When Morgan Tarter was an undergraduate in the bachelor of social work program, she wanted to work in the addiction and recovery field. But her career aspirations changed after she gained some “real world” experience through service learning.
Student Community Service
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The projects were coordinated with organizations in central Illinois by the Community Learning Lab (CLL), an initiative within the School of Social Work. CLL connects the knowledge building occurring in university classrooms with community organizations that can put it to work.
Tarter found one project especially rewarding – a needs assessment that she conducted for the pastoral care department at Carle Foundation Hospital in Champaign, which required surveying hospital personnel about the department’s activities.
After graduation from the master of social work program this spring, Tarter hopes to work in a hospital.
“You learn how to do things in classrooms, and that’s great, but when you actually put that learning into practice in a real setting, it’s a lot different,” said Tarter, a native of Hopedale, Illinois. “The projects are great stuff to put on a resume. And when you get out in the workforce, you can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve done that before.’ And after a project is done, you have that connection with somebody in the field.”
Many of CLL’s community partners are nonprofit agencies, which are often short on funds – and people. And while college students are itching to gain experience in their fields, they’re often unaware that community organizations are available to provide it.
“It’s similar to an internship, and you can earn course credit,” said Clair Brendel, who recently participated in a project with Illini Hillel/Cohen Center for Jewish Life. “It’s a good way to get experience if you don’t have the time or the qualifications to obtain it through a job.”
Brendel, a senior in social work from the tiny town of Greenville, Illinois, knew little about Jewish culture – and even less about grant writing – when she and a classmate began working at the center.
With guidance from the center’s executive director, Erez Cohen, the students wrote a successful grant application that brought in $1,000 to establish a student-led discussion course.
Social Work launched CLL as a pilot project in fall 2013 after faculty members requested help coordinating service-learning experiences for their students, said Sherrie Faulkner, field education director for the bachelor of social work program.
“The goal of CLL was to embrace the transformational learning process that academic units have been challenged to provide,” said Faulkner, who co-wrote a grant with assistant dean for advancement Alicia Beck and obtained funding from the Office of Public Engagement for the pilot. “These experiences also help students become more engaged citizens and more marketable upon graduation.”
During CLL’s inaugural semester, Faulkner sent out feelers to 40 organizations to gauge their interest and solicit project proposals. Was there a need in the community? The answer was a resounding “yes” from 30 organizations.
Since its inception, CLL has tripled its number of partners – to more than 120 – and reached out to faculty across campus to match partners’ needs with the learning objectives of courses in various disciplines.
Through these partnerships, Illinois students have engaged in more than 8,500 hours of meaningful service, broadening their understanding of course content while enriching agencies’ programs. They have recruited and screened volunteers, developed a cultural-diversity program and tutored in Spanish.
Thanks to students who worked with Circle of Friends Adult Day Care in Champaign, family members of some local residents with dementia can rest easier. The students obtained a $1,000 grant to provide medical identification bracelets that assist first responders in getting people home if they wander and become lost.
When staff at Champaign’s Franklin Middle School needed help raising money for school supplies, Tarter, then an undergraduate, was among the students who rolled up their sleeves and hosted several bake sales and a benefit concert.
“Fundraising is huge in social service agencies,” said Tarter, who is currently CLL’s student liaison. “It’s definitely an experience that’s going to be super-useful to me going into the field of social work.”
Last fall, when four organizations had people problems, students in business professor Eric Neuman’s human resource management class were eager to help. The course required students to team up with an organization – a CLL partner, business or student group – to analyze and propose solutions for a human resource problem.
The Multicultural Community Center in Rantoul needed help with a federal grant application, and students conducted a salary survey to help substantiate the center’s request for additional funding to increase the Head Start teachers’ pay.
Kayla Keehn, a senior majoring in business from Algonquin, Illinois, was on a team that worked with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, which wanted a second opinion on its recruiting strategy after its three-month search for a new dentist came up empty-handed.
“Public Health wanted candidates at the beginning of their careers who were looking to have a long, healthy relationship with the agency,” Neuman said. “The student team had to think about how the job market works for newly minted dentists, in terms of timing and relationships. When are dental students looking for jobs and how do they find out about them? The students learned it was a fairly tight window of time – in the spring just before graduation – and Public Health wasn’t looking during that time.”
To raise awareness about Public Health as a potential employer, the students recommended that staff do outreach to dental schools and utilize social media, Keehn said.
“It was really interesting to apply what we learned in class, work with Public Health staff members and see the passion they have for helping the less fortunate,” said Keehn, who plans to graduate in May.
From Neuman’s perspective, the four projects with the CLL partners were precisely the types of experiences he wanted for his class.
“The problems the students worked on were wonderful – they were real-world problems, and the feedback I got from students was very positive,” Neuman said. “They liked working with people in these agencies, trying to make a difference in the world and learning about things that go on in the community. It felt good being able to give back our time and the skills that we’re trying to develop here. I feel that’s what we should be doing.”