The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Community As Agency: Community Partner Experiences With Service Learning

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Paula Gerstenblatt, PhD, Assistant Instructor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Diane Rhodes, MA, Student, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose: Service learning and its principals of study, reciprocity, and reflection has gained prominence in higher education as a signature pedagogy that places equal value on mutually beneficial outcomes for students and the communities with which students they partner with. The bulk of research on service leaning has focused on student outcomes, with little attention given to the communities they work with. To address this gap in the literature, a hermeneutic phenomenological approach was used to examine the experience of community members who worked with students on a variety of service learning projects in a rural community. The research question that guided the study was: What was the lived experience of community members working with university service learning classes?

Methods: This study utilizes interviews with community members (n=9) who partnered with university students from a network of courses on a variety of projects over a two-year period. Hermeneutic phenomenology was selected as a method of analysis to gain descriptions of the lived experience of the community members working with university students - a first time experience for the town. Phenomenology provides a rich and descriptive source of data and is well suited to better understand the meaning of the experiences of community members though their words and descriptions.

Results:  Five essential themes emerged from the interviews: (1) encouraging community involvement; (2) students as inspiration; (3) community learning; (4) community response to students; and (5) lasting imprint of students in the community. Findings suggest that communities partnering with service learning students receive a range of potential benefits including increased civic participation, the opportunity to gain knowledge, inspiration to try new things, an infusion of fresh ideas and energy, and experience a lasting positive effect beyond the students’ time in the community. While they recognized the drawbacks of forming attachments with students and the possibility that much needed programs may not continue, participants felt the work and presence of the students lived on in a positive way. For participants in this study the value of working with university students transcended a particular set of outcomes; rather they spoke of an imprint that could positively shape one life or even the direction of the town. This study suggests that community members felt engaged with the students and gained a sense of completion and an understanding of the fitness of the departure of students from the community. 

Conclusions and Implications: The results of this study suggest that the community gained direct benefits when students engaged informally with individual community members in addition to the formal institutional/agency based engagement. Those benefits included increased civic participation, gaining new knowledge and skills, inspiration to try new things, new ideas and energy, and recognizing a positive effect beyond the students’ time in the community. Recommendations for increasing the benefits of service learning community – university relationships include the intentional provision of opportunities for informal relationships between community members and students, as well as recognition of the meaning making of community partners as an important project resource.