At your service
The myth of the university as an ivory-tower island of academic disciplines has never been accurate. But whatever vestiges remain of the stereotype are likely to disappear as legions of students and faculty participate in service education programs oriented toward civic responsibility through community engagement.
At the Arlington Night Shelter, UTA social work student Pam Beightal writes a funding proposal for a much-needed van. Other students write proposals for mental health medication and a clothing closet for homeless women.
Nursing junior Kaci Hickox volunteers for after-school programs for elementary students and spends long hours as a conversational partner for people learning to speak English.
An entire urban studies class collaborates with the city of Palestine, Texas, developing a community action plan that incorporates extensive cooperation among the city's racial groups.
Business senior Troy Poole volunteers as part of a construction team helping to build a small native American church in New Mexico.
Students have always been involved in volunteer activities, of course. Last year, UTA student organizations devoted more than 8,000 volunteer hours. But the formal opening of the Center for Community Service Learning this September should dramatically enhance opportunities for public service learning as a component of classroom instruction.
Mary Ridgway, former vice president for undergraduate academic and student affairs, will direct the center, which will coordinate efforts to create more for-credit classes that include a service learning opportunity.
"Higher education not only has responsibility for educating people but educating people who are going to be engaged in their communities," she said.
Dr. Ridgway likes to talk about "social capital," defined as the cumulative effect of individual altruism toward the betterment of society-or more simply a manifestation of "I am my brother's keeper," which is a component of virtually every ethical belief doctrine.
"I think we're all aware of where so many dollars are going today," Dr. Ridgway said. "When you lose community involvement, the personal investment in social capital results in a correlative increase in things like teen pregnancy and poverty.
"For example, the Arlington Night Shelter finds it challenging to break the cycle of homeless-ness when a great many of the people who come in have emotional and substance abuse problems. We're seeing that it's not such a simple world we live in. Trying to live in an isolated world where we take no responsibility for any of it is a scary thought."
So how does service learning work?
"Service learning is really integrating active community service into academic courses-real experiential learning, tying in to what is happening in the real world or in some of our communities," she said. "It is different from just going out and doing volunteer work because it's integrated into course work."
An accounting class might do a business plan for a not-for-profit. A graduate social work class might write grant applications for a social service agency.
"What we're seeing is that employers want people who can communicate and work in teams and who are also complex problem-solvers," Dr. Ridgway adds. "Those are the same competencies developed by students engaged in community service learning and are the skills needed to solve complex social problems."
President Robert E. Witt hopes that service learning will become a "defining characteristic" of the University.
"A university should not be an ivory tower," he said. "A university is part of society, influencing and being influenced by social issues of the day. Service learning can be one of UTA's most important channels for societal interaction."