Volunteer work gives some students a richer college experience

UW senior Tammi Canter dishes out food for the homeless and elderly at the Pike Market Senior Center as part of her world hunger geography course.

Last fall, UW senior Tammi Canter left a campus full of the promise of youth for low-income and homeless senior citizens seeking shelter in the Pike Market Senior Center.

Canter admits she had second thoughts about volunteering at the center, which provides a safe place for the elderly to gather during the day. “I was a little nervous initially, because it was all homeless men and I worried about how they might treat me. By my second week there, I felt more at ease. The men kept thanking me just for bringing them coffee.”

As the weather changed, however, the temperament of some of the men changed.

They’d find that they arrived too late for coffee, and they’d curse at Canter. “People get real moody with cold weather,” she notes.

When she was at the market, Canter was also still in class. Enrolled in a world hunger geography course, she volunteered at the center instead of writing a research paper. More and more UW students are taking advantage of this option, combining public service with college work in what the UW calls “service learning.”

A senior majoring in communications, Canter enrolled in the class to fulfill a social sciences requirement. She had never heard of service learning before. “I had looked into volunteering on my own, but hadn’t yet found anything.”

It was an experience that changed her outlook forever. “I think twice about passing someone begging on the street who needs money to buy food. I may not give the person money, but I will go and buy them a sandwich. Some of my friends think that’s strange.

“I also began to realize some of the systems we’ve set up to deal with problems are backwards. For example, Wednesday is ‘commodity day’ for distribution of federally provided goods at the downtown food bank. But people must have a zip code in order to get food. The people who need it most can’t get it.”

Canter, who had planned to look for a job in editorial journalism, is now thinking more seriously about teaching. “I want to help people much more directly than I could in journalism or public relations,” she says.

Her story could be an emblem for an era. While some have called the 1980s the Decade of Greed, the 1990s may well become known as the Decade of the Volunteer.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the nation’s college campuses. President Clinton’s National and Community Service Act of 1993 will create 20,000 full-time service positions for young people by 1995, for which they will receive minimum wage and $4,725 in education credit for each year of service. In addition, the act provides $11 million targeted specifically for higher education innovations in community service.

Independent of the federal initiative, colleges and universities have created networks between community needs and education. Washington State Campus Compact, a two-year-old coalition of this state’s colleges and universities, encourages opportunities for students to participate in public service.

All this effort is not meant simply to provide more bodies for social service agencies. Educators say volunteer service hones such important skills as critical thinking. It also encourages citizenship, a goal that has been traditionally associated with a liberal education.

Opportunities for student volunteers are proliferating at the UW, thanks to the Edward E. Carlson Leadership and Public Service Office. It is named for one of Seattle’s most renowned civic leaders who, with his wife, Nell, provided the initial $100,000 gift. The idea behind the office is “to promote and support a life­long commitment to public service.” It has pioneered service learning, where selected classes offer the option of volunteer work related to the classroom.

“Community service will be peripheral unless it is tied to the curriculum,” says Louis Fox, director of undergraduate academic services and one of the moving forces on campus in creating service learning options.

In 1992, when the Carlson office staff began their efforts, they had little idea what to expect in the way of faculty or student interest. In its first year, service learning was offered in 36 classes; a total of 869 students volunteered more than 16,000 hours in 20 schools and 75 community agencies.

The student interest in volunteer service is immense, Fox says. “In the last couple of years, I’ve sensed a change in students’ attitudes. They want to become engaged in the community. They are more aware of their responsibilities, as well as their rights.”

Persuading faculty to offer a service learning option hasn’t been difficult, either. Just by word of mouth, the Carlson office has received a steady flow of faculty, chiefly from the social science departments, but also from philosophy, mathematics and English.

Student volunteer opportunities must match course content. For her course in WorId Hunger and Resource Development, Geography Professor Lucy Jarosz offers the option of three hours a week in a food bank, an emergency shelter for women, a downtown senior center, a chore service program, or a feeding program for homeless young people in the “U” District. In her class of 53 last autumn, about 60 percent chose the service learning option.

In their final class meeting, one student commented, “The more I learn, the more confused I become. Through our readings and my volunteer experience I learned how involvement in trying to solve these problems can be a tricky issue.”

Exploding the myth of simple answers to complex problems is one aim of service learning. “My goal is to teach critical thinking,” says Jarosz. “The integration of volunteer work and academic course work allows students to gain a more personal understanding of the material presented in class. I have found that service learning is a very effective strategy for engaging students and sparking their curiosity and enthusiasm.”

Jarosz believes that service learning should be an option, not a requirement. The University has a responsibility to the agencies involved. It must supply them with willing volunteers, she says. Also, service learning may not fit the needs of every student. “Not everyone is going to learn a lot by doing community service, just as not everyone is going to benefit from doing a research paper.”

Few students choose service learning because it’s an easier option—and those that do are quickly disabused of that notion. In the typical service learning class, students may be asked to keep a diary, make a class presentation, and also write a paper about the experience. This is in contrast to the “normal” track, which requires simply a research paper.

“Service learning is not a ‘soft’ option,” says Geography Professor Vicky Lawson. Lawson uses service learning in her Latin American geography course. Volunteer options include teaching English as a second language, helping to provide services for farm workers in eastern Washington, working in a childcare program in a homeless shelter, and working with an immigrants’ rights project.

