IN THIS ISSUE:
If you think Montana institutes of higher learning are disconnected from their surrounding communities, consider these facts:
While volunteerism has been supported by university and college administrations for many years, a relatively recent national initiative known as Campus Compact: The Project for Public and Community Service specifically supports the integration of public service and academic teaching and research as a way to educate socially responsible citizens and enhance the quality of life in local communities.
"It's more than public outreach," says Ryan Tolleson Knee, UM's Campus Compact director and adjunct professor of social work. "It's about building knowledge together with local communities" so that a faculty member's research benefits specific local needs.
Campus Compact "keeps the institution involved in what's going on in the community," says UM President George Dennison. "It allows us, through the faculty and students, to focus on the kinds of issues that make a difference in the community."
By participating in service learning, Dennison says, students obtain a deeper understanding of social issues by reflecting on their volunteer experiences in an academic setting; the University benefits from being an active player in community life; and society benefits "because, as a result of this experience, I think we have better citizens."
Hayes, whose mother teaches elementary school in Havre, had done volunteer work in the past, "but in a disjointed, in-and-out kind of way," he says. "It's better to have the time and place to think about the issues you're involved with, why you're doing it, what you're trying to achieve, and whether it's working or not."
Hayes feels strongly that his tutoring experience, though difficult at times, broadened his perspective.
"It changed me into an advocate for people with learning disabilities and showed me the need for volunteers in elementary schools in general," he says. "I did it to feel good, but it also helped me better identify with people in need. And from a practical point of view, if you can help a kid overcome a reading problem early, he will be that much better off later on." He adds that volunteering "broadens your experience and gives you more ways to connect with people."
Shawna Sutherland found the same thing to be true in her work at Opportunity Resources Inc., a multiservice agency for people with disabilities. A biology/pre-physical therapy major, Sutherland chose to do service learning as an independent study course her final semester.
Most of her time was spent working individually with clients who had received traumatic head injuries, helping with movement exercises or accompanying them on outings. The experience opened up "whole facets of the community you wouldn't normally be exposed to on a college campus," she says. "I really wish I'd thought about volunteering sooner."
In cooperation with the federal Corporation for National Service, the Montana Campus Compact supports two specific programs developed to engage more students in volunteerism. One is Montana Campus Corps, an affiliate of the AmeriCorps national service network. Its goal is to improve communities by addressing education, public safety, human service and environmental needs.
In 1998 Campus Compact added another AmeriCorps-funded component, the Montana Reads Program, a part of the America Reads Challenge. In this program, Montana Reads volunteers serve as tutors to local elementary schoolchildren to attain the national goal of having children read at grade level by the end of third grade. This year, the similarly targeted America Counts (to help improve schoolchildrens' math skills) program was added as well.
In recent years Campus Compact has provided financial and technical support to professors who wish to integrate public service into their teaching and research. Current faculty fellows at UM and other campuses are engaged in teaching through service learning in the areas of aging, sustainable agriculture, watershed protection, literacy, at-risk youth and child advocacy. (More information on Campus Compact initiatives can be found at http://www.umt.edu/mtcompact)
"Students often grumble in the beginning and feel that requiring them to 'volunteer' defeats the purpose," says Susan Anderson, a visiting instructor at UM's business school.
Students in her Business in Society course spend a minimum of 10 to 15 hours a semester working for community nonprofit organizations, where they can begin to apply some of their business skills and think critically about what is necessary to solve community problems.
"By the end they are very positive," she says. "They come to see volunteer work as valuable and giving them insight into social problems and solutions in the real world. You can talk about social issues like poverty and homelessness in the classroom, but that doesn't give students a true understanding of what the needs really are. Service learning increases their compassion and investment in the community."