The Rural Alliance for Service Learning
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The Relationship Lessons of Service Learning

The Relationship Lessons of Service Learning

Randy Stoecker and Michelle Walters

This is the story of the importance of faculty-nonprofit relationships across the rural-urban divide. We are a faculty member (Randy) and a nonprofit director (Michelle) who were brought together through a service learning project that didn't turn out as we expected. And if we had built the relationship before the program started that we developed after it went astray, we could have kept it on track in the first place.

Most people have focused on student outcomes in service learning so we normally don’t see stories of things going wrong. Because when we look at student learning, we find that students always learn something, even if it is less than we’d hoped. But when we look at service learning from the community perspective, it is easier to see things going wrong. For a community organization has a right to expect some outcome from higher education civic engagement. And sometimes their involvement with service learning produces a net loss in terms of the organization’s productivity.

The Context

Michelle Walters became involved with Randy Stoecker through a class he was teaching. This was not the first experience she had with service learning, but it was her first connection with Randy. Likewise, Randy had been experimenting with different service learning models. In this class individual students could volunteer with community organizations in the hopes they would help build the organizations’ capacity through specific well-defined projects. The idea was that students would already have the needed skills to do the projects, and the class would train them with the advanced skills that would help them implement their project skills. Students would then be matched with organizations to identify and complete a project agreed upon by the student and the organization in a semester's time frame.

At the time, Michelle directed the Deerfield Community Center (DCC). Approximately 17 miles east of Madison, DCC is located in a village of approximately 2,500 people. Many residents are only one generation removed from farming, and the community still successfully operates a volunteer fire department. Their annual Fireman’s Festival is very well-attended by people all over the state with the tractor pull being one of the best in the state. A large portion of the workforce travels over 25 miles one way for their job. There is no grocery store in the community and the nearest is 6 miles away. Deerfield is a supportive community when it comes to taking care of its own which makes it difficult for those not born and raised in Deerfield to provide assistance even when it is needed.

At the time, the DCC was actively engaged in a capital campaign to increase space for the multitude of programs and services it conducts on a daily basis. The Center provides services to residents of all ages in the school district. It is open daily during the week for after school programs, senior activities and meal site, food pantry and other social services, and it is the recreation department for residents young and old.

The Project

DCC was one of the groups that agreed to host a student from Randy's class. They were looking for support for a project to better communicate with the community and enhance their capital campaign project. As University personnel were becoming aware of the university’s bias to serving urban rather than rural organizations, Randy made a commitment to serving rural organizations. Randy thought the DCC had a clear project and, even though it was rural, was still in the same county as Madison. The DCC Director had tried to recruit local residents to work on their proposed project. However, they did not have the time necessary for this volunteer project and it became impossible to solidify their commitment. DCC heard about Randy's class through a connection to a Madison-based nonprofit organization.

The steps in such a process at the time began with Randy locating an appropriate student and then connecting that student with the community organization. Then the organization Director and the student would meet to develop goals and outcomes for the project and a timeline in which they would be accomplished. Then a student would be expected to travel to the community to meet with the community organization staff, develop the project design, and locate and present options to the organization. This is where the challenges of a rural placement began. Randy could find a student with the skills but not with a car (and university regulations are ambiguous about whether students should drive themselves to university activities even if they do have a car). The University of Wisconsin Morgridge Center for Public Service provides services and assistance to agencies within Madison, as well as taxi fare for students in the city, but not outside of it. Randy had funding for students to use university cars, but it was not an easy process.

To get a university car, students had to pass an investigation to determine their eligibility to drive. Then there was much paperwork to complete. Then students had to schedule and request a car, which required thinking and planning a couple weeks in advance depending on availability. They then had to acquire transportation to the car lot, located a few blocks from campus in an unfamiliar part of the city, and drive to an unfamiliar community. The university motor pool at the time had bad windshield wipers. With some cars a moderate rain could force one to pull to the side of the road.

Reviewing this set of conditions, it is easy to see how a one-hour meeting could easily occupy a two-hour or longer space of time. Such a process also required thinking far in advance, clearly estimating the total time needed to complete a task, and planning well ahead. Randy was not prepared for these challenges either, and consequently did not prepare students in such advanced project management skills. It is easy to imagine, then, how difficult it would be for students to get to meetings out of town. The DCC Director then ended up mostly coming in to the UW campus in Madison to meet and hand over information about the DCC saved on various thumb drives. This time and mileage was not compensated to the DCC but was a personal expense absorbed by the Director.

It is of course very hard to get a good understanding of a community when neither professors nor students spend sufficient time there. Small rural towns have their own uniqueness, as do rural community organizations. In the case of the DCC, while the Director and one staff person had some of the knowledge needed for the project, they did not have enough to guide the student's search for options. And Randy was not familiar enough with either the community or the organization to adequately guide the project. Consequently, the draft product did not fit the organization's needs well.

At that point, in retrospect, Michelle should have contacted Randy and we could have gotten the project on track. But we did not have a strong enough relationship between us such that one of us could pick up the phone and feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly about what was taking place. One of the challenges facing rural organizations is that they are physically too far away to have much interaction with university personnel. Also, with this organization in particular, and this is similar to other rural serving agencies, the Director is the only full-time staff person. Two staff were scheduled at 32 hours per week and one more was scheduled at 12 hours per week. All other operations functioned with volunteers. Time was not available to put in the necessary hours to do the extra work of handling the challenges of this project. Funds to support the paid positions needed to do this project would have had to come out of private funds paid for by many of the grants DCC receives.

It was not until after the semester was completed and Randy was conducting follow-up calls that it became clear that DCC had put many staff hours into the project and did not believe they had a product that fit their needs. So Randy finally went out to Deerfield to work with the DCC and find other expertise to make sure they had a product that they could use. Driving out to Deerfield reminded Randy how important it is for faculty to actually experience the community and the organization that students are working with, particularly when both are so different from the experience he was used to in the city. Michelle also engaged local residents to come forward and implement the project. So finally we had a real collaboration that only happened because we had finally developed enough of a relationship to communicate openly, and had located other resources and support for new volunteers.

But our relationship still had room for growth. In fact, it was more than a year later, at a rural service learning conference, that the two of us sat down and really discussed this experience in a way that could allow us to understand what happened and what we could learn from it.

The Lessons

We have learned a number of lessons through this project, perhaps the most important of which is the need to develop trusting relationships between the faculty service-learning sponsor and the community organization staff person. As Randy's practice matured into subsequent semesters, he no longer separates the voluntary projects from the graded course assignments. He also no longer tries to supervise multiple students doing multiple projects and instead focuses an entire class on one project that he leads. Consequently, he also does more and more to reach out and develop relationships with community organization staff to track and troubleshoot projects, sometimes on a weekly basis. And he learned that this required more relationship building with rural organization staff, who had less experience working with university offices and students and consequently a less clear set of expectations for them. He also has been doing more to address the problem of students needing more time in a community before they attempt to do work in that community, by holding class in the community with community residents present. Doing so, however, is more difficult when longer distances are involved. The short-term service-learning model, that provides about 20 hours of work, is sorely inadequate for both building relationships and accomplishing the necessary outcomes, and Randy now organizes most projects to be around 40 hours of engagement.

There is some suggestion from the DCC experience that we may have the model backwards, especially in rural areas. DCC’s best experiences have been with college students who graduated from Deerfield High School and have come back for the summer term. Could it be that we should be concentrating on building models around students with local roots?

It is also clear from this experience that distance really matters, which is also unique to a rural context. While it is generally true that students don’t want to even venture more than a few blocks from campus, their transportation and scheduling challenges grow as the project is the distance between the campus and the project grows. Students need both the freedom in their schedule, and easy access to reliable transportation, to successfully do civic engagement in rural communities.

Other challenges are endemic to all service learning. Educating students’ on the community development understanding and the professional skills necessary for providing useful community outcomes is a challenge in any service learning context.

In the end, however, successful service learning depends on the relationship between the professor and the community representative. And perhaps that is the greatest lesson. Trust relationships are important everywhere, but nowhere are they more embedded in the fabric of community life than in the rural context. Those in the university who ignore that reality will repeat our mistakes.




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.