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2012

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The bridge that Community Service-Learning built

The experiences that link service to learning also link JMU to the community
By Jan Gillis ('07)

JMU student and child with disability
Many civic engagement opportunities are offered through JMU Community Service-Learning and classes.

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.

A commitment to involvement

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.

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.

Service with learning objectives

The early growth was a reflection of hard work on the part of Bradfield and Myers. Although each professor had worked with community agencies in volunteer efforts, they now faced a new challenge — introducing a formal program that established and integrated course and learning objectives into community service. "The difference with service learning is the connection that is made with very specific courses and concepts. While volunteer and community service are highly valued, there is little benefit to students in terms of their academic application of concepts to courses unless someone is helping them make that connection," says Myers.

Over the ensuing years, service learning became increasingly engrained in the Madison culture. There is no doubt of its critical value in the education of students according to current Community Service-Learning Director Rich Harris ('77). "Community service-learning can be key to the metamorphosis of a student into a community member who will make life in his or her neighborhood and, maybe on a larger scale, better for everybody.

A bridge to a better world

Today, scores of community programs reflect the power of JMU's service-learning equation. Madison students assist the elderly in retirement homes and engage them in meaningful activities at community centers. Other students work with children and adults with disabilities in a variety of settings and activities. Public health and environmental efforts are fueled by JMU students who provide support in widely varied arenas, from technological assistance to help with small-scale sustainable farming operations. Madison students work at homeless shelters, thrift stores and food banks. They tutor neighborhood children. They mentor immigrant workers with the difficult task of assimilating into a new culture.

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.

Condensed from Fall 2008 Madison.