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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Student Attitudes and Spanish Community Service Learning

by Ann Abbott

While reading through my students' community participation self-evaluations last week, I was struck once again by how students can work with the same community partner and have totally different perceptions of what they did there.
One student wrote about all the different kinds of tasks she did, how she asked for more to do. She even earned the nickname of "The Special One" because the supervisors recognized how much she contributed to the organization during her CSL work. Furthermore, this student worked way more than the required 28 hours during the semester.
A different student who worked in *the exact same place* wrote that there wasn't much to do.
These two students worked in the same place, with the same supervisors, and with the same classroom support.

So what's the difference?

I don't know for sure, of course, but this is my intuition based on many years of experience:

Comfort with ambiguity.

In the classroom, students are used to being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and what will happen if they don't do it.

Some work contexts are like that.

Factories. Maybe.

Most work environments are dynamic. Rather than do what you are told, you need to observe, listen, notice patterns, anticipate needs, experiment.

Some students are uncomfortable with ambiguity. They ask their professors, "Will my grade be severely impacted if I don't complete this assignment?" "Will this be on the exam?" "How many words do I have to write?" They see individual course components instead of the learning opportunities. They see a swirl of activity around them in a community organization and say, "There wasn't much to do."

Assigning worth to non-traditional tasks. 

For some people, "work" has a specific look in their mind's eye. Work looks like someone typing on a computer. Getting things done with a client looks like work. Sitting around a conference table and being involved in decision-making. Giving a presentation with PowerPoint. Sitting at your own desk. Wearing a suit. Putting your own, individual creative talents into a project. 

What the first student probably did that the second student didn't do was this: perceive other activities as "work."
  • Building client relationships: answering phone calls, opening doors, exchanging pleasantries, chatting while they wait for their appointment. 
  • Building relationships among colleagues: learning from colleagues' story-telling, listening in on their appointments with clients, jumping in to pull the file that you overheard a colleague mention, asking them about their weekend activities. 
  • Doing jobs that are essential but don't engage your college-educated mind: filling up the paper in the photocopier because you noticed it was low, putting away the files that are stacked on the front desk because everyone is too busy to put them back in the cabinet, deciding to write down instructions for the next new employee for some process that you just had to learn on your own. Those things are work, too. 
The employers I know want people who understand that relationship building is essential to a business' success, who are self-starters, who are interested in the "whole company" and who aren't afraid to do some grunt work. 

That's the kind of CSL student our community partners want, too.

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