

Pelco said that by taking students out of the classroom and having them tackle real problems, they learn at a much deeper level.

“In that process, they do a lot and develop a lot of the skills you need to become an engaged civic leader,” said Pelco. “Things like building consensus in a group, deliberating, and getting across your perspective as well as listening and understanding other people’s perspectives.”

As a professor who’s mainly worked with graduate students, Pelco said that she has been amazed at just how much the freshmen have been able to accomplish.

“We don’t know how far they can go in terms of the depth of their involvement--in research activities, collaborating in the community, establishing programs--until we let them have those opportunities,” said Pelco. “I think that starting them at the freshman level, as we do in the Sharpe Program, sets them on that path at such an early stage in their higher-education experience that we’re going to be amazed at what they’re able to accomplish in four years, even before they graduate.”

Although the Sharpe Program focuses primarily on freshmen at the College, one of Pelco’s main goals as the Sharpe Professor has been to increase the service-learning opportunities available to all students at William and Mary by developing upper-level service-learning courses. She developed and leads a group of Sharpe Faculty Fellows who are selected each year from a variety of academic disciplines. The group meets monthly throughout the academic year to conduct research, discuss ideas and determine how to incorporate service-learning into their respective disciplines. Together, they’ve developed courses that will be offered to students in a variety of disciplines and levels, including two at the graduate level and two related to international service trips.

“We have a wonderful time and the ideas that have come from the group will move forward at the College and have some really powerful and exciting impacts,” Pelco said.

Pelco, who is also the co-director of the School of Education’s School Psychology Program, has seen service-learning in action not only as part of the Sharpe Program, but through the international service trip she started to the Caribbean island of Bequia in 2002. Through that trip, she learned the importance of reciprocity – the idea that the volunteers go in not to offer an easy fix to a community’s problem, but to collaborate and build a relationship with the community in order to effectively tackle complicated problems together. Pelco said that this concept of reciprocity and interdependence is central to what she wants to teach students about civic engagement.

“They bring some skills and expertise, certainly, but there’s an awful lot of skill and experience and expertise in the community that they can tap into,” she said.

Whether it is overseas at places like Bequia or on William and Mary’s own campus, Pelco looks forward to what her students and colleagues will accomplish as they continue to collaborate to take service-learning and civic engagement at William and Mary further.

“To see the students talking with each other apart from me about these ideas, to see the faculty members excited about how they might apply these concepts in their teaching across every discipline, that’s what I really get a kick out of,” she said. “Seeing the light bulbs going off and all the ideas that fly through the room when you put the bright students together and the bright faculty members together with the students – it’s very exciting work.”