For fourth-year anthropology major Linnet Luna, readings and lectures in her "Gender and Language in Society" class on the social context of communication came to life at the Bresee Foundation, a nonprofit community organization 14 miles east and a world apart from campus.
As a course requirement, Luna volunteered several hours a week there, helping high school students from low-income, immigrant families create a website, video and other communication tools to increase awareness of the California Dream Act. Later, in a class essay, she reflected upon the challenges of getting the word out to the long-disenfranchised community of undocumented students – she herself among them — about state financial aid for college.
Experiences like these are shared by thousands of UCLA students, thanks to forward-thinking faculty and the Center for Community Learning, which works with them to bring service learning into courses across the undergraduate curriculum. Under the leadership of Kathy O’Byrne, a clinical psychologist with three decades of experience with community organizations, the center has had a role this academic year in putting 1,500 UCLA students enrolled in 35 classes to work as community volunteers; these classes vary widely, from art education to statistical consulting.
In each class, students are required to volunteer three to four hours each week in meaningful projects taking place at hundreds of community organizations throughout L.A. county, then bring these experiences back into the classrooms to share in discussions, papers and more.
"This is a new frontier in higher education," said O’Byrne. "All the research on what students need to get out of a college education says they can’t just sit in a big lecture hall. They’ve got to get out and do … getting out of their comfort zones, spreading their wings."
Students in one English class, "Introduction to Critical Reading and Writing," for example, are not only honing their writing skills in the classroom, but are putting what they learn into practice by helping high school students at 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center with sites in Mar Vista and Echo Park, write personal essays for their college applications.
Students in German 118SL are interviewing German-speaking Holocaust survivors for an oral history project at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. And students in professor Jennifer Jay’s Civil and Environmental Engineering class are teaching K-12 students at several L.A. schools about climate change, air and water quality, and other environmental concerns.
In addition to service learning courses, the Center for Community Learning oversees independent study internships for 1,500 students every year, along with the AmeriCorps programs Jumpstart and Justice Corps, the Astin Scholars Program, Alternative Spring Break and the civic engagement and disability studies minors.
"We bring all these things together to make it easy for all our stakeholders — faculty, students and community partners — to come together and connect," said O’Byrne. "We’re the master matchmaker."
The matchmaking for a service learning course begins when O’Byrne sits down with a faculty member, reviewing the class syllabus and batting around ideas. She goes on to compile a list of potential community partners and, once the faculty member’s choices are made, makes introductions and even brings the community partners to the first day of class, where students sign on for their volunteer assignments.
The payoff for all this effort: Re-envisioned classes that reenergize both teaching and learning.
"What every faculty member wants is to walk into the classroom and see the light in the eyes of students excited about their learning," said O’Byrne. "Service learning ignites that spark. Everyone has done something new since the last class — worked in a K-12 school or at the Downtown Labor Center or maybe at an arts center in South L.A. Everybody’s got something to say — including students who rarely speak in class — about 'this ‘inspirational person I met’ or ‘this part of L.A. that I never went to before.’"
"Clearly," one faculty member related to O’Byrne, "it makes me think more about how to connect the theoretical to the ‘world out there’ and how to get my students to apply what we’re reading about when they go to the service site." Another noted: "Often, our students have learned about the various issues that our community partners focus on — areas like immigration, education, the ‘war on drugs,’ etc. — in compartmentalized ways, which is the way academic courses are set up. They find when they go out into the community that …these issues are interconnected."
Seeing the interconnections are par for the course for the nearly 200 first-year students in the general education cluster class, "Frontiers in Human Aging: Biomedical, Social and Policy Perspectives." During the yearlong course, students work with older adults at a wide variety of nonprofit organizations citywide. The International Institute of Los Angeles, for example, assists low-income, immigrants in Boyle Heights. ONEGeneration, in the San Fernando Valley, connects a senior center with a preschool, fostering "grandparenting" relationships between the generations.
Service learning, said O’Byrne, "is is a grander kind of philosophical approach to a 21st-century undergraduate education, designed to provide students with the skills they need to succeed in whatever they want to do once they graduate."
National research points to five key success skills that define a successful college education: problem solving, critical thinking, communication, working together in groups and working in diverse environments — skills that the Center for Community Learning strives to help foster through every service learning course.
"Whatever the class and wherever we send you," O’Byrne tells students, "whether you’re in a Chicano studies class and go to the Barrio Action Center, or in a life sciences class and you volunteer to teach in a K-12 classroom — I guarantee you’ll have an opportunity to work on those five skills."
Community service also speaks to UCLA’s vision, O’Byrne said, of helping every student grow as "an ethical, moral person who will apply those skills in the best possible way for the public good. We want students to think about how their involvement in the community figures into the fabric of a civil society."