OPINION: More students should get involved in service-based courses

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This article was reposted from The Technician Online,  originally published on April 18, 2022.

When I reflect on my past two years at NC State, I can confidently say my most valuable experiences weren’t from classrooms or lectures, but from the time I spent serving and engaging with the community around me. Many students are unaware of the plethora of service-based courses offered by the University. I believe such courses provide students with the experience needed to not only serve their surrounding communities, but also allow them to develop a broader understanding and empathy for others. These service-based courses are essential to developing empathetic and well-rounded individuals. 

NC State was created under the Morrill Act, which established it as a “Land Grant” institution. It’s in the nature of our University to serve its surrounding communities and encourage its students to become service-minded citizens, making it essential for NC State to encourage such service-based courses. 

Last fall, I took my first service-based course. This course was provided through the Caldwell Fellows’ sophomore seminar course, where students served in one of six service-learning teams. My team was the Habitat for Humanity team — we spent the semester mapping areas of Wake County that were at risk of gentrification. 

Not only did I learn how to work with an entire set of tools, but I learned about how deeply gentrified surrounding Raleigh communities are becoming. Using our work, Habitat for Humanity of Wake County presented at-risk areas to legislators and lawmakers. I gained a deeper understanding of Raleigh and I was able to aid members of my community who needed help. This experience taught me more through just one semester than the collective of other courses I’ve taken.

Stacy Bluth, the “Collaboratory” program manager for the University’s Office of Outreach & Engagement, has recently begun working on a project to promote service-engaged courses throughout campus. Bluth spoke to the importance these courses hold in a student’s personal and professional development. 

“These courses help students learn how to listen and empathize with people,” Bluth said. “Students learn skills essential to participating in a democracy.”

The skills students acquire from direct service and community engagement are unparalleled. Engaging with people who come from different backgrounds allows for students to gain a sense of understanding that can’t be found through a textbook. 

“As a university, we have a responsibility not just to the community but also to prepare students to be helpful, thoughtful and productive members of society,” Bluth said.  “It crosses disciplines and careers — this is something that everybody needs to know how to do.”

Community-based learning allows for students to combine all the various disciplines of study that are covered through a college education. This allows us to apply skills we may not practice on a daily basis while also addressing practical and important issues within our community. These courses span various disciplines taught throughout NC State. According to Bluth, some of these courses cover disciplines like ecology, public administration, geospatial and informational science, and much more. 

While it’s encouraging to know these courses cover a plethora of areas, my concerns while interviewing Bluth lie within the fact that the University hasn’t done the best job of promoting them. When asked about ways for students to access such courses, Bluth had a positive response. 

“Many students don’t have time outside of their classes to devote to community engagement — sometimes students think these are more work, cost money [through transportation costs], or are concerned about finding ways to get to and from required locations for such courses,” Bluth said. “Our job as a University is to help people understand what exactly these courses offer and address any barriers that many professors have already found solutions to.”

Bluth has recently taken on the initiative of creating a database that allows students to use a search feature to identify service-based courses that apply directly to their disciplines. While the database, “Collaboratory,” isn’t available to students just yet, the Office of Outreach & Engagement has begun the work of identifying these courses and speaking to their professors about accessibility to students. Once completed, this tool can be utilized by advisors, professors and staff to encourage students to engage in classroom-based community service. 

Service and community engagement is more than just a resume booster for college students, it’s an essential aspect of our development as well-rounded individuals. They allow for students to gain a better sense of community and set up a future where individuals are more likely to address important societal issues. NC State has a responsibility as a land-grant institution to encourage community engagement and service — such engaged courses are a great way to encourage student involvement in the community. 

With tools like “Collaboratory,” and staff like Stacy Bluth, we as a University can move towards more deeply emphasizing service and community.

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