We student affairs professionals know better than most that learning continues beyond the classroom. So join me today as we learn what service-learning is and what it isn’t, unpack the intersections of social justice issues and service learning, and hear some of our favorite student aha moments.
Meg: Hey y’all, it’s Meg Sunga and welcome to “Will There Be Food?”, The student affairs podcast that like your job is so much more than free pizza. Every week we get to explore a new topic in higher ed with humans in the industry. All right, listeners, let’s have a pop quiz. What is the difference between service learning, community service and volunteering? TLDR: service learning is curriculum based, while community service and volunteering are not. Alright, if you’re still confused like me on some of the nuances, the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse sums it up best. Service-learning is quote “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” We student affairs professionals know better than most that learning continues beyond the classroom. So join me today as we learn what service learning is and what it isn’t, unpack the intersections of social justice issues in service learning, and hear some of our favorite student aha moments. Joining us on the show today is Nicole Patterson. Nicole is a coordinator for student leadership and civic engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University. Nicole, thank you so much for joining us on “Will There Be Food?” today.
Nicole: Hi Meg. Thanks for having me.
Meg: Awesome! I’m so excited to talk about service learning. Well listen, I first off I want to be very clear that my idea of service learning may be a little, um, small and so I do want to kick off with the first question of just what exactly is service learning, what does it encompass and what is it not?
Nicole: Yes, I’m ready to expand your horizons today, Meg. Um, so I conceptualize service learning as a teaching and learning strategy, um, that essentially get students out into the community and experiencing, ah, their curriculum in real time in communities. It can be curricular or co-curricular. It’s experiential learning in partnership with the community at its base. Um, it’s collaborative and yeah, like I said, problem-based and really just with the goal to enhance student learning and with all those fantastic ways that experiential learning and transformational learning can enhance student learning. Is it really kind of… It can be a lot of things. It can be… it can be a student affairs program. It could be a co-curricular program. I predominantly work with co-curricular service learning, um, and it can also be curricular. So that’s I think the most traditional sense of the way that we know service learning is, um, I’m taking a course as a college student or they also have service learning and you know, K-12 education, which is awesome. So I’m taking a course and as a part of that course, I am working with a community partner stuff. I’m in a public health class, like nutrition class. Maybe I’m working out with the local food bank. And so not only am I learning about concepts related to food insecurity in you know, an abstract theoretical way from my awesome professors from my lecture, but also I’m getting the chance to see it and experience it for myself. Um, and a huge piece of service learning that I have not mentioned yet is the reflective component. So it’s experiences and it’s reflections that really helped to build student learning. Now the way I do service learning co-curricularly looks like local or national or international volunteer projects typically that are student led that require a lot of, uh, that are group oriented and reflective. So we might go again, like this food pantry idea. We might go and work at a food bank for a weekend in Washington, D.C. And in the evenings we’re going to talk about, oh, poverty, urban poverty, um, we’re going to talk about food insecurity. We’re going to talk about our own experiences, what it’s like for us, too. I work, collaborate together around this issue… And how, and how are we feeling and how are we reactin? And then we’re also like listening to our peers as they’re uh, sharing their experiences. So it’s meant to, yeah. It’s just meant to deepen learning and make it, make it real.
Meg: Yeah. Okay. So then that means, and this is me being, again, the little bit naive to the whole breadth and depth of service learning, but I sometimes would always get confused between service learning and like community service, but that there is a difference there is what I’ve learned.
Nicole: Cool. Yes. Good question. So what are the… yeah, I would say service learning is not volunteering. Um, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of words that like community and service learning and they can be sort of vague, but really the main differences is just the, the fact that we’re reflecting on our experiences, right? So with service learning, the goal is less, you know, we’re going to go out and help this community or save this community. Um, we’re gonna go out and work with this community to begin to understand in a more complex and nuanced way the realities of whatever we’re trying to learn about or work towards. Um, so it’s the relationship between the student and the community partner is so important. The reflection is so important. So community, when I hear community service or really volunteering is a, is kind of that word that implies there’s not a lot of thought on my part that’s required beyond the doing of the thing, if that makes sense. So, you know, I may go and clean up a park and it’s like, great, the park is clean and I feel good. And that’s great. And volunteering is so fantastic and we need volunteers in our communities. Uh, service learning in my mind is it’s not an answer as much. So it’s not like I’ve gone in and I volunteered and I have solved the problem. The park was dirty and now the park is clean. Service learning is, I have gone and worked with the park and worked with the neighborhood and began to grapple with, like, are there waste management problems in our community? And perhaps I can apply that to my work in public policy. Right? So it’s, yeah, it’s um, it’s meant to extend beyond the singular experience.
Meg: That was perfect. I love that. Because my, so in my research and you know, how I prepared for this episode is, you know, as I’m looking up what service learning looks at at different schools, I was also getting a little bit inundated with, again, the term volunteering and then the criticism behind volunteering such as like the whole exploitation or like the white saviorism of volunteering. And so I was worried, you know, does student affairs have that issue? And then how do we, or how do any of you know, my student affairs colleagues kind of combat that or educate against that? Um, what are your thoughts?
