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Learning through Service

Learning through Service

Service-learning internships grow skills, social consciousness

During summer break, many college students are either working to earn extra cash, picking up college credits, volunteering in the community, or tackling challenging internships in their fields. At Drake, one group of students was able to tackle all of these at once.

Through Drake’s Summer Service-Learning and Social Justice Program (SSSJP), five students had the opportunity to learn through internships at area nonprofits, actively engaging in the community while living and learning in close proximity and participating in critical group reflections.

“The students lived in the same hall on campus and ate their meals together—they bought and prepared their own food using the budget that a family of five on the free and reduced lunch program would have to live on,” says Mandi McReynolds, Drake service-learning coordinator. “We got together once a week. The students did readings and participated in critical group reflection on how what they learned interrelated with their experiences.”

Participant Courtney Howell, a junior politics and sociology major, says that the learning community atmosphere added to the richness of the experience.

“It was so good to come back home and talk to people who were doing the same kinds of things that I was. You can reflect,” she says. “It was an internship, but it was also much more than that.”

Seven-week immersion

The SSSJP internships at area nonprofits spanned seven weeks and concluded on June 30. Students were compensated for their work with the nonprofits through the Slay Fund for Social Justice. Launched by a gift to distinctlyDrake from Brent, ED’70, and Diane, ED’70, Slay, the fund supports this and other programs at Drake that advance social justice.

“Pairing students with social agencies will raise awareness of these issues and be good for the city of Des Moines,” says Brent Slay.

The following students took part in the summer 2012 service-learning program:

  • Courtney Howell, junior politics and sociology major, worked with Dress for Success, an organization that promotes economic independence for disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, support, and tools.
  • Amelia Eckles, a junior sociology major, worked with Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity, an organization that provides self-help home ownership opportunities for low-income working families.
  • Pat Felker, a junior sociology major, worked with Children and Family Urban Ministries. In his first experience with a nonprofit, Felker served as a contact for a program that provides educational opportunities and childcare in the summer.
  • Shivali Shah, a junior chemistry major, worked with Everybody Wins Iowa, a literacy and mentoring organization dedicated to building children’s success in school.
  • Kelcy Smith, a sophomore psychology and biology double major, used her passion for painting in work with the After School Arts Program (ASAP), which provides opportunities for students to get involved with the arts outside of school.

The Drake service-learning program is part of the Summer of Service Collaborative, a prestigious, national consortium of approximately 15 universities.

Students who take part are eligible for academic credits, which will be a particularly useful option with the incoming Drake class of 2012—the first that will be required to have an experiential learning credit for graduation.

Esteem and success for women

Howell began volunteering with Dress for Success even before her internship officially started. She helped organize the group’s first major fundraiser, a fashion show held on the Drake campus. Howell also worked extensively with the worldwide Dress for Success organization to launch the Going Places Network by Walmart, a grant-driven program that brings professional skills, job search support, weekly training, and one-on-one career coaching to clients in Des Moines.

“I was given curriculum by the worldwide organization, but had to put it together,” says Howell. “I recruited peer mentors for program participants, wrote a proposal for a project with a professional women’s group, and organized networking opportunities and guest speakers. I spent the majority of my time on this program, but also had the opportunity to work with clients, providing employment [clothing] fittings in the boutique.”

Building nonprofit skills with Habitat 

During Amelia Eckles’ internship with Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity, her primary focus was working on Rock the Block™. This outreach initiative provides residents in targeted neighborhoods support for home repair, preservation, and weatherization. Eckles was involved with planning and staging Rock the Block neighborhood events, as well as working directly with homeowners.

“Serving as an intern with Habitat challenged me, developed my communication and planning skills, and taught me to think differently about what it means to help someone,” Eckles says. “I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Habitat … and learning about the various life circumstances of the homeowners impacted me greatly. People have unique experiences that shape their ability to care for their homes.”

Support for at-risk kids

An internship with the After School Arts Program (ASAP) gave Kelcy Smith the chance to tap into her artistic side. Her duties ran the gamut from working with kids at Summer Arts Camp and recruiting volunteers to compiling a staff and volunteer database, filing reports on student and parent evaluations, and hosting a fundraising event.

Smith says she was especially eager to work with the organization after seeing research stating that involvement with art greatly increases the chances that a child will attain post-secondary education.

“Having access to art is a privilege, but one that everyone should be able to take part in and enjoy,” she says.

Smith, who hopes to become a genetic counselor someday, believes that her work with ASAP is giving her the skills to work with a wide variety of people.

“I learned to have more humility in my interactions, and have a better viewpoint on the kinds of experiences that other people are going through,” she says. “Hopefully I will have the opportunity to continue volunteering and helping kids gain access to art.”

Transferable skills, unforgettable experience

Following their service-learning experiences, the five participants delivered a public presentation with community members and Drake leaders, and will face an even more illustrious audience this fall.

“The students are presenting to President Jimmy Carter during his visit to campus in September,” says McReynolds. “It will be part of a private forum that the Slays are having, in which the students will discuss their work with President Carter.”

Even aside from this rare opportunity, the students came away from the experience with the skills of leadership, self-direction, and critical reflection, as well as an understanding of cultural pluralism and an attitude of civic engagement. These takeaways from the SSSJP internships will prove valuable to the students’ futures, no matter what they may hold.

“As a sociology major who hopes to work in the nonprofit sector, Habitat for Humanity has given me practical experience working for an international nonprofit organization,” Eckles says. “Regardless of whether or not I end up working for a nonprofit, the skills I have learned through my internship will help me work better with people—whether they’re coworkers or clients.”