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Volunteer Work

Volunteer work offers an opportunity for individuals and communities to engage in activities that affect the common good of society. For young people, volunteer work provides a way to gain a variety of useful skills, to understand the community in which they live, and to enhance community life. The community, in turn, fosters the development of a citizenry that is involved in creating a better democracy.

There is an increasing emphasis in schools on the development of character in students, through the study of community issues, actions to address these issues, and reflection on the experience. Many schools are moving students from volunteerism to service-learning initiatives within the curriculum so that students at all levels can develop cooperation, empathy, citizenship, and self-esteem. For example, the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 mandates graduation requirements that emphasize application and integration of community-service work and learning.

Elementary and secondary schools have devised a variety of ways to integrate volunteerism into their schools and community. In some cases, students are left to their own motivations to engage in service to the community through acts of volunteerism. These volunteer experiences can take the form of a onetime involvement in a community agency or event, or can result in a sustained relationship over a period of time with a particular service organization in the community.

Many schools have moved from an emphasis on volunteerism to an involvement by students that connect their service with the curriculum. For example, one elementary school focuses on service to the elderly. As part of the history curriculum, a history of the community was produced after students interviewed older citizens and created a collection of their stories. In art classes, the students produced artwork as gifts for senior members of the community. In math, students helped older adults with grocery shopping, and older adults were able to help students with math problems that arose regarding product pricing.

Some schools have made service a requirement for graduation, though there is debate regarding the merits of requiring service of all students. Some believe that schools should encourage service, but not make it a requirement and that required service is a contradiction in terms. Others argue that service is a responsibility, a debt due to society, and that it is every citizen's civic duty to contribute to the community. Volunteer service requirements vary from having students enroll in a service class in addition to spending a certain amount of hours in a service activity, while other schools require only the service commitment.

Another approach to engage students in volunteer activities is for the school and an organization to partner in a common initiative. Community organizations that have an investment in fostering a service ethic among a new generation of citizens should be sought out by schools for a partnership.

Engaging students with underserved populations and diverse populations in a community usually builds bridges that link the students with individuals and initiatives with whom they might otherwise never have the opportunity to develop and nurture relationships of understanding and reciprocity. Experiences of this nature enable students to ascertain community assets and needs and gain perspective on how to cooperatively develop community-building initiatives. It can also help students understand issues of social injustice and move them toward moral deliberation and critical thinking about societal issues.

Another option schools have implemented is in-school service. Many programs look within the school community for service activities. Cross-age tutoring, school improvement projects, and mentoring are examples of beneficial student service activities.

Institutions of higher education look to create an "engaged campus," where boundaries are blurred between campus and community, and between knowledge and practice. A campus that is engaged with the surrounding community is not just located in a community, but is connected in an intimate way to the public purposes and aspirations of community life itself.

Many campuses also distinguish between acts of volunteerism and academic service-learning experiences. Offices of volunteer activities on college campuses work with community partners to enlist students to provide much needed hands-on aid to the community. These experiences are authorized and supported by the institution in order to contribute to an organized, efficient, effective, and sustainable effort with students and the community. Many of the social organizations on college campuses include volunteerism as a part of their mission of service. In addition, many students act out of their own intrinsic motivation and sense of civic responsibility to become active volunteers in their community.

While volunteerism is supported and promoted in the student affairs divisions of colleges and universities, academic service-learning is being strongly integrated into the curricular offerings of institutions of higher education. Service-learning usually has a two-fold goal: (1) meeting community needs and providing meaningful learning experiences for the students; and (2) enlivening the public service mission of the institution while becoming engaged in the life of the local community.

Volunteerism does not necessarily produce the same outcomes as a service-learning component in the curriculum. When service learning is integrated into the curriculum, it is desired that students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service in the community, and that this service meets the needs of the community, is coordinated with school and community activities, helps foster civic responsibility, is integrated into the academic curriculum or educational components of community service programs, and provides structured time for students to reflect on the service experience.

Volunteerism and academic service learning are considered important components in the educational process for building a stronger democracy. Emphasis on curricular and extracurricular means of moving students toward civic engagement has become a focal point of teaching and learning in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary educational institutions.


Community Service/Service Learning: An Implementor's Guide and Resource Manual. 1996. ERIC Document ED 399239.

DUCKENFIELD, MARTY, and WRIGHT JAN, eds. 1995. Pocket Guide to Service Learning. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center.

FELTMAN, CARL I. 1994. Service Learning for All Students. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

GUGERTY, CATHERINE R., and SWEZEY, ERIN D. 1996. "Developing Campus-Community Relationships." In Service Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices, ed. Barbara Jacoby. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

HOLLANDER, ELIZABETH. 1998. "Picturing the Engaged Campus." In Service Matters, ed. Michael Rothman. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.



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