Stanford University News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558


STANFORD - At Michigan State University, a sociology course called "Human Service in the Community" requires students to do three hours of volunteer work per week. Participants meet for group discussions and lectures on social issues and write reports based on their experiences.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, students are required to complete two public service assignments before graduation: a research paper exploring the links between technology and social issues, and an applied project. One student designed a computer keyboard for people with cerebral palsy.

At Stanford University, many freshman English students now have the option of writing articles, handbooks and grant proposals for community service organizations in lieu of traditional research papers. Instructors found that "student motivation increased substantially when they recognized their prose would be read by many people."

It is called service learning - an increasingly visible effort at U.S. colleges and universities to link study in the classroom with volunteer work in the community.

Student volunteerism has been on the rise in American higher education for a decade now, and dozens of colleges have established programs to nurture this interest. At Stanford alone, the percentage of students involved in public service activities has grown from 30 percent to 70 percent in the last five years.

Until recently, though, such efforts remained outside the academic departments. Some professors believed volunteerism was peripheral to academic work, while others were leery of promoting class projects that might have political overtones.

Things began to change in 1988, when Campus Compact - a coalition of 280 colleges headquartered at Brown University - commissioned a study to examine how faculty might play a stronger role in promoting civic responsibility.

Since then, the coalition has been working with schools across the country to promote service-related courses and activities. Participants range from such small institutions as Pennsylvania's Gettysburg College to such large ones as the University of Maryland.

Stanford University, long a leader in efforts to promote student volunteerism, has established a $20,000 annual curriculum development fund to help more faculty experiment with service learning in their courses.

According to Tim Stanton, acting director of Stanford's Haas Center for Public Service, the university is motivated by more than a desire to do good works.

"Issues that students are studying are alive out there in the community," said Stanton, who teaches his own service-learning course in Stanford's Public Policy Program. "Service illuminates the work that students are doing in the classroom, and the theoretical foundations they gain in the classroom illuminate their work in the community."

Service learning offers other benefits, too. Students working as a group for a class project, under the direction of a faculty member, often can do more for a community agency - writing a major report or conducting a survey, for example - than they could as individuals.

Study-service connections also reduce the fragmentation that many students feel between their academic and personal lives, and they provide valuable on-the-job experience for students going on to work or graduate study.

There are 36 courses at Stanford that enable students to combine service with classroom instruction. Some are small, such as Professor John Rickford's "Introduction to Sociolinguistics," while others, such as the Community Service Writing Project in freshman English, involve hundreds of students each year.

Stanford Professor Al Camarillo's history course on "Homelessness and Poverty in America" requires students to work in county homeless shelters during winter quarter, then do follow-up reading and writing on the subject in the spring.

Of the 15 students who took the course last year (40 tried to get in), more than one-third said it had a major impact on their lives and they were considering changes in their major or career direction.

Other service coursework is tied closely with area schools. In Professor Jeremy Cohen's Communication 1 class this fall, several Stanford students taught "media literacy" to elementary and secondary school students in Palo Alto, Calif. Using videotaped excerpts, the students led discussions about things like gender stereotyping and violence on television. Later, some of them helped the youngsters write and produce their own commercials.

Although the service was optional - students could have written a library research paper instead - Cohen was "pleasantly surprised" to find 216 of his 219 students choosing to do some kind of media-related volunteer work for the course, either at schools or in various community agencies.

"There really are advantages to involving students in experiential ways of knowing, as opposed to objective ways of knowing [from books]," Cohen said. "Retention goes way up when students actually do something.

"Every time you read about undergraduate education, it includes throwaway lines about teaching citizenship and obligation to community. I figured, if this can help with retention and teach those things, why not give it a try?"

Faculty members involved in service learning acknowledge that the courses take more time and effort than average. Although Stanford's Haas Center provides guidance in setting up the courses, teaching assistants are essential. Cohen relied heavily on his TA coordinator, Dennis Kinsey, to make contact with community agencies and schools in the summer before his course.

Students, too, may shy away from the courses for fear of the time demands, particularly if they have to go off campus to do their service.

Others complain that such basic courses as freshman English shouldn't be concerned with service at all, but should maintain their traditional focus on student writing through formal essays and literary analysis.

Freshman Matt Holloway, though, believes the benefits of service learning outweigh any disadvantages.

"Teaching younger kids helped me to clarify what I learned in class," said Holloway, whose Communication 1 assignment was to prepare a presentation on media stereotyping for a local high school, then write a follow-up analysis.

"I could have done a library research paper," he said, "but this made it a learning experience for me and for them."

-tmj/service credit tip-


This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.