Creating Service-Learning Opportunities – Knowing Your Students

Colleges herald service-learning classes as a perfect tool to combine academic learning goals and community service to further both the growth of the student and the community. More specifically, administrations and civic engagement centers on the different campuses promote this form of education as an opportunity for students to learn about “real-world” issues and to get to know the community outside their campus; latter being especially important for predominantly residential colleges (see for example, Campus Compact, 2014).

Most common, service-learning classes are seen as opportunities for (upper) middle class White American students to learn about communities that are economically disfranchised and/or ethnoracial minorities. For example, when we first talked about the class in The New School Collaboratory, we were also confronted with questions how we would ensure that our students, assuming that they were predominately (upper) middle class White Americans, would be culturally prepared to enter the Mexican (American) immigrant community in the South Bronx they would be working with. Well, turns out that only one student in the class fit that description; all other students were either first or second-generation immigrants and/or ethnoracial minorities.


However, there are very little resources and almost no scholarly research on the impact of service learning on ethnoracial minority and/or immigrant students. This is problematic, since demographics in the U.S. are rapidly changing, and non-Hispanic White students will soon be the minority in grades K-12. At the college level, it will take much longer to see similar number. Nevertheless, educators need to prepare themselves for this. In the meantime, college professors should view service-learning also as an opportunity that could boost the self-esteem of ethnoracial minority students, particularly at predominantly White colleges. This is relevant since research has found that ethnoracial minority students frequently experience minority status stress that often has an impact on their overall wellbeing and academic success (Allen, Epps, & Haniff, 1991; Bennett, Cole, & Thompson, 2000; Jones, Castellanos, & Cole, 2002; McCabe, 2009; Smedley, Myers, & Harrell, 1993). Immigrant and/or ethnoracial minority students often report that they had felt out of place at institutions of higher learning, including the New School. Yet, we found that this was less the case for our immigrant and/or ethnoracial students at their service learning placement with second generation Mexican immigrant children. There, they were insiders who could make connections with the community members, because they shared common cultural knowledge and/or similar experiences due to their status as immigrants and/or people of color in the United States.

This is of course not to say that immigrant and/or ethnoracial students do not encounter any problems. For example, like almost all students they are timid and a bit scared when they first start going to their service-learning placement, which is understandable, since they are unfamiliar with the setting and expectations. This is one reason why service-learning placement need to be long term commitments—a minimum of one semester—so that college students can get truly “learn” and it is also beneficial for the partner organization.

Classes with a service learning component are also excellent ways to get students to become more actively involved with social justice issues. To do so, faculty should adopt a variety of different methods and approaches. For example, assign readings that then can stimulate critical and engaged classroom discussion that connect to real-life-issues. In an immigration-related class this can easily be done by asking students to create policy suggestions and support them with fact-based arguments. Here, the students then draw from the readings and from their volunteer work with immigrant children. Through this kind of engagement students know have a “face” to the often “faceless” immigrant population; in other words they have a personal connection because “the people and situations they were studying in their course readings were not hypothetical examples, but real people with whom they had developed personal relationships” (Rockquemore & Schaffer,  2000, p. 18). But to really make a larger impact faculty should then encourage (or require) students to take what they have learned in the classroom outside into “the real world” – for example, like we did (see Mentoring Through Making portfolio post 2).

Service learning opportunities can also provide a great opportunity to work with community partners, however, it must be done in the right way. Similarly, how it is important to train students how to respectfully engage with community partners and the people they meet there, faculty must be mindful of the community partners’ needs. For example, interviewing immigrant and refugee children may sound like a great idea for a class research project. However, this is not only invasive to these children but also to the organization that would have to organize such interviews and spend a lot of their time planning something like that. It is therefore better, to ask the partner organization what they need and then see how faculty can incorporate these needs into their syllabus and class assignments. In our case, MASA, our partner organization told us that they really needed tutors for their after school program. Therefore, we had our students volunteer once a week over the course of the semester. While the students did not interview the children, they learned through observation and the weekly interactions about the immigrant children’s lives. These observations–keeping in mind confidentiality rules, such as not revealing identifying information (e.g. names)–were an integral part in the class discussions and in the final paper in which students reflected on how immigration affects children.



Allen, W. R., Epps, E. G., & Haniff, N. Z. (Eds.). (1991). College in Black and White: African American Students in Predominantly White and in Historically Black Public Universities. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Bennett, C., Cole, D., & Thompson, J.-N. (2000). Preparing Teachers of Color at a Predominantly White University: A Case Study of Project TEAM. Teaching and Teacher Education, 16(4), 445–64.

Campus Compact. (2014). Three Decades of Institutionalizing Change (p. 9). Boston. Retrieved from

Jones, L., Castellanos, J., & Cole, D. (2002). Examining the Ethnic Minority Student Experience at Predominantly White Institutions: A Case Study. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 1(1), 19–39.

McCabe, J. (2009). Racial and Gender Microaggressions on a Predominantly-White Campus: Experiences of Black, Latina/o and White Undergraduates. Race, Gender & Class, 16(1/2), 133–151.

Rockquemore, K. A. H. S., & Schaffer, R. H. (2000). Toward a Theory of Engagement: A Cognitive Mapping of Service-Learning Experiences. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 7(1). Retrieved from

Smedley, B. D., Myers, H. F., & Harrell, S. P. (1993). Minority-Status Stresses and the College Adjustment of Ethnic Minority Freshmen. The Journal of Higher Education, 64(4), 434–452.


Recommended Resource:

Ludwig, B. (2016). From “Oh My Gosh I’m Going to Get Mugged” to “See [ing] Them as People Who Are Just Like Me”. In K. Gonzales & R. Frumkin (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Effective Communication in Culturally Diverse Classrooms (pp. 251-268). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.


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