Education, Inequality

University-based service learning: Relating mentor experiences to issues of poverty

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(iStock)
(iStock)

Most colleges have instituted a service learning requirement that connects students with community groups or schools. The benefits for those groups being served can vary widely, of course, depending on levels of student commitment and the design of the service program. In terms of benefits for college students, some past studies have found that certain kinds of programs can contribute both to students’ learning experience and social development. But as a 2010 study in the Journal of Community Practice notes, “Some service-learning experiences may actually reinforce negative or counterproductive attitudes among students. Many efforts fall short of maximizing the potential social change impact of the service and learning activity.”

A 2012 study from Vanderbilt University in the Journal of College Student Development, “University-Based Service Learning: Relating Mentor Experiences to Issues of Poverty,” focuses specifically on the relationship between these programs and students’ awareness of privilege and inequality. The study identified four components for consideration: (a) mentor training, (b) mentoring youth on-site in their high-poverty environments, (c) mentors’ ongoing reflections, recorded in journal entries, and (d) class discussion of issues related to poverty and social inequities. Researchers examined 129 journal entries from 10 university students taking a service learning mentoring course. The program involved college students mentoring adolescents at high schools with high percentages of low-income and minority students.

The study’s findings included:

  • “The experiential learning opportunity of mentoring high-poverty youth … did relate to students’ reports of learning first-hand about the effects of poverty and the inequities across schools, resources and neighborhoods.” Almost two-thirds of all comments written across journals related students’ experiences to learning about poverty.
  • Both academic assistance and more social interactions between mentors (the college students) and mentees (the high school students) were associated with reports of increased awareness of issues relating to poverty and economic inequities.
  • Mentors reported learning about the effects of poverty and inequality on schools, resources and communities firsthand, including stress, violence, discrimination, crime and poor physical and mental health.
  • Journal comments showed that the experience encouraged mentors to challenge their assumptions and stereotypes and reflect on the privileges they enjoyed.
  • Mentors who spent more time providing mentees with academic support reported learning more about the quality of education in high-poverty schools.
  • Six comments, or 1% of total comments logged, blamed mentees for behaviors the mentor found objectionable, “rather than seeing the behavior within the context of the effects of poverty.”

The authors acknowledged that the study was limited by a lack of diversity in the mentor participant type, as 84% of students identified as white and middle to upper-middle class and all but one of the students in the course were female. The authors also noted that only 6% of the journal reflections suggested potential strategies to mitigate the effects of poverty. “It may be that the dire conditions of mentoring sites overwhelmed students, causing them to focus more on problems than solutions…. At the same time, our findings may also reflect the complexities of the phenomenon of poverty and its persistence in a country of great wealth.”

A 2009 study, “Teaching and Learning in the Social Context: A Meta-Analysis of Service Learning’s Effects on Academic, Personal, Social, and Citizenship Outcomes,” looked at more than 100 programs. The researchers found that “Changes were moderate for academic outcomes, small for personal outcomes and citizenship outcomes, and in between for social outcomes. Programs with structured reflection showed larger changes and effects generalized across educational levels.”

A 2013 study published in the Journal of College Student Development found that whether or not a student volunteers — in particular, the amount of time spent volunteering — has a strong association with greater civic values and political and social awareness/engagement.

Tags: youth, inequality, higher education


By | March 4, 2013

Citation: Hughes, Carolyn; Steinhorn, Rachel; Davis, Blair; Beckrest, Sara; Boyd, Elizabeth; Cashen, Kelly. "University-Based Service Learning: Relating Mentor Experiences to Issues of Poverty," Journal of College Student Development, November/December 2012, Vol. 53, No. 6, 767-782.

Analysis assignments

Read the issue-related Ithaca Times article titled "Ithaca College's MLK Jr. Scholars Program Celebrates a Decade of Creating Opportunity."

  1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

Read the full study titled “University-Based Service Learning: Relating Mentor Experiences to Issues of Poverty.”

  1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
  2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
  3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
  4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
  5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

  1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
  4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
  5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
  6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

Class discussion questions

  1. What is the study’s most important finding?
  2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
  3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
  4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
  5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
  6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

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