Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
Launched in 2016, the service learning program at Middlesex County College (MCC) strives to provide enriching opportunities for students—many of them nontraditional—by facilitating civic engagement opportunities that are tied directly back to their coursework.
“The idea is to connect academics and curriculum with social issues and relevant community partners,” explains Arianna Illa, coordinator, civic engagement and experiential learning, career and transfer services at MCC, a two-year school located in Edison, New Jersey.
“We have a variety of classes across different disciplines. These aren’t all tied to social work or sociology. We have touched math and natural sciences. Service learning helps all student participants gain valuable knowledge by tackling problems faced in their community.”
Some of the courses available through MCC’s service learning program include:
- Statistics I and II
- Introduction to Social Work and Welfare
- Contemporary Social Problems
- Integrated Reading and Writing
- Dental Health Education
- English Composition
- Historical Geology
- Introduction to Meteorology
- U.S. National Government
The service learning program team works with two faculty coordinators—full-time professors in English and sociology—who develop service learning curriculum and content with interested faculty members. On the external side, Illa works with the program’s community partners.
“Together, our team develops new partnerships with faculty and community partners and nonprofits,” Illa points out.
“We are expanding course offerings into new departments each semester, therefore service learning course offerings vary from semester to semester.”
MCC students taking service learning courses are required to complete a designated amount of volunteer service hours per semester (typically 10 to 20 hours) with a local, nonprofit community partner. Illa says courses are specific to the course’s professor and the community partner.
“Courses are individually designed,” she explains. “That’s why service learning is a lot of fun, but also very challenging. You are trying to satisfy the needs of the students and the community partners and the interests of the professors in a way that benefits all of them equally.”
Illa cites the example of a math professor who was teaching statistics and was interested in participating in the service learning program. A local food pantry came to Illa and said it needed help gathering and analyzing data about its clients and determining how to improve its services.
“It was a volunteer staff that didn’t have the capacity to do it,” Illa recalls. “The professor had several of her classes involved in this. The food pantry staff met with the students and gave a presentation about their work and needs.”
Based on this information, the Statistics I class designed and administered a client survey. The students in Statistics II then analyzed the data and gave the data and their assessment to the food pantry.
“That was a unique, but exemplary, partnership,” Illa says.
Another class—Contemporary Social Problems—addresses current social issues, such as immigration, gender and racial rights and equality, LGBTQ issues, and more. Students review a list of potential partners, which include immigrant detention centers, after-school programs, food pantries, and more, and perform 15 hours of service with their chosen partners.
“Through this work, our students get more deeply familiar with particular issues in our community and what our community members are facing,” Illa says.
To participate, community partners must provide a service to the community and have opportunities for MCC students to support their efforts in a supervised and meaningful way. On several occasions, potential partners have been looking to fill roles more suited to interns than to service learners.
“That’s great, too, because our career services office is always looking for internship employers, but their needs are not the right fit for our service learning program,” Illa notes. “Partners could be a church, grassroots, or another type of organization, as long as I’ve met with them and we both explain and understand our requirements and our expectations.”
Partners come to the MCC program in different ways. Sometimes, they seek out help. Other times, Illa makes cold calls to local nonprofits or has a partner in mind for a certain course. For example, the Natural Sciences course worked with the Edison Environmental Commission—which had previously worked through MCC’s service learning program—to do community clean-ups. This coming spring, an MCC art history professor with a strong interest in women’s rights is partnering with the county’s Center for Empowerment, a rape crisis center, giving her students the opportunity to support and participate in Sexual Assault Awareness Month activities.
“Through service learning, the professor weaves the topic of feminism into her contemporary art class,” Illa says.
In addition to integrating their service experiences through their coursework, students are required to complete a reflection component of their service learning throughout the class. This can come in the form of discussion board participation, essay writing, giving presentations, journaling, and more. MCC also conducts a reflection session at the end of the semester with all of the service learning program participants.
“They come together, talk about what they have done, and share experiences and challenges,” Illa says.
To obtain data regarding the program’s effectiveness, the learning program team conducts student and community partner surveys. There have been noticeable benefits.
“Students who engage in service learning have been shown to feel more engaged with the college community, have a better understanding of the course content, and gain deeper insight into the social issues faced by the local community,” Illa adds.
In the future, Illa says the program will explore tying the service learning assignments to career competencies.
“For now, we’re focused on gradually growing the program,” Illa says. “In terms of classes involved, we have essentially doubled in size every semester. This semester, approximately 250 students are participating in MCC’s service learning program. The college has been very flexible with us in terms of letting us build as we go, and we’re excited about where we can take it.”