Expert Commentary

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

2012 study from Vanderbilt University on the effects of a service-learning mentoring program and college students’ learning about social inequality.


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

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