Alison Handy Twang, Associate Director, Center for Civic Engagement, Binghamton University
October 10, 2018
With college application deadlines approaching, students and families are faced with tough choices as they consider the best colleges. There is one more criteria families can add to their list when picking the perfect school: does the college offer opportunities for students to get involved in the community?
Volunteering and other forms of community involvement benefit students and the community in many ways. In my role as associate director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement and someone who studies the impact of community service programs, I have seen these benefits firsthand.
Community involvement on college campuses takes many forms
In 2015, about 25% of college students contributed their time and energy to community groups. This adds up to about 3 million students contributing nearly 290 million hours of service.
College students can participate in the community in many ways. Colleges may run volunteer programs in the community or offer courses that include community service. Students may get involved as part of a student group or opt to volunteer on their own. These experiences can range from a one-time service event to a semester-long commitment.
So, why might students and parents care about access to these opportunities? In my experience, they make the college experience richer and more meaningful. But they also have tangible benefits for students and the community.
Community involvement can prepare students for success
Through these community experiences, students develop the skills they need to succeed both professionally and as community leaders. Community involvement gives students the chance to apply their knowledge in real-world settings. Research shows that participation in community service strengthens students’ academic performance, leadership skills and ability to work with others.
Community experiences can also help students develop the skills that employers want to see, such as teamwork, leadership, problem solving, professionalism and the ability to work with people from different backgrounds.
Take, for example, the learning opportunities offered by volunteering at a community meal. A student might have to divide up tasks among the team of volunteers. Who will serve the drinks? How will tables be assigned? And a volunteer will likely have to think on their feet. How do you respond when a guest wants seconds, but you don’t know if everyone has been served a first helping? Or if you have to unexpectedly miss your volunteer shift, how do you alert your supervisor? I have seen students navigate and learn from all of these situations.
The community also benefits from student volunteerism
Student volunteer work has the potential to strengthen our communities. Studies have found that nonprofits report that students bring useful skills and services, offer new ideas and perspectives, and serve as strong role models for youth. And the long-term impact can be even greater. There is evidence that participating in community and civic activities during college prepares students for a future of active citizenship. Community service can increase students’ sense of civic responsibility, desire to help others and appreciation of other racial and cultural groups.
What to look for in a college
So, you have decided that participating in community service during college is important to you or your student. How will you know whether a college will be a good fit? Here are three characteristics to keep an eye out for during your next campus visit or online search.
A dedicated community service office shows that this work is important to the college. A community service office will likely increase the number and quality of community involvement options for students. The office can also assist students with finding opportunities and developing their own community projects.
Linking community service to academic coursework can strengthen learning and development benefits to students. These classes allow students to apply course concepts in real-world settings. And with the support of their instructor, students can reflect on what they have learned from their community experience.
It is important to know whether these efforts are really benefiting the community. Good signs include colleges that involve partners in the planning phases of community projects and focus on long-term partnerships. Look for language that shows the college is serious about community benefit. You might see terms such as “partnership” or “mutual benefit” used to describe community work.
There are a number of factors to consider when selecting a college. Adding opportunities for community involvement to the list could help prepare students for a successful career. But it might also result in stronger communities and a new generation of civic leaders.
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