Service Emphasis Provides Experience

September 29, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids Community College students are learning about how local government helps the community by reporting on the meetings of the municipalities and school boards.

“I didn’t see a lot of coverage of local government in the local media. I thought that there was a need here for the community to know more about what the local government was doing,” said Keith St. Clair, Grand RapidsCommunity College political science professor. “I decided to have my State and Local Politics class cover their local government.”

St. Clair said it was a way for the students to perform a service for the community, learn more about local government, and get better insight into the local media.

The students are responsible for an average of one story a month, which can be on any subject they learn about during the meetings they attend. St. Clair said the quality of work is determined by the effort the students put forth, and all entries are graded and posted on a Web site: www.grcc.edu/spl

“As long as it relates to the elected board they were assigned to cover, I was OK with it,” he said. “People in the community can click on the local government of their choice and a news story will pop up.”

The site is archived, and while some meetings may not be covered every semester because of the varied interests of the students, St. Clair said the Grand Rapids City Commission, Grand Rapids Public Schools Board and the Kent County Commission meetings are consistently covered.

“The downside is I don’t have enough students to cover all the local governments in West Michigan,” he said.

St. Clair said students have gained knowledge of local government and also have become more savvy about the media.

“I think they gain a whole new respect for newspapers and for reporters, and what reporters actually have to go through to get a story,” he said.

Now when students look at a local paper, they are also more critical of the articles they read and what questions are asked and answered, St. Clair said.

Students are encouraged to develop sources and let people know about the Web site.

“I’m hoping over time that people do check it out as an alternative news source,” he said.

The news site is only one example of students’ interaction with the local community that takes place at Grand RapidsCommunity College

Wayne Sneath, director of the AcademicServiceLearningCenter, facilitates course-based community service to help students gain experience while giving back to the community.

“We do work with an increasingly large group of faculty to help design classes that get students out doing experiential learning,” he said.

Sneath said the service learning helps to reinforce the students’ course content as well as helps some students who are more suited to experiential learning.

Though the center has existed since the early 1990s, Sneath said it has only recently worked to bring the service learning into the courses.

“It’s only been within the last five or six years that we’ve made a real concentrated effort on work with faculty and embedding these experiences into designated courses,” he said.

Students serve the community in projects from the news site in St. Clair’s class to volunteering in schools and working with Habitat for Humanity to build houses.

“We have, in total, 20 faculty offering about 20 different courses as diverse as child development, education, English, math, music and nursing,” Sneath said. “It’s integrating community service with academic instruction through structured reflection.”

There’s no substitute for experiential learning, agreed Roger Durham, chair of the Aquinas College Political Science department, and when that learning serves others, then so much the better.

“While there’s a significant amount of material you can cover in class, there’s no substitute for real world experience,” he said.

Internships are a way for students to gain that experience and get a chance to see what they could be doing with their careers — and sometimes to determine what they do not want to be doing, Durham said. Students can also gain contacts that may be useful when they start to search for a job following school.

But the students are not the only ones who gain.

“It does a tremendous amount for the community, as well. Basically, it provides bright young minds for relatively cheap labor,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of energy and excitement and new and bright ideas that members of agencies and campaign offices can use,” he said.

Durham said Aquinas’ commitment to service learning is apparent, as it is one of the only colleges in the country to have a degree in community leadership.

“Internships and this degree, as well, teach leadership skills, and more than that, it teaches the positive attributes of being a good leader,” he said.

Bruce Nanzer, assistant professor of political science and program director for the Community Leadership Program, said the major was designed for students who are interested in careers in public or government service or nonprofits. It was started by Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who left his position with the college last year.

“This is something for the student who isn’t interested in business,” Nanzer said. “There seems to be a strong emphasis right now in nonprofits.”

From the first introductory course, students are required to do service learning in nonprofits such as Arbor Circle Corp., GrandvilleAvenueAcademy for the Arts and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

“They give me some ideas about what their interests are, and I try to place them in their interests,” Nanzer said.

As the students continue their service learning, Nanzer said he hopes they find that it is important to be involved in their communities and understand the need for social engagement.

“We all have a social responsibility to be involved in our communities,” he said.

While some internships may be largely busy work, Nanzer said he looks for positions where the students will have a direct impact that they can see and experience.

“I don’t want them doing things like filing; I want them to actually have an impact on somebody,” he said. “Nonprofits all have a mission. The students should be placed in the mission rather than in the administration. Hopefully they’re going to help them reach that mission.”    

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