Abstract: College Student Community Engagement during the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interpretative Content Analysis (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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College Student Community Engagement during the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interpretative Content Analysis

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Hospitality 1 - Room 443, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Hyesu Yeo, MA, Ph.D. Student and Research Assistant, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
Oluwayomi Paseda, MSW, Research Assistant/PhD Student, Univeristy of Georgia, Athens, GA
Claudia Miklosik, BA, Graduate student, University of Georgia, GA
Orion Mowbray, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
Background and Purpose: College students enrolled in service-learning courses that require first-hand observation often face barriers to meeting performance expectations throughout the volunteering experience. In addition, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, community service agencies have a higher need for student volunteers to respond to hardships that have been exacerbated. This study investigates college student experiences of community engagement in social service agencies through a service-learning course during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Methods: Student presentations and reflection papers from an undergraduate service-learning course offered through a school of social work in the 2021 Spring semester were examined for themes associated with community engagement. Seventeen students agreed to have their course materials included in the study. An interpretative content analysis strategy was performed by using NVivo. Student perceptions of community engagement were divided into direct and indirect COVID impacts. Indirect COVID impact was characterized by three themes: Learning (sub-attributes: learning something new and application of knowledge), Personal development (career, networking, self-satisfaction, and self-observation), and Civic responsibility (altruistic value, organization’s ethics and mission, and social issues). Direct COVID impact included the sentences when the students mentioned ‘covid.’

Results: Content associated with direct COVID impact showed that service-learning during the pandemic resulted in both positive and negative outcomes. The negative outcomes included limited in-person interaction, rapid agency adaptation, more challenges for their clients, increased remote activities, and following required health guidelines. However, students also reported positive outcomes, including finding positive aspects of their experiences despite their predicament, increased compassion, motivation for more volunteer opportunities to perform better their help after the COVID pandemic, learning new skills, and more opportunities as a result of agency adaption to the national crisis. Among the indirect COVID impact theme, the most frequently mentioned topic was learning something new (e.g., communication skills, professional knowledge), followed by increased self-satisfaction (e.g., perceiving the activity as a rewarding and fulfilling experience, having clients’ positive reaction during the activity) and improved self-observation (e.g., increase in gratitude for their life, agency, and community, recognition of their passion for career and their impact on the community).

Conclusions and Implications: Students expressed both negative and positive experiences while volunteering with service agencies during a time of global crisis. While students voiced frustration with the pandemic hindering their learning experiences, many discovered self-growth and new skills during this unprecedented time. Especially, the indirect COVID impact was related to more positive outcomes as the students recognized their knowledge growth, their influence on the community, and personal transformations. Social work educators should develop curriculums that take into consideration student reports of difficulties during challenging periods, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure that students are obtaining a meaningful, positive learning experience that promotes a safe and productive learning experience while engaged in service-learning courses.