Anthony Butler, Director of Transitions and Community Engagement, University of Baltimore
September 20, 2018
Day of service events are commonplace on University campus. For many, these are traditional events held each year that create space for students to contribute to their community in the spirit of teamwork and collaboration. At their best, they can develop deep and meaningful bonds between institutions and communities. In some cases, however, these events can be come stale, systematic affairs, where participants go through the motions of service without deeply understanding their surroundings or reflecting on their work. Some institutions have eliminated day of service events altogether, opting to invest in more reflective and learning-focused experiences such as service-learning projects and alternative breaks.
Many feel, and rightly so, that these events do not effectively engage students in civic action. University of Baltimore’s signature service event, Community Service Day, is a prime example. An annual tradition, held each April since 2002, Community Service Day is a mainstay at UB. It’s a part of the fabric of campus. Anywhere from 150-200 students, staff, faculty, and alumni participate each year, serving at one of 12-15 sites throughout Baltimore and Baltimore County. Over the years, however, enthusiasm for the event has waned, and assessment data is not encouraging. After Community Service Day 2017, participants were asked to “describe a community problem or issue you noticed related to your service experience and briefly identify a possible solution to that problem.” Of those who completed surveys, 33% did not answer the question. Another 53% supplied an answer that was unclear or incomplete based on the evaluation rubric. Only 13% of those surveyed were able to describe a community issue and suggest a possible solution. We have followed emerging research and trends on day of service events, and considered how Community Service Day fits in to the nationwide call to civic action. Our assessment validated our concerns that this event was no longer meeting the needs of the campus or the community. For Community Service Day to continue, it needed to change.
The assessment data was clear: Participants did not value the service they performed, or understand the communities with which they worked. We needed to root this event in reflective practices, develop a greater sense of purpose, and build a stronger relationship between participants and communities. We addressed this in three ways:
While overall participation in Community Service Day continues to be a challenge, these changes did make a significant impact in our assessment of the 2018 event. Once again, we asked participants to “describe a community problem or issue you noticed related to your service experience and briefly identify a possible solution to that problem.” This time, 38% of respondents were able to adequately answer that question based on our rubric. While this was more than twice the 2017 number, we are looking at additional improvements for his event. We are looking at ways to replicate our success with more academically based sites (for example, an environmental science professor leads a group to the Jones Falls to explore the local ecology while cleaning up trash and waste throughout the area). We are reaching out to classes and student groups to develop a coalition of committed participants. We are continuing to build partnerships with sites to ensure the experience is meaningful for them and results in greater levels of participant engagement. We envision a signature program that represents the university’s commitment to community, and nurtures students’ passion for civic action.
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