Service-learning can be a novel concept to explain; but once a student experiences a service-learning class it will stay with him or her forever. When students find out about service-learning, invariably they become very excited about volunteering on a community-based project as part of their coursework. But they often express concerns that it will be daunting – they wonder how they can find the hours to volunteer in what is already a busy day, often including full-time work, loads of reading for class, and family obligations. However, nearly every student by the end of one of my service-learning courses is grateful to have had the opportunity to “learn by doing” and the chance to reflect on their service activities.
It’s one thing to run a book drive or wash dishes at a soup kitchen, but it is quite another to dig deeper and think about the larger issues that people in our communities are facing and why they are facing them. Whether it is inadequate health care, a lack of food or a place to live, or a scarcity of other resources, there is so much more to providing service than clocking hours. In order for the service to be meaningful and to help bring about significant change, we need the chance to process these experiences, reflect on them, write about them, and most importantly, share our discoveries with one another.
A recent episode of the hit show Castle called “Like Father, Like Daughter” was about Alexis Castle’s experience in what was presumably a service-learning course at Columbia University. We learn early in the episode that as part of her Criminal Law class, she has been working with the Innocence Project to free a young man whom she firmly believes was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
When the judge refuses to stay the execution, her professor proclaims, “sometimes the good guys don’t win” and promptly gives up. One would hope a service-learning faculty member would contextualize this experience for his students far more effectively than Alexis’s professor did. Perhaps the professor is what Jung would call a “wounded healer” who has grown weary of the legal system. However, one of the benefits of service-learning is that students are often more idealistic and hopeful than their counterparts may be.
Unbounded optimism is a trademark of Alexis’s character throughout the show and it is put to the test in this episode, as she soldiers on in her pursuit of justice enlisting the aid of her best-selling crime writer father and much of the NYPD homicide division, where he serves as a consultant.
When she is ultimately successful in proving the client’s innocence, her father asks her if she wants to join in the revelry in the courtroom. Instead, she feels satisfied that she has made a difference and that justice was served. Similarly, although service-learning students are frequently involved in a service project for a limited period of time, usually over the course of one semester, they have a life-changing experience that helps them gain a more meaningful perspective on the functions of government and the non-profit sector than a college textbook ever could give them. Ultimately, they take that newfound understanding with them to whatever their chosen field may be. Bravo to “Castle” for helping make the case for adding more service-learning opportunities into the college curriculum.