Service Learning: Class Projects that Make a Difference

March 18-23 the Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement will host a week of events for "United to Serve: Celebrating Service-Learning and Civic Engagement" week. For more information, please visit ddce.utexas.edu/civicengagement


As students returned to their residence halls after spring break, they may have noticed a clear direction to "Lock it or Lose it." The Division of Housing and Food Services (DHFS) has a new campaign designed to prevent theft in the dorms, and the messages and materials were all created by students in last semester's CMS 310K, "Team-Based Communication," a course with a hands-on, service-learning component.

During fall 2012, sophomore Shelby Stephen and senior Kayleigh Rivera surveyed on-campus students about their safety habits to understand how to build a more effective safety campaign for DHFS. They found that most students they interviewed were leaving their doors unlocked, encouraging theft. Stephen, Rivera and Julian Brocke, Hessel Romero and Lauren Goodwin, their classmates in CMS 310K, developed slogans and posters that formed the basis for a campuswide safety campaign.

Safety Campaign posters
Students in "Team-Based Communications" created a safety campaign for UT's Division of Housing and Food Services, encouraging people to lock dorm doors. 

Hemlata Jhaveri, director of DHFS, was delighted with the results. "This is a win-win for the faculty and departments like us since it provides a practical training field for the students and a well-researched product for the department," she says.

The mini-consulting project not only helped the students' "clients" with a specific communications challenge, it gave class participants 20 hours of experience that connected directly to their academic readings.

"Working with DHFS was a great opportunity to get experience with consulting for the first time in a professional atmosphere," says Stephen.

DHFS wasn't the only client for the service-learning course last semester. Local nonprofit organizations English@Work, Workers' Defense Project and the African American Youth Harvest Foundation all engaged student teams to help them work through a specific communications need.

Albert Ahumada and Claire Galpern worked with English@Work, an Austin-based nonprofit whose mission is to increase immigrants' opportunities for advancement by providing essential English-language instruction at the workplace. The team which also included Jenna Read, Christopher Watler, Iesha Baranovicht, Kip Darmody and Brenda Carielo was asked to study and improve the organization's communications strategy.

"The students studied different media options of some of our partner nonprofits and made recommendations based on the success of several other websites," says Jocelyn Connell, business development associate at English@Work.

student presents findings
Brenda Carielo presents her team's findings from its evaluation of English@Work's communications strategy. 

In addition to their specific project goals, the students were charged with paying attention to how their teams functioned. They drew from their coursework about giving feedback, leveraging team members' skills and handling group dynamics.

They also had to grapple with the reality of working at a nonprofit, including working with constrained resources.

"Even though a topic is important and passionate people are genuinely dedicated to pursuing it, the logistics of how organizations operate can be unforgiving and present many puzzles that must be solved on a daily basis," says Ashley Barrett, a graduate student instructor and one of the course's creators.

For instance, the leadership at English@Work "is so busy with trying to keep the organization going," explains Ahumada, "they don't have the resources to have a professional Web designer or marketing team offer input." This window into an organization's reality gave him an extra kick. "I wasn't just working hard for a grade, but for a cause," he says.

By the end of the project, English@Work was very happy with the team's proposals. "They gave us great recommendations that would help us in taking our website to the next level," Connell says. She adds that the organization has seen an uptick in donations, which she and her colleagues credit to their new social media strategy.

Suchitra Gururaj, assistant vice president in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement's Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement, which provided guidance to course instructors, sees CMS 310K as a model service-learning course.

"This course serves as a great example of how service-learning can be effective for everyone involved: Students achieved their learning outcomes, instructors were challenged by a new pedagogy, community partners utilized the enthusiasm and expertise of our students, and we were given insight into how we can hone the resources that we offer," she says.

For Galpern, who worked with English@Work, working on a real project was gratifying, but seeing the results of her work is what made a lasting impression. "I enjoyed applying the skills I have learned in my classes at UT in a real-life business setting," she says. "By helping a local nonprofit improve its marketing, I hope I have contributed to having a positive effect on the Austin community."


"Team-Based Communications" was developed by Ashley Barrett, Angie Pastorek and Jeff Birdsell all graduate student instructors who worked with the staff of the Longhorn Center for Civic Engagement (LCCE) in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to emphasize the existing service component of the course. Suchitra Gururaj and Katie Pritchett in the LCCE provided resources and connected the instructors with on-campus partners such as DHFS and community partners such as English@Work, Workers' Defense Project and the African American Youth Harvest Foundation.