Learning by Serving

February 4, 2015 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Matt Rohde spent part of January in San Miguel, El Salvador, as leader of a group of 12 Elmhurst students helping the service organization Habitat for Humanity build homes for families in need.

Rohde, a senior economics and management major, did all the sawing and hammering and painting typical of such projects. But the most challenging part of his job may have come after the day’s manual labor was complete and the tools had been put away. In the evenings, he led discussions in which students reflected on the work they had done that day. For Rohde, that reflection was as important as the work itself.

“You hope some kind of light bulb goes off for people,” Rohde said of the discussion sessions. “You ask questions about why we do service, and what responsibilities each of us have. Doing this work helped me understand that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the building of society.”

Nearly 400 students participate in service-learning projects at Elmhurst College each year. They tutor grade-school students, work with children with special needs, serve homeless people in shelters, and work in orphanages and hospitals, among many other types of projects. They  serve not only in Chicago and the suburbs, but in distant locations such as South Africa,  Jamaica and Bolivia. The experiences are diverse, but they share a common goal: that by  serving others, students will come to understand more about themselves and their world.

“Reflection is key to the experience,“ said Mick Savage, director of Elmhurst College’s Service-Learning Program. However valuable the work itself is, he said, its ultimate importance lies in the questions it provokes in the students. Why, they ask, is there a need for this kind of service in the first place? What are the underlying inequities that create need—and what can be done about them? “It’s not just going and doing something that will make you feel good; it’s also talking and writing about the experience and reflecting on what it means to you and to others.”

Elmhurst’s Service-Learning Program is entering its 20th year. Savage says that from the  beginning, the program was driven by students interested in serving others. “Service-learning was initiated by students and faculty, it was not something forced on them,” he said. “It has always been about their desire to give back to the community.”

Some service projects have become well-known campus fixtures. For nearly two decades, Professor Judy Grimes of Elmhurst’s music department has been taking groups of Elmhurst students to Jamaica every January to work in classrooms in the financially challenged schools around Montego Bay. They collaborate with Jamaican teachers, tutor students, and donate musical instruments and school supplies that have helped launch and sustain music programs there. Grimes says that her students do more learning than teaching during their stay in Jamaica.

“This is really an international exchange, both culturally and academically,” she said. “We work side by side with wonderful Jamaican teachers. My number one goal is that the students develop a respect for the dignity of another culture and not just think that Americans have all the answers.”

A similar service-learning course in Cape Town, South Africa, provides students with opportunities to work in orphanages and teach in the first post-apartheid kindergarten. That course is led by Dr. Therese Wehman and Dr. Nancy Lee.

In 2011, Elmhurst received an Open Arms Volunteer Service Award from Exodus World Service, a nonprofit group that serves refugee families. The award recognized Elmhurst students’ work in serving 56 refugee families from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Russia and Somalia over a five-year period. Students greet families upon their arrival in their new homes, present them with essential household goods, and offer practical assistance in setting up house. In the process, students gain insights into how conflict and political unrest can impact ordinary families.

“Service-learning really reflects the core values of the College,” said Savage. “Part of our mission at Elmhurst is to develop responsible citizens, and service-learning activities can be life-changing experiences for some students.”

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