BTN LiveBIG: Minnesota volunteers serving together

As part of their education at the University of Minnesota, thousands of students are taught that there are important societal issues in need of their time and effort.

The University of Minnesota’s Community Service-Learning Center is a collaborative effort with university professors to add a service-learning component to the educational experience of the students.

UMN volunteer

For some students, the opportunity to serve the community while learning becomes a way of life, and they have the opportunity to join the Community Service-Learning Center’s Community Engagement Scholars Program as well.

The Community Service-Learning Center supports undergraduate classes in conjunction with academic departments and coordinates with local community organizations to provide the service-learning component for the class.

“The classes are for credit,’’ said Laurel Hirt, the Director of the Community Service-Learning Center and Off-Campus Study. “We work with faculty in a range of departments and programs, and assist them with thinking about how community engagement can be a way for students to have an experience doing work in the community that complements the content of the course.”

In some cases, service-learning courses are project-based, meaning students must complete a project identified by a community organization as part of their class requirements. Often the type of work being done through the CS-LC incudes tutoring, youth work, support at homeless shelter with job searching, working with environmental organizations, or organizing work for any number of other volunteer groups.

It is Hirt’s job to find professors who can see the community service component that is possible within the framework of the classwork being done. Hirt said the social sciences, humanities, education and human development oriented departments are the academic influences most often working with the CS-LC for course work.

“Our College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sciences recently introduced a requirement for all of their undergraduates to have two experiential learning courses as part of their undergraduate work,’’ Hirt said.

Occasionally, the CS-LC benefits from student enthusiasm for experiential learning, who will speak to a professor about the possibility of combining in-classroom work with out-of-classroom community work. Hirt said a student can go to a professor and say “it makes sense to me that we as students in this class could have the opportunity to do service-learning and work with a community organization that would help us better understand the academic content of this class.”

The Community Engagement Scholars Program is “equivalent to the work-load of an undergraduate minor (degree),’’ Hirt said. “We often refer to it as Honors recognition for community work. Students can earn a notation on their academic transcript that goes beyond the course-based information on the transcript.”

The college classes that include a community service component engage as many as 1,000 or more students every semester. Most of the classes are carryover from previous semesters, although Hirt finds time to engage new professors and new programs for every semester.

The desire to do volunteer work is a human component that some people have in excess and others do not. As such, Hirt’s role at the CS-LC requires her to both push and pull students to do community engagement.

“The students who join the Scholars Program join because they have made a commitment to have community engagement be a part of their life,’’ she said. “There are other students who are in a service-learning course at the beginning of the semester and some of what we do is encouraging them to see the benefits of why they should want to do this.”

For more information about the University of Minnesota’s Community Service-Learning Center, visit its website or Facebook page.

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