From Alternate Spring Break to Purposeful Service Learning

We are close to the season when spring break takes place across our college campuses. A survey done by an online travel service calculated that over 55% of students will travel for leisure during their weeklong break. However, an increasing number of students will elect to engage in volunteerism during this period. Frequently called "alternative spring break," these trips typically involve volunteer, community-based or global service projects. Websites that attempt to attract college students for these alternative spring break trips tout the benefits of this choice as a chance to give back, make a difference and gain cultural awareness in the process.

When alternate spring break trips take the form of service-learning projects, the potential benefits and outcomes change substantially. Distinct from one-time volunteer projects, service-learning is an experiential learning tool that has been shown to build civic engagement, stimulate cultural understanding and develop ethical awareness among college students. Service learning is not an interruption or "break" from the learning that takes place during the regular academic calendar. It is an extension that moves learning beyond the physical classroom to active learning within the external environment. Service learning can provide a meaningful context for theories, concepts and models taught in the classroom. It also shifts learning from a one-way dialog between student and instructor to an interactive endeavor in which students are not only learners but also change agents.

While it's easy to see the positive benefits of alternative spring break trips, the limitation is when these excursions are done in isolation of the broader learning that takes place in the classroom. Alternate travel experiences, in which students are dropped into poor or disadvantaged communities as a "break" from college and engage in one-time volunteer projects, may create a temporary feel-good experience, but often fall short of providing a lasting change in the communities they visit. If spring break is the only time that students are faced with the realities of their external world, then concepts such as ethics, social justice, equality, sustainability, civic engagement and corporate social responsibility may remain only abstract theories and concepts on the pages of their textbooks.

The most important distinction between volunteerism as a "break" from college and the integrated service-learning experiences is that the latter is reciprocal. Students are not merely exposed to people or communities that are disadvantaged and whom they in turn serve from their advantaged or privileged position. Meaningful service learning is about co-creating value by the student and the community or stakeholder, both as learners and contributors. The project is not merely about finding solutions but also about creating the opportunity for all parties to learn, benefit and transform. Meaningful service learning is not one-way. It is reciprocal. It creates new knowledge and new approaches that stimulate social innovation.

Although the idea of reciprocity is appealing, it can be challenging to achieve. Moving students' perspectives from benefactor to beneficiary often means pushing students outside their own comfort zones, cultural assumptions and embedded biases. It also challenges the faculty member to design and deliver service-learning experiences that may push his or her own pedagogical, cultural and unconscious biases. For faculty, it can also expose the limitations of our theories, models and paradigms in ways that force us to admit to students that we simply don't have all of the answers.

At Pitt Business, through the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership, we have used service learning within our curriculum for over 12 years as part of our effort to both develop and challenge notions of ethical leadership and corporate social responsibility. Our local and global service-learning projects deliberately ask students to embrace diversity as a tool for creating positive change. It also challenges them to see business not only as a means for increasing profit and adding value to shareholders, but also as a tool for driving social innovation. Service learning is not a break from education. It is an extension of the traditional classroom to a learning environment that provides evidence of what education, knowledge and effective collaboration can produce. The fruits of these efforts can be on display in just a week's time through a service-learning trip taking place over Spring Break.

Service-learning trips, even those that are just a week long, are a way to draw those connections and leave lasting impressions on both the student and the community.