Engaging Community Projects From a Safe Distance

Student holds up notepad to ask questions over podcast microphone

We all know that community-based learning, including service-learning, is a high impact practice and effectively engages students by connecting them to both their course content and their community. Planning and executing community-based projects during a normal semester is a daunting task, with many obstacles facing students, including time constraints and lack of transportation. With COVID restrictions, it seemed almost impossible. However, we were determined to devise a project to give our first-year students a meaningful, socially-distanced learning experience. Here are the steps we used to plan a high-impact service-learning experience for our students.

  1. Use your current content. There’s no need to start from scratch when you can use content you already have. Our freshmen engage in a common read each fall. We used that as our starting point. This year, we read That’s That, a book about growing up in Northern Ireland in the midst of religious discrimination and violence. Although this is in no way similar to our community, we knew we could pick out some common themes. This would allow students to make a connection between course content and their community.
  2. Select themes. Once we had our content, we selected themes that we knew connected our community to the book. We chose discrimination, addiction, identity, and conflict. First, we had students pick out examples of each theme in the book and think about how those same themes were relevant to their community. Then, working in groups, we had students choose one theme and create a research question reflecting what they wanted to learn about it.
  3. Determine a platform. After carefully considering pandemic safety protocols, we decided to have students interview community members based on their thematic, research question topics. This became the basis of our community engagement. Using StoryCorps, a podcast platform that archives community stories, students were able to remotely record community members telling their stories about identity, addiction, conflict, or discrimination. This became a powerful learning tool for students. Through stories, students were able to more deeply connect with content while, at the same time, discover a sense of empathy for their interviewees. In some cases, the stories impressed upon students the need for social change.

The project consisted of several parts, culminating in a final presentation. Each group created a research question around the chosen theme. Once they knew what they wanted to learn about, they conducted the research. Students located scholarly sources from our library databases and wrote annotated bibliographies. The service-learning project doubled as primary research. Students interviewed a member of the community who had a story to tell about the students’ chosen theme. In some cases, the students knew of someone they wanted to interview; other times, the instructor provided contact information for potential interviewees. The platform we used, StoryCorp, is unique in that it serves as an archive for stories, helping build a shared history, understanding, and acceptance in communities. Once students gathered their secondary sources, and conducted their interviews, they presented their findings to the class.  After their final presentations, we surveyed our students about their service-learning experience with StoryCorp. We found the project positively impacted students in several key areas.

StatementStrongly Agree or Agree
I learned a lesson from the story I recorded.91%
I have more empathy towards others after hearing the story I recorded.81%
I have a greater understanding of others’ viewpoints after hearing the story I recorded.88%
The story I recorded changed the way I think about the topic (discrimination, addiction, conflict or identity).67%
I believe stories can cause social change.86%
Service-learning is a valuable academic experience.84%
StatementIncreased greatly or increased moderately
As a result of participating in this service-learning experience, my understanding of social responsibility…84%
As a result of participating in this service-learning experience, the value I place on social responsibility…86%

As instructors, we learned as much as our students from this experience. Our four top takeaways:

  1. Community-based learning and service-learning can be an impactful experience even if students do not go into the community and engage in large-scale projects.
  2. Service-learning works best when the project closely aligns with course content.
  3. Students will learn beyond the classroom with a well-designed service-learning project. Our students learned more about the theme they were studying, but they also learned more about the people in their community and the importance of social responsibility.
  4. Students enjoy making connections in their community.

The most important thing we learned is that community-based learning and service-learning can work in a variety of classes and circumstances. The past year has been challenging for both faculty and students, but we wanted to give our students the most “normal” academic experiences we could. In addition, creating groups that engaged in a full-semester project allowed students to make connections with each other, fostering a sense of belonging, even though they were not physically together. This is a vital aspect of the college experience, especially for freshmen. While community-based and service-learning requires additional preparation and time, it may help students glean deeper meaning from content. As a result of the pandemic, we learned that small service-learning projects can make a big impact on students. Going forward, even once we are able to engage in larger scale face-to-face projects, we will likely give students smaller scale options in their service-learning projects in order to make them more accessible to all. During this time of social disruption, this project gave our students the opportunity to make connections with community members, learn from their stories, and, hopefully, become more socially responsible citizens.

Gabriela Medina holds a BA in psychology and an MA in curriculum and instruction. She has taught for 14 years and spent several years at the middle school level before joining Texas A&M International University.

Hayley Kazen has an MA in sociology and in English, and a PhD in curriculum and instruction. She has taught sociology, English, and freshmen seminar at Texas A&M International University for over 20 years.