Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Community Service Learning Can Lead to Great Letters of Recomendation

by Ann Abbott

At the end of the semester, I always tell my students to ask me for a letter of recommendation whenever they need one. I think I ask a lot of my students, so then I always have a lot to say about them in a letter.

In fact, I just wrote a letter of recommendation for one of the "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" students from this spring who was invited to apply for a position working at the White House! (Good luck, Julio!) Because the course includes community service learning (CSL), in his letter I was able to give very specific information about the items I list below.

Here are some ways that CSL can result in a solid letter of recommendation for students, provided, of course, that they do good work in the course.

Small class size. In general, foreign language courses are small. And because of the extra administrative duties of a CSL course, most are also small in size. Our "Spanish in the Community" courses are capped at 20 students per section. I allow more students into "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" because they are already experienced with community service learning, and because I am teaching the course, not a TA. With classes that size, the instructor can get to know the students' strengths (and weaknesses!) very well. This leads to letters that are personalized and specific.

True sense of responsibility. It's one thing to note on a letter of recommendation that a student attended class regularly and handed in assignments on time. Yes, those are indicators of responsibility that a future employer would want to see. But the letter is so much stronger when you can say that the student managed to indepently find his/her way off campus and into the community, show up on time for his/her work with the partner organization, and perform in a professional manner while there.

Multicultural awareness. Cultures and subcultures are created around many different factors: ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic class, age, gender, etc. Spanish community service learning puts students in multilingual and multicultural environments and asks them to work productively and be sensitive to cultural factors which can sometimes be difficult to spot. Employers, too, want employees who can work effectively with people from different cultures and backgrounds. This isn't just to avoid conflict; the smartest companies know that diversity enriches their idea generation and deployment. If our students can explicitly demonstrate that they understand that and have actually done it in the community, employers should take notice of that.

Teamwork. Sometimes it seems as if "teamwork" is nothing more than a buzzword that instructors include in their syllabus. Sometimes they have students work on a team project but pay little or no attention to the process as well as the product. Sometimes the actual project's only value is for the professor to use it to assign a grade. But when you do a community-based project, the stakes are real. It's not just for a grade, because community members are counting on you. So when I sit down to write a letter of recommendation, I can give specific examples of how the student worked with team members, reported progress to me, handled obstacles/change in the project design, communicated with all stakeholders, and delivered the final product.

Writing. When reflection is effectively integrated into the CSL curriculum, students need to do a lot of writing. Although some in foreign language education would consider it sacrilege, I ask my students to write a few reflections in English. So in the end I have a very good sense of my students' writing ability--clarity, organization, relevance, argumentation, providing compelling evidence and then seeing the larger relevance of what they're writing about. Furthermore, since my students write reflective essays throughout the semester, I see how their writing improves. All employers need people who can write clear, engaging documents that have a professional tone. Even if an employer isn't looking for someone to write in Spanish, it's an added bonus and effective writing skills in Spanish are the same in English.

Work ethic. I teach social entrepreneurship, but not all students have an entrepreneurial mindset. Some students want very defined parameters for all course components and do excellent work within those clear rules. That kind of work/learning style is difficult to maintain in a CSL course, however it might be just what . Other students take an assignment and make it their own, showing creativity that still gets the job done. That's the kind of student that normally shines in a CSL course. When we put students into under-resourced not-for-profits serving under-resourced communities, that gives us a very clear understanding of how they react to ambiguity, lack of direct/constant supervision and the need to find creative solutions to complex problems. I can also spot a student's ability to take initiative. Some of my students work in offices where the workflow is unpredictable--sometimes overwhelming, sometimes there is no urgent task at hand. I can speak directly to that student's comfort level with being self-directed in their work and finding meaningful tasks during slow times.

Spanish fluency. Whereas many upper-level Spanish courses involve mostly question and answer sessions (in which the prof. often does most of the talking), a Spanish CSL course involves more talking both in the classroom and, of course, out of it. I can tell you how well my students speak Spanish, and my community partners alert me if anyone has sub-par language skills. Moreover, I know if my students can speak "live" Spanish, not the artificially-academic Spanish that is most often used in our classrooms. In my experience, employers want workers who can greet a client in Spanish and pick up the phone and call a business contact in Latin America. Just because they can discuss 19th-century Argentine poetry in a classroom doesn't mean they can handle professional Spanish with aplomb. CSL builds those skills.

I'm sure that readers can suggest other ways that CSL results in an exceptionally strong letter of recommendation. Leave a comment and let me know your ideas!

1 comment:

  1. Depends on the job, but experience working with children could be another one. The only way to really know the ways children act is to have different experiences with them... crazy, crazy, children :)