Our Responsibility to Challenge Our Students' Hopes and Dreams During Service

The Good News: Our college students are volunteering at a truly astronomical rate. According to the latest figures released by Campus Compact, an average of 44 percent participated in some form of community engagement in the past recorded academic year, contributing an estimated (wait for it) $9.7 billion(!) in service to the communities in which they volunteered. Additionally, folks over at Alternative Spring Break estimate that over 100,000 students opted to trade in the March/April debauchery cliché for a week of volunteer service.

It could not be more inspiring to think about the scores of students who are throwing themselves into service anticipating, expecting, grasping, hoping and willing the world around them to change.

The Bad News: They have heroic expectations. All the research out there on our Millennials indicates not only a desire to change the world but an actual belief that it can be done. The ease of communication fostered by social media connects our students to issues to which their predecessors had not been so readily exposed. The new world activism punctuated by online petitions, donations-via-text and crowd-source funding provides our students with the tools to actually get involved and immersed in a way that carries both impact and self-recognition.

So why is this bad news? If all of this leads them to a service opportunity in which they believe they will change the world, why temper that? Why would we ever want to dampen that which drives them to make a difference?

I would argue we faculty and staff have a responsibility to temper, to dampen and, in some cases, even squash our students' expectations. We are missing a key teachable moment to connect our students' hopes with reality if we don't coordinate some tough love that questions whether they are really making a difference. And, further, it's important that we have this come-to-Jesus moment right smack in the middle of their service experience.

Those of us engaged in service learning work have embraced the idea of assessment in ways not previously seen in this field. Before the trips, we use all of those tools at our disposal to measure our students' bias and elicit their beliefs about what the service will prove to be. Then, after the trip, we all sit down to do some processing through informal dialogue, maybe a structured assessment and hopefully even a presentation to the campus community about the experience.

The problem is that the anticipation before the trips is often unrealistic and the processing after the trips is always too late. We have to get in there while it is all happening, as that's when we can help facilitate the most amount of meaning possible. It's not enough to support our students; we also have to provide that optimal dissonance to challenge them to yield the most rick experience possible (Sanford, 1966).

A few weeks back, I had the great opportunity to travel with 11 students to Kansas City, MO on an alternative break trip. Through some slight miscommunication about our projected role at the service site, we, as a group, believed that we would be working with pre-schoolers on issues of literacy.

Now, did any of our group flat out state, "There is a four-year-old out there who currently can't read but will be able to after our four days there?" No. Did some of our group think it really, really hard? Without question, yes. And there's no amount of challenging expectations before the trip that would have wholly grounded those unrealistic hopes.

The night before we were to start our service immersion, I asked six of the students to write out for me what they anticipated the following day coupled with how they were feeling about said prospects.

To the first part question, all of their answers orbited around the idea of becoming more comfortable with the site underscored by the certainty that they would be inspired. The feelings that the six then individually expressed?
  1. Excited!
  2. Most excited!
  3. So excited!
  4. Excited!
  5. Inspired!
  6. Overwhelmed... but definitely excited!

Then day one of service happened and it was, as so often happens, not at all what we anticipated. Not only did we not teach a four-year-old to read, but, heck, we weren't even really working on literacy issues for the week. Instead, we were holding babies, playing on the playground and re-laminating bulletin boards. All fulfilling work, but not even remotely what we had been expecting for the three months leading up to the trip.

That night, I sat with those same six students to ask them how they were now feeling. Their answers had changed drastically in less than 24 hours:
  1. Uncomfortable.
  2. Confused.
  3. Anxious.
  4. Out of my element.
  5. Hopeful, I think?
  6. I think I'm still excited?

These answers provided the springboard for us to process, to reconcile, to hope and to re-energize. It gave all of us (myself included!) the opportunity to find that ever-present space between expectation and reality to let it ground us for the remainder of the service. To be clear, this processing takes time out of the schedule of service, which I know we are not wont to do as each minute of immersion is precious.

But, ultimately, our students' ability to create meaningful and realistic change will be enhanced by that pause, that break in the action to question, "What the heck am I even doing? What difference can I make here? And how can I get the most out of that which I wasn't expecting?!?" I urge all of us to work hard to cultivate that pause in all of their volunteering experiences: not just before, not just after, but actually during. Trust me: It feels distinctly Scrooge-like to even momentarily call a time-out to our students' hopes and dreams. But, when we do provide this halt, their ability to transform into agents of change will be exponentially enhanced.

Sanford, N. (1966). Self and Society. New York: Atherton Press.