The opportunities are many and varied, with all types of needs being addressed.
During this season of hope and giving, I want to share with you some examples of how service learning provides students at the University of Southern Maine with opportunities to make a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens.
Not only do our students contribute to the public good through these activities, but they also prepare themselves for more richly fulfilling lives and careers after graduation.
A look at the numbers is inspiring.
During the 2009-2010 academic year, hundreds of USM students contributed nearly 28,000 hours of service to the community, 68 percent of which were the result of service learning courses designed to provide opportunities to apply what students are learning in the classroom to real-world issues.
BREADTH AND DEPTH
I was struck anew by the breadth and depth of this community service when USM recently celebrated its second annual Civic Matters symposium.
This event showcases community-based projects and research conducted by students and provides compelling testimony to the value of these learning experiences.
For instance, a collaborative partnership between the Portland Housing Authority and USM resulted in the Study Center at Riverton Park, an after-school program for Riverton children in grades 3 though 12.
Another partnership with the Casco Bay Estuary Project is giving our environmental science students and others opportunities to evaluate the relationship between local shoreland zoning ordinances and the quality of water throughout the densely populated Presumpscot River and Casco Bay watershed.
USM LAC Cares for Youth is another successful ongoing partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Androscoggin County that pairs our Lewiston-Auburn College students as one-on-one mentors with at-risk youth.
Students in the USM Muskie School’s Community Planning and Development program worked with city officials and residents on community planning for Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood.
Another project engaged USM students in the development of natural and cultural histories for each of the established hiking trails in Gorham.
Service learning projects also offer USM students invaluable international experiences.
Twice each year, for example, USM nursing faculty, students and community volunteers travel to the Dominican Republic, where they spend two weeks providing personal care and health education to some 2,500 patients in rural villages.
USM and Partners for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic, a community-based nonprofit, jointly manage the program. This is a wonderful example of how USM strives to transform students’ understanding of the world.
Community service can also generate some innovative, interdisciplinary collaboration. USM Associate Professor of Art Jan Piribeck worked with art majors and students skilled in the use of geographic information systems to create a public installation of visual poetry in the East Bayside neighborhood. The project was designed to increase awareness of global warming and the rise of sea levels.
You can understand my pride in these students.
This Civic Matters event touched me as students reported on what they had learned through serving others. I am also deeply grateful for the enthusiastic participation of the many community partners who provide living laboratories for experiential learning.
USM’s faculty play pivotal roles in making all of this community service work possible. Lorrayne Carroll, USM associate professor of English and women and gender studies, is a prime example. She has been involved in service-learning work for more than 10 years.
Just this year the Maine Campus Compact awarded her the Donald Harward Award for Faculty Service-Learning Excellence.
Professor Carroll and her students have tutored adults from immigrant and refugee populations, facilitated a senior citizen reading group, and applied their expertise to citizenship classes.
The National Campus Compact has also named her a National Civic Scholar, as a result of which she was able to participate in the design of an online tutorial on how to integrate civic engagement, historical research and teaching.
THE DIRECTOR’S CHOICES
However, no story about USM’s increasing distinction for the quality of its service- learning efforts would be complete without recognition of the role played by Andrea Thompson McCall, USM’s director of community service learning.
She is a strong and steadfast advocate for civic engagement and the role it plays in conveying, in her words, “the vibrancy and value that is USM.”
Our students and their community partners benefit from her dedication and hard work throughout the year.
If you are interested in proposing a service-learning opportunity, I hope you will reach out to her and take advantage of USM’s commitment to serving the needs and aspirations of this region.
Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at: