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Report on Interviews with Service Learning Practitioners

Report on Interviews with Service Learning Practitioners

J. Ashleigh Ross

December, 2010


This research is meant to inform practitioners of the common challenges and opportunities in rural service learning. The research presented here is the result of interviews with rural service learning practitioners.


Structured interviews were conducted with 50 participating programs. Participating programs were either academic or community organizations and were located in rural areas or conducted service in rural areas. I used the US Census definition of rural as an area less than 50,000 people and not bordering any other large metro area. Phone interviews took place between August and October of 2010. One researcher conducted and analyzed all of the interviews. The institutions that were contacted were a mix of public and private colleges and universities, a couple of non-academic department offices within colleges and one non-university affiliated non-profit.

Participants were recruited in a variety of ways. First an introductory email was sent out soliciting programs that conduct rural service learning from a list of recommendations from service learning contacts. A mass email was sent out to a popular public engagement list serve. Then an Internet search was conducted with words such as “service learning” “rural” “engagement” “higher education”. State Campus Compact offices and the Presidents Honor Roll for engagement (check that proper name) were consulted and calls and emails were sent out to offices. This list was checked against maps and population estimates to find out if they were in rural areas. It usually took 1-2 emails and a phone call to schedule an interview. The final response rate was 48%. A typical phone interview lasted about 30 minutes and consisted of nine questions. The conversations would be transcribed during the interviews. The interviewers were very conversational in tone and would often last after the interview with the sharing of stories and discussion of other programs. The questions were open-ended. Respondents typically supplied between one and three answers per question.

The surveys were then coed to identify common themes. The themes were categorized and then counted to determine how many respondents gave a similar response. Simple statistics were used to determine basic percentages from the sample size. The percentages were then used to substantiate themes.


One of the main points we wanted to understand was the nature of the relationship between the academic institution and the local community. Sixty percent of respondents said that their programs were developed collaboratively with the community. Almost all of the interviewees (90%) said that the relationship has been strengthened and/or has positively impacted the campus-community relationship. Respondents stated that service learning has helped bridge the campus and community and demonstrates to the community that the universities are very dedicated to assisting them in their needs and goals. Practitioners voiced the way that service learning fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between the university and the community by “making community partners co-educators” and “creators of knowledge” instead of only being recipients of university expertise. One participant believed that service learning also taught students to notice the community instead of just passing through: “it is helpful when students start working with community because they [community] were invisible and it broadens the students understanding of the community”. Another mentioned that “engaged scholarship has caught on and there is mutual respect” between the campus and community.

One of the biggest benefits of service learning in rural areas mentioned is the close and intimate sense of community. One service-learning practitioner summed it up by saying “you know everyone… Once you are accepted into the community you are part of it”. Thirty-two percent of interviewees mentioned the close relationships and sense of community as strengths in working with rural communities. Sixteen percent mentioned that the relationships formed in rural areas are multi-faceted because many people where the different hats and people have been working together for years so they know what to expect from people and organizations. There is also more face-to-face time, which can facilitate project development, 24% cited the easy access they had with people in rural communities—they could just pick up the phone and call someone, and there was a lack of red-tape. With close relationships, the community feels comfortable bringing problems to the university and vice versa. Many rural service-learning programs have limited staff both on the university and community side , which limits the bureaucracy in creating and running programs. Ten percent of respondents cited less bureaucracy as a benefit in rural service learning.

The university often has expertise in a variety of fields and can assist the local community with economic development, health care and beautification.
Building trust can be a challenge—mentioned by 10% of respondents—especially with communities that have had bad experiences with the university in the past. One respondent mentioned that the relationship between the college and the community was strained in the past due to a rowdy football team, but that service learning programs has been healing that relationship. Other participants stated that service learning “decreases the town-gown divide” and “opens everyone’s’ eyes to the fact that they can work together”. In short, service learning has been a way to build trust and demonstrate the colleges’ commitment to the community.

Practitioners were asked specifically about the challenges of service learning as they related to the rural context. Fifty-six percent of respondents cited transportation and distance as a main challenge. One community started a bio-bus to get students to service placements, and the bus was also used by the community. Finding a suitable partner organization was also a challenge with the limited number of available organizations was sited by 34%. Other common problems were lack of funding (30%), the risk of overwhelming organizations (10%), lack of Internet access (10%) and time constraints (10%). Some interviewees mentioned that their communities were too small to qualify for federal funding so there were a lot of service gaps and a greater need to get students serving in these communities.

