Reflecting on The Ties That Bind our Students, our Campus, and our Community

Luis L. Sierra, Leadership Coach, Leadership and Service Center, University of South Carolina

June 2, 2017

“As a Carolinian… I will demonstrate concern for others, their feelings, and their need for conditions which support their work and development.”

These are the last few lines of the Carolinian Creed, a set of ideals that each member of the University of South Carolina (USC) is expected to commit to as part of this community. They represent not only our care and concern for others within the University but also a care and concern for others outside of it. These lines are the foundation for the ties that exist between our students, our campus, and the community at large.  In the case of students like Michelle Slawinski, however, her passion for service became more than a commitment and concern for others. Along the process, those ties changed her life for the better.

As a candidate for the USC’s Graduation with Leadership Distinction (GLD) program in the Community Service pathway, Michelle recently had the opportunity to share insights about her experiences and share her story through Discover USC, an annual showcase event for students and scholars, starting with a story on what propelled her to “involve [herself] in every single organization, leadership position, and community that [she] could.” As a survivor of depression, her sophomore year at the University was one of the darkest periods of her life, where she felt alone and isolated from her peers. Much changed shortly after the death of one of her sorority sisters, and after seeing the impact that it had on many of her friends, family, sisters and loved ones. “The more ties I created, the harder it would be to break those ties through suicide,” she said to her audience as part of her powerful story, before going more in depth about her extensive involvement on campus and the community, including participating on Alternative Break trips and becoming a Community Service Ambassador, as well as serving as Team Captain for the Out of Darkness walk, in honor and remembrance of her sorority sister.

Graduation with Leadership Distinction (GLD) provides undergraduate students with opportunities to reflect on their careers at USC through the lens of integrative learning with application to leadership. As defined by the campus and relevant literature (AAC&U; Huber & Hutchings, 2004), integrative learning focuses on students’ ability to make significant cognitive connections between academic coursework and beyond the classroom experiences (e.g., community service, study abroad). This detailed synthesis of learning, and subsequent ability to utilize this knowledge to address current or future societal issues or problems, represents the essence of Graduation with Leadership Distinction. In order to earn GLD, students complete extensive beyond the classroom experiences in a specific pathway (Community Service, Diversity and Social Advocacy, Global Learning, Professional & Civic Engagement, or Research), approved courses aligning with the selected GLD pathway, a public presentation showcasing active articulation of their experiences, and creation of an E-portfolio demonstrating integrative learning as defined through a provided rubric. Since the program’s inception in fall 2014, approximately 1,000 students have earned GLD, a recognition visible on both student transcripts and diplomas.

Students earning GLD in Community Service individually engage in 300+ hours of community service across two different programs or experiences along with successful completion of the additional qualifying requirements. Arguably, the most challenging aspect of GLD is the creation of an E-portfolio, representative of a student’s articulation and application of significant within and beyond the classroom experiences. In Michelle’s case, as she prepares to put together her own E-Portfolio and graduate in December, the time and effort she has taken over the past few years to reflect on her learning and growth along the way has led her to realize the way in which being of service of others shed light, happiness, and health to her life. It is something easy to underestimate, but incredibly meaningful when students are provided the space and opportunity to reflect and connect their experiences. Service to others is more than the hours served, or money raised. It is about the ties that bind people together, within their own communities, as well as the many others that surround them - each with their sets of not only needs and struggles to address but also gifts and contributions to make this world a better place.

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