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The Bridge That Community Service-Learning Built

From: Office of Public Affairs

Twenty years ago two visionary educators seized a chance to launch a program at James Madison University that would entwine the institution with its community, transform its students into enlightened citizens and put world-changing opportunities within the grasp of scores of young people. Since its inception, Community Service-Learning has become a special part of the Madison Experience, an avenue of learning with dynamic impact.

The mid-1980s were not the first or last time JMU's administrators would put an emphasis on finding innovative ways to shape the educational process, but it would prove to be a watershed period in terms of the university's mission, spirit and enduring values epitomized by Community Service-Learning.

In 1985, as the university reviewed its general education program, "there was an emphasis on innovation, doing new things," says Ann Myers, head of JMU's Department of Social Work. While Madison students had long had a history of volunteer service in the local community, Myers, a social work professor at the time, and sociology professor Cecil Bradfield saw an opportunity to develop a program that had at its core a value near and dear to their hearts. "Both of us had a very strong commitment to the idea that a university needed to have involvement in the community," she says.

According to Bradfield, now retired after 30 years of service at JMU, community service learning had a very humble beginning at Madison. "We wrote a paragraph about institutionalizing students across the university in service learning," he says. Those few words were reviewed by a subcommittee evaluating new university initiatives. The modest proposal for a Center for Service-Learning was accepted. "We were given a storage room in Warren Campus Center, an 8- by 10-foot room with a desk and a telephone," says Bradfield.

He and Myers were also given reassigned time to coordinate the center and work with JMU faculty members to develop a program. "We measured our success early on by how many square feet we had," Bradfield says with a laugh. "We went from 80 to 150 the next year. By the third year we had a space with two rooms," he says.
And so, in the spring of 1988, JMU's pilot service-learning program began. "There were about six agencies and 75 students in the program, and we just continued to grow," says Myers.

Last year, Community Service-Learning helped nearly 1,900 students participate in service experiences, facilitated 34 Alternative Break Program trips and partnered with 117 organizations directly and many more in auxiliary capacities. Extrapolating the total numbers from its 20-year history, however, is not what is important. In many ways, numbers are inadequate when measuring the impact of service learning. What is important is that the bridge that Community Service-Learning built is certain to carry many more Madison students into lives where they will be the change, making their communities and the world better for everyone.