Service Learning Merits Academic Praise

December 1, 2002

Mary Ann Travis

Provost Lester Lefton arrived at Tulane last year questioning the academic rigor of service learning. He thought it was just student community service, said Barbara Moely, professor of psychology and director of Tulane's Office of Service Learning. But Lefton is an open-minded and practical chief academic officer.

After all, he teaches Introduction to Psychology, a class of 140 students, not only because he enjoys teaching but also so that he can keep in touch with students and attuned to faculty concerns. In order to evaluate Lefton's questions, Moely set out to do research about the academic worthiness of service learning.

Moely and her student Sarah M. Gallini (N 02) surveyed 313 Tulane students--roughly half were enrolled in service-learning courses and half were not. Using an in-depth questionnaire and sophisticated statistical tools, they found that students engaged in service-learning courses evaluated them as more academically challenging than other courses--and that these students were more likely to say that their courses encouraged them to stay at Tulane.

Gallini, now a graduate student at Indiana University, presented these findings at the second annual international Conference on Advances in Service-Learning Research last month in Nashville. Moely and Gallini also have submitted a paper based on their research to an academic journal. Since its establishment in 1999, Tulane's service-learning program has become a model that other universities emulate.

Approximately 750 Tulane students in 50 to 60 service-learning courses donate 24,000 hours of service each year. This semester students are engaged in service-learning activities--from tutoring, to visiting the elderly, to conducting neighborhood research--at 40 community sites. By now a believer in service learning, Lefton visited two sites last month.

Vincent Ilustre, associate director of the service-learning office, escorted him to Carter G. Woodson Learning Academy, near the half-demolished C.J. Peete Housing Development, and the Neighborhood Gallery on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the Central City neighborhood. Mary Laurie, principal of Woodson, told Lefton how much she appreciates the efforts of Tulane students who tutor her eighth-graders.

She said, "Whenever we reach out to Tulane for help, Tulane has responded." At the Neighborhood Gallery, proprietor Sandra Berry said, "It's an honor and pleasure to have Tulane students helping at the gallery. They become part of our network of artists."

The Neighborhood Gallery, with its art shows, poetry readings and garden, has been a catalyst for positive change since it opened four years ago in a section of town where residents struggle with poverty and social ills such as drug addiction and prostitution.

Brenda Harkavy, a freshman from Philadelphia, is documenting changes in the neighborhood around the Neighborhood Gallery. Her work is for the Urban Conservancy, a non-profit organization committed to preserving the historic urban fabric of New Orleans, and is the service-learning component of Urban Sociology, a course taught by Kevin Gotham, assistant professor of sociology.

Another of Gotham's students, Teresa Whitney, a sophomore from Houma, La., is looking at changes on Magazine Street, where upscale shops and restaurants have opened in place of social-service organizations such as homeless shelters. At the Neighborhood Gallery meeting with Gotham and others present, Whitney told Lefton, "I've learned how urban communities change."

Gotham emphasizes learning over service in his service-learning courses. He told Lefton, "Students should see the relationship between concepts they read about or discuss in class and the activities of the community organizations." Gotham is sold on service learning. Students are transformed by service learning. How they understand urban issues changes, he said.

In the van on the ride back to campus, Lefton seemed even more convinced that service learning has academic merit. Having our students participate in service learning gives them the opportunity to take classroom learning into the community, he said. Service learning brings a sophisticated approach to understanding the complex issues of poverty, class, ethnicity and gender.

Lefton added, "I'm impressed with how students have altered their world view in a short time through service learning. They have developed an understanding of the system of neighborhoods in an urban environment and how government, churches, schools and community organizations are intertwined in dynamic interplay. What a splendid opportunity."

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

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