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Service Learning: A Win-Win Opportunity

“Supervised community service with local agencies that assist Hispanic community or supervised activities with local cultural organizations that promote awareness of Hispanic culture among the general public.”

This is the course description of one Spanish service-learning course instructed by Dr. Handelsman. Calling this service-learning course a win-win chance for students, Spanish speaking communities, and himself as the professor, he describes it as an opportunity for students to connect more effectively with Spanish speakers in the local community.student working at a table

Aiming to provide the students with the opportunity to use their language in a socially oriented context, Dr. Handelsman’s students interact with Spanish speakers at one of three community partner sites: Centro Hispano, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, or Inskip Elementary School. Activities at Centro may include assisting with GED preparation for adult Spanish speakers, who in turn help the students improve their language skills and cultural familiarity. Students at Children’s Hospital typically shadow Spanish language interpreters, coming to understand the value of being able to speak a patient’s first language, while those at Inskip Elementary may be offering tutoring assistance to Spanish speaking youth. In evsign for centro hispanoery case, students are receiving valuable language instruction and cultural insights from the Spanish speakers as they in turn support the work of their community partners. The class meets once a week to discuss topics related to Hispanic communities in the United States and connect these discussions with students’ actual experiences working with Spanish speakers in these communities. This is why Dr. Handelsman calls service-learning “a democracy in practice”, as it equally benefits the Spanish speakers, the students, and the instructor.

Service-learning is a course-based experiential learning strategy that engages students in meaningful and relevant service with a community partner while employing ongoing reflection to draw connections between the service and course content. Kelly Ellenburg, director of the Office of Service-Learning, mentions some advantages of service-learning, including connecting the academic discipline to the outside world, or helping students develop gstudents by a lake with caption "what is service learning?"reater awareness of issues of inequality. Ms. Ellenburg elaborates on this saying that “Through service-learning, students begin to see their communities and themselves in a different light. For example, if students are working in an after-school program in a low-resource area, they might develop a fuller understanding of the challenges many of the youth face, while also recognizing their own comparative privilege. This can create a desire to affect change at a systemic level, which can impact students’ choices and behaviors over the long term.”

Both Ms. Ellenburg and Dr. Handelsman emphasize the difference between service-learning and volunteer work, stating that service-learning adds an academic reflection component to the service activity and therefore enables the students to make meaning of their service experience in light of course learning. This aspect of experiential learning fits well into John Dewey’s philosophy, which asserts that we learn not from our experiences, but from reflecting upon our experiences. In my own experience with volunteerism and charity work, I totally agree that a professional reflection on these experiences guided by an expert in the field would have made them much more meaningful for me.

The Office of Service-Learning office is a critical resource at UT that facilitates service-learning partnerships between the campus and community, while supporting faculty in the design of quality, reciprocal service-learning courses. In a collaboration with Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center, the Office of Service-Learning recently facilitated a workshop on the process of designing a service-learning course at UT. This workshop will be repeated in future semesters for faculty who would like to learn how to develop a service-learning course. Faculty can also visit the Office of Service-Learning website at to learn more.

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