“A lot of the lessons I’m interested in teaching can’t be taught just in the classroom,” she says. For in­stance, students working on immigrants’ rights found themselves working with newly arrived professionals—doctors and lawyers.

“The students confront their negative stereotypes with positive, real experiences. One student had grown up on an avocado farm in southern California. His parents, who owned the farm, had told him as a child to stay away from the workers, tacitly suggesting that they were somehow inferior. I invited farm workers to class. It was an eye-opening experience for him to see these workers close up and to see them treated with respect.”

Through service learning, Lawson says, students come to realize the connections among the peoples of the Americas. They learn that undocumented workers play a pivotal role in portions of the U.S. economy, and that poverty is a regional problem, with common processes at work creating it here and elsewhere in the hemisphere.

Lawson stresses that community service is not “do-goodism.” She contends students take away more in their three hours a week than they give in service to the agency. And agency personnel recognize that the extra “help” they are getting means assuming some additional responsibilities.

“Service learning is much more than just having the University make extra bodies available,” says Michal Nortness, manager for volunteer administration at Catholic Community Services. “Having been a student as an adult, I’m aware of the importance of experiential learning. I see ‘adjunct’ instructors like myself as an additional resource for the regular faculty.”

Some students are so inspired by their volunteer experience that they continue volunteering long after their class has ended. Elisabeth Burmeister, a junior majoring in French who took Jarosz’s world hunger class last year, extended her work in a shelter for homeless women for several months. She grew up in Africa, in the Ivory Coast. “I grew up seeing poverty, seeing people who couldn’t meet their basic needs. I wanted to understand better why we have poverty and hunger, and I wanted to get involved personally. I wanted to do something practical and not just theorize.”

Service learning can bring to the fore crucial questions for students about to embark on a career. Britt Hiatt, a senior majoring in urban and social geography, had such an experience in her first visit to the women’s shelter called Noel House. “One woman there asked me what I planned to do when I graduated. I told her I was interested in community planning and development. Her response was, ‘So you’ll be the one to take our houses away.’ I had to think about what my future profession means, not just for my social class but for the broader society. I know now I won’t just be able to do my job and go home. I’ll have to think more about the effect of what I do.

“I realize that for me it will be important to integrate economic and ethical fulfillment. What I do is important—not just as a job, but so that I can make a difference. And it’s necessary that I put myself in a position to make a difference. Being morally responsible at work is necessary for my career.”

Hiatt says her service learning experience has helped her develop her own set of morals and ethics. The class has not taught her how to decide these issues—”I don’t feel that the class has given me answers”—but it has provided her with better information upon which to base her judgment.

Hiatt’s experiences in service learning surely would have made Edward E. “Eddie” Carlson pleased. “His heart was woven into this community,” says Jane Williams, his daughter. “He’s associated with some very visible projects (such as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair), but most people don’t know of all the little things he did to help people who came to him.”

Carlson is credited with turning around a faltering hotel chain (now Westin) as well as rescuing United Airlines from a sea of red ink.

For such achievements, Carlson was named to the U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1986. He was named UW Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, the highest award given to an alumnus, in 1970—despite having attended the University only into his junior year, when he had to drop out because of financial pressures. He served as a UW regent from 1982 to 1989 and died in 1990.

“Dad would be so pleased with the kind of catalyst his gift has become in a short period of time,” Williams says. “I’d like to think that the naming of this office after a person, after Dad, has given it a human element.”

The human element in her education has helped Hiatt reach this view of her future: “What I do for me is important, but what I do for others is also important and defines who I am.”

Youth meets experience in unique volunteer group

While there are hundreds of ways UW students can volunteer for public service, only one organization combines the energy of students with the wisdom of UW alumni—the Student Alumni Connection (SAC).

Drawing from residence halls, the Greek system and those commuting to campus, SAC puts student power into alumni and community service.

“We help the campus and the community and at the same time get experience in volunteering,” explains SAC President Megan Satrom.

Every spring they devote one Saturday to repairing the homes of low-income or elderly Seattle residents as part of the nationwide Christmas in April program. Last year SAC had more than 80 student, alumni and UW staff volunteers who helped clean up and paint two homes. They hope to have even more volunteers this spring, when the cleanup is held April 30, says Satrom.

The SAC students also give their time freely to alumni events, such as the Dawg Dash fun run, Home­coming tours of campus and the spring Hall of Fame banquet. The students seem to thrive on contact with UW graduates, Satrom says. “We like to hear the stories they have to tell. You can learn a lot from them.”

One of SAC’s most successful efforts brings six students and one professor together for dinner at the home of an alumnus. Called “Dinner for Six,” the night breaks down the barriers between students and faculty, making a sometimes cold University a friendlier place to learn.

Satrom and five other SAC members spent an evening last year with International Studies Professor Joel Migdal, an authority on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a winner of the 1993 Distinguished Teaching Award. “It was an amazing experience,” says Satrom. “You get to see another side of a professor.”

SAC is always looking for new student members and for alumni who would like to help in their activities, such as Christmas in April or Dinner for Six. For more information, call Kay Larson at the UW Alumni Association, (206) 543-0540 or 1-800-AUW-ALUM.—Tom Griffin