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The Public Good: Students grow through service learning

December 5, 2014

Unified We Serve student volunteers collect canned goods for Thanksgiving care packages.Strolling around campus, while necessary for classes, is no longer the only way Matadors connect. Beyond gathering to study or simply socializing, students are meeting to organize service projects and volunteering with local nonprofits.

Home to service-learning projects, community outreach centers and programs, volunteer groups, and philanthropic Greek organizations, CSUN truly serves the entire Los Angeles region.

The university‘s community partners include the Los Angeles Unified School District, Meet Each Need with Dignity (MEND), the American Red Cross, San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission and more. CSUN is nationally recognized for its service to the community, having been nominated to the 2013 President‘s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll — the highest federal recognition a college or university can receive for its commitment to volunteerism, service learning and civic engagement.

Learning by Doing

Each year, CSUN offers more than 165 courses that incorporate service learning, engaging more than 3,500 students in at least 81,000 hours of active learning through projects designed to assist the community. Additionally, 6,000 students support the community through internships and fieldwork at nonprofit organizations.

“Involving students in community service is a high-impact practice that increases engagement,” as well as learning, retention rates and the likelihood of graduation, President Dianne F. Harrison said at the 2014 faculty retreat in January. “Most important, by making learning come alive, service learning or community engagement provides students with the motivation to put effort into their learning — something we all love to see students do.”

This service learning component comes to life through the Office of Community Engagement.

“The goal of service learning is to have students learn content and skills in courses and to be able to apply those skills to help the community,” said Joyce Burstein ’95 (Elementary Education), director of the CSUN Office of Community Engagement.

President Harrison highlighted one such community-oriented program at the faculty retreat: “Get REAL! about Media and Body Image,” an interdisciplinary service-learning project directed by journalism professor Bobbie Eisenstock. According to Eisenstock, “Our media culture is more body-image driven than ever. Get REAL! aims to educate, engage and empower students to counteract potential negative influences of media on body image and self-esteem. Journalism students collaborated with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to create an interactive digital media literacy tool kit for high school and college students.”

“Service learning is one of the most important things I have ever done in my academic career,” said Karina Elias ’13 (Gender and Women‘s Studies) in a reflection video for the project. “I loved reaching out to my community and to my peers through social media, through fliers [and] through events. It gives you this entirely new view of what it means to learn, what it means to teach [and] what it means to give back.

Peer educators with Joint Advocates on Disordered Eating at CSUN‘s University Counseling Services now use the tool kit for campuswide presentations on eating disorders, and it is featured on the NEDA national website for use by teens, families, health care professionals and advocates.

CSUN is also well known for its work with K-12 education. With the increasing focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education across the nation, the service-learning project, Tomorrow‘s Scientists, has brought a new approach to science for underserved students in the L.A. area and to future teachers.

Biology professor Virginia Oberholzer Vandergon helped start the course in 2000 when she was asked to design a curriculum for students earning elementary education credentials. She noticed students lacked confidence in their ability to teach the material — let alone memorize facts about life science. “I thought, there‘s no better way to gain confidence than through teaching it!” Oberholzer Vandergon said.

CSUN students increase their knowledge of biology and learn how to explain the concepts using a fun, exploratory method with seventh-grade students from local middle schools over an eight-week after-school course.

“Being able to work with the students and experience first hand what it‘s like to teach science activities helped me discover my love of science,” said liberal studies junior Collin Sasse. “A lecture-based class can tell you all the things you need to do when writing a good lesson plan or how to manage a classroom, but nothing can replace the first-hand experience of actually doing it. … The seventh graders got hands-on experience on a college campus — many for the first time — showing them that anything is possible.”

Engaging Freshmen

Engaging upperclassmen has proven successful at CSUN, with many required service learning and internship components. A number of degree programs require internship experience prior to graduation, including those in health sciences, recreation and tourism management, the sciences and education. Garnering such experience in lower-division courses, however, is relatively new.

As a teaching assistant in the English Stretch Composition program, Jared Thomas ’11, ’14 (B.A., English; M.A., English) brought humanitarian efforts to his classroom of college freshmen.

When teaching, Thomas’ students asked him “if they can learn something that they can apply to their lives.” Thomas then made this connection between the syllabus and the “real world” through the class working with Habitat for Humanity.

Based on the common freshman English assignment, “Project Space,” which asks students to define the politics and socioeconomics of space, Thomas asked his students to volunteer with a community project building homes for veterans that was overseen by Habitat for Humanity. Ultimately, the students found the experience tangible, unifying and fun.

Unified We Serve

The Matador Involvement Center offers a host of volunteer activities in conjunction with many service learning courses. More than 6,300 students in campus organizations and clubs participate in projects ranging from one-day service to ongoing community works.Kinesiology professor Steven Loy and his CSUN students work with teens at San Fernando High School.

Unified We Serve, CSUN‘s volunteer program, was born in 2009 and has grown to include 500 members — 20 times its original size — who are dedicated to uniting and serving the campus and larger community.

“Our goal is to provide students with multiple resources and ways to encourage them to further their education through serving the community,” said Ani Avetisyan, activities coordinator of volunteer programs and services.

The program has humble roots in the Matador Involvement Center, housed within the Division of Student Affairs, where it started as a referral service for students seeking volunteer hours and service projects for academic and personal needs.

Unified We Serve is just one example of the campus-based service, volunteerism and service learning where CSUN students are impacting the wider community.