Emerson should implement service learning mandate

At issue: Service learning projects are popping up on campus.

Our take: This is the kind of work we should all be doing. 

Everyone understands the need to give back to the community, but not everyone actually acts on this need. Some professors at Emerson have built classes around addressing this issue, and these classes have interacted with charity organizations in ways that benefit everyone involved. The students get to work on important projects that provide them with real-world experience, and the organizations get the helping hands that are always in demand. Emerson has started something wonderful by integrating service with their education and should continue to do so.    

Two classes this semester exemplify what our administrators should consider implementing as a campus-wide policy. Topics in Health Communication: The War on Drugs is connecting students with the Boston Public Health Commission to provide them with external media resources. It’s a partnership that allows participants to add a meaningful project to their resume, build contacts with established organizations, and practice developing professional standard work. A communications capstone class has also partnered with the Greater Boston Food Bank to provide the non-profit with a marketing plan that will expand its’ online presence. This is an immensely valuable arrangement, considering these students are seniors preparing to enter the workforce. The service learning projects these two classes have developed are no doubt prime examples of what Emerson is all about—civic engagement and communications. 

Merging academics and service not only connects students to the community, but it additionally builds motivation, grows networks, and authenticates knowledge. Research indicates that one of the biggest challenges students struggle to overcome in school is motivation. Diane Hedin, who researches the benefits of service learning, wrote in “The Power of Community Service” that it “provides the critical missing link for many students, an opportunity to apply academic learning to real human needs, and the knowledge gained usable in one’s thinking beyond the situation in which the learning occurred.” Students can offer local organizations valuable skills and insight they’ve gained from their coursework that mutually benefits both parties. Students get to apply ideas we’ve written about in essays and experience environments we’ve only read about in academic journals. Service work increases students’ abilities to transfer theoretical knowledge from the classroom to actual practice. It’s pragmatic, it’s grounding, and it’s humbling. It is necessary to venture outside the classroom walls to learn and, more importantly, to be inspired to use our privilege to help our city. 

Were this requirement connected to a class, or a program such as Jumpstart, students would receive both compensation and real-world experience for their efforts. Equally as important is the fact that other people in the greater Boston community would benefit from the partnership, too. The children taught by Emerson Jumpstart volunteers learn invaluable skills that set them up for a prosperous educational future, from teamwork, to communication, to confidence in their abilities as a student. For Emerson to support such a symbiotic relationship among students and the Boston community would set an important precedent.

At Emerson Los Angeles, everyone has to volunteer eight hours over the course of the semester—its website writes that it “believes that Emerson students have a responsibility to promote civic engagement.” Undergraduates who spend their full eight semesters in Boston never face a requirement to graduate. Since students only spend one semester in LA (and many never go), a focus on volunteering like this should transfer over to the Boston campus. Elmira College in New York requires at least 60 hours of some sort of community service by graduation, and many high schools throughout the U.S. also have a similar requirement. 

As an institution, Emerson has a documented commitment to enhancing not only the confluence of communities that surround our school’s Boston campus, but the world at large. “Engagement” and “service” aren’t just buzzwords here, but priorities. Offices like the Engagement Lab and the Elma Lewis Center are charged to pursue them. We’re bringing innovation to communication and the arts, but it’s time to bring that same entrepreneurial spirit to the our college’s service requirement as well.