Rural areas have challenges for service learning that may be heightened compared to urban areas. Because there are so few formal community organizations in many rural areas, the risk of overwhelming organizations was a very real concern. Respondents reported that service learning could take time away from the nuts and bolts of running an organization, especially when organizations are chronically understaffed. One respondent said that a challenge for community partners was that “sometimes it takes a lot of time and energy from the agencies and the agencies can’t support the [service learning] project”. Another said, “training and mentoring can be a further drain on resources”. Service learning, although potentially beneficial for resource-strapped organizations, can be difficult because of these time and resource constraints. Some participants felt that this put organizations into the position of deciding whether to participate in service learning or just concentrate on their daily work and that some “make sacrifices to help the students”. Training and mentoring students is a time consuming endeavor and this can further stain the already limited organizational resources.

Another challenge with the lack of local organizations is that there may not be a community partner that meets the needs of the course. Thirty-four percent of participants said that finding organizations with social problems and diversity that was relevant to class content was an issue in partnering with local organizations. One practitioner noted faculty “don't have populations in the area that they want to expose their students to and must expand to cities” for service. Another practitioner stated, “students have a sheltered world view. [Their rural community] can't give students the kind of experience they need to understand the larger world issues… Diversity is a big issue.” Because of this, colleges must take their student resources to other areas, which potentially robs the local community of their skills and expertise.

Many practitioners stressed the importance of having a service learning center and/or coordinator on campus to assist in relationship development and provide continuity with the community. The campus service-learning facilitator’s main job was to cultivate relationships with the community and provide continuity. In addition to having a coordinator, some practitioners mentioned using local students or rural students as an entry point into the community.

In an attempt to evaluate service learning and garner community partner feedback, some of the schools sent out surveys to community partners. Some also mentioned partner breakfasts, receptions and tours to create more unity between the academic and community partners. Serving on each other’s boards was mentioned as a way to strengthen partnerships while facilitating information sharing and creating space for shared expertise. Numerous practitioners reported serving on organizational boards in diverse areas of the public sphere. Some organizations mentioned community advisory boards to guide service-learning projects. Although this anecdotal evidence supports the university assertion that service learning programs strengthen community-academy bonds, there was not representation from the rural community partners to back this up.

Sixteen percent of practitioners stressed the importance of very clear expectations for both the community partners while developing and implementing service-learning programs. Proper training of faculty, students and community partners was mentioned by 8% of respondents as a way to overcome some of the challenges related to service learning. These trainings would include introductions to the pedagogy of service learning as well as ways to incorporate service learning into courses. Part of the training, especially for the students, was stressing reciprocity and different forms of expertise. Service learning practitioners strove to make sure the students understood that this was not a form of charity and that they had a responsibility to show up on time and perform the work that was expected of them. One college has a three-part faculty training program. The first part explains service learning, the second explains how service learning can influence learning and the third explains how to create service learning partnerships. The college offers this course for faculty every semester.

History is always an issue for communities, but this can be especially true in rural communities that have a strong sense of history. One school, the only historically Black university in the study, has long been stigmatized by the community. They have had to focus efforts to change the stigma and create stronger relationships with the community. Service learning is a way to reach out to the community and alter the relationship. Another college uses history as a main focus of service learning programs. They have developed an art and cultural history program around their rich history that is used when tutoring youth in the local schools. This program has been so successful in highlighting the history that it draws tourists to the area, which in turn provides economic development opportunities for the community. In any community with a strong sense of history, negative experiences with service-learning projects can make it difficult to start anew. For example, one participant said that it was difficult to initiate innovate programs because “people remember how it was done 10 years ago”.


Rural service learning provides the function of strengthening the relationship between the college campus and the local community. It can provide a portal into the campus while demonstrating to the community that the college is committed to being an active resource. Another benefit includes inspiring local youth to attend college through relationships with college student tutors and mentors and can give them research experience.

There are important predictors of success for rural service learning projects. Strong relationships and sense of community in rural communities are assets in developing projects. Close ties with the community breaks down the campus-community divide and creates a more equal partnership. Long-lasting partnerships in rural areas also contributes to a sense of trust. Rural service learning practitioners found access to people to be easier in rural areas and there was less bureaucracy in developing and implementing programs.

The most significant challenges in rural service learning are around transportation difficulties and limited partnering organizations. Many programs mentioned ways that they overcame the transportation issue, but the solutions are not generalizable. Chronic lack of funding and limited resources also burden rural service learning programs. The limited staff at community organizations are often already overworked and training and supervising students adds to their workload. The lack of partner organizations can mean that colleges take their students and resources outside the community.

RASL Activities

RASL just finished organizing an anthology on rural service learning, currently under review. 

In the past, RASL has organized gatherings of rural service learning practitioners and is hoping to do so again.

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Yorkshire Dales Landscape background photo by Petr Kratochvil.