Nicole: Oh man, that’s a really exciting question to me because I think that this is something that we really struggle with. Um, in student affairs our… We serve students. So our goal is to create learning experiences that are meaningful for students, um, and obviously safe and, you know, support their role as students and human beings. And so we’re just constantly thinking about what is going to be the best, most powerful experience for our students. Now when we’re doing service learning, obviously that’s still important to us, but we have to privilege the voice and the needs, uh, and the requests of the community.
Meg: Mm Hmm.
Nicole: I mean, in an ideal world, equally I think it’s in an actuality, in a student affairs office doing service learning work, it’s almost impossible, right? Like we cannot be reactive to every community need necessarily. Um, you know, our students live busy lives. We’re trying to connect them and see what they can do, but like how can we, within the experiences that we create, work as hard as we can to let like those community voices drive what it is that we’re doing and what our students are experiencing, right? So we can’t manipulate the experience to the extent that we probably want to, right? Like we want to make our programs like neat and clean and tidy and we want to learn and we want them to like get the answer, right? They did the ropes course and hey they learned about leadership and they learned about working together and they can reflect and have kind of an easy answer. A lot of times service learning, as I mentioned before, it can complicate things like it makes what I’m learning in my class. Like it’s, I thought that I could do public policy and go out there and change the world immediately. And working with service learning and working with communities has helped me understand how complex it is to meet the needs of all the different people in a community. So yeah. So I struggle with this.. the idea of like the volunteering as being bad? I think, yeah, I think volunteering is a good thing. And I think also charity, we talk about charity, um, you know, there’s a lot of individuals that are supported as a result of charities. I’m like, never wants to tell somebody not to help somebody else if that’s what they want to do. Um, but when we’re facilitating service learning, I mean, in my work, I try really hard to press students as hard as we possibly can to not think of ourselves first, right? To say we’re here to learn from you, we’re here to provide you a service, but we’re also here to learn from you and you’re hosting us. You know, we’re college students, we, uh, are not necessarily the most skilled of laborers a lot of times, especially, yeah. Right? Like we may go volunteer somewhere doing a cleanup and I’ve never used a shovel before. Like you have taught me, community partner, how to use a shovel. Um, so just yeah, trying to complicate that in students’ mind and in my work in a lot of, I think where this conversation resonates in the student affairs field is thinking of service learning or work with the community as a partnership with a goal of like… With a justice oriented goal. Right? Um, so whereas charity can sort of, and you know, saviorism comes off as very condescending, like imperialist. I know what’s best. And service learning is confusing and sloppy and requires a lot of back and forth and um, is everyone understands that no one is necessarily changing the world through the, that we’re doing necessarily right now through the service. But it’s really those longterm impacts of learning how to listen and work together and collaborate and use my expertise as, as a student or my lack of… We can just use whatever skills that I have to contribute to a problem as opposed to like coming in and thinking that I have the answer or that I’m able to solve something. Right? So just being able to work, work through that. I think it’s really key and important,
Meg: Your answer made me think of the next question essentially, which is you mentioned that you kind of shattered the glass, right, for some of these students, um, because service learning is complex and there are things that they might have thought going into it that isn’t reality, right? And you’re providing them that experience to unpack a lot of those things. Um, especially very specifically in a social justice way. I’m curious, do you think or do you know if, um, service learning programs or experiential learning programs have any sort of social justice component? Oh, and if there isn’t, should there be?
Nicole: I mean, I guess it obviously depends on the program. Um, but is there necessarily a commitment to social justice? I think the, some of the best programs that I’ve seen, there’s the strongest commitment that, that I see is to mutually beneficial partnerships, which even, which sounds like a basic thing and sounds like anytime that we’d be going out and working in the community, it would be mutually beneficial. Right? Like giving you volunteers… That benefits you and benefits our students because they get to have an experience, but just that basic standard, so challenging to, um, in terms of administering these programs. And again, just like understanding the level of skill that a student brings in. So like if we can, if we feel like we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with a community partner and we’re both getting what we need and our voices are heard, I think that is the gold standard. I don’t see necessarily programs… I will, I would, I want to find them now. I want to look for them. We’re gonna, um, move the needle on this issue. Right? Um, we are going to see social change as a result of our, uh, participation. I think engendering a social justice orientation in a student, it could be an outcome of these programs. Um, but universities have commitments to communities. They are all, you know, we don’t want to promise too much. So yeah, we want our students to have the orientation but not necessarily an end goal of achieving any sort of measurable community progress through service learning specifically.
Meg: Sure. Yeah. And I think that when we think about the data behind, you know, what we do when it comes to experiential or service learning, we know that students definitely get a lot out of this experience. Right? Um, I’m curious what it looks like for the community side and how that is measured. Do you all, do you, I guess, does VCU do that measurement right now?
Nicole: That’s great. Yeah. We, well we have a division of a community engagement, which is fantastic. That does a lot of work with our faculty to support curricular service learning. Um, and then they also provide supports to the community by way of grant funding for community engaged research, um, and working closely with our community partners to kind of assess their experiences and provide resources, um, when we… So co-curricularly I mean that a lot of that is just personal relationships, right? That all develop the, um, students that have connections around the city that are passionate about things, will develop and just having an open line of communication so that we can be clear about when each other’s needs are getting met. But in terms of know, again, we’re, we work for the university, we work for the students. So we have a commitment to the community and we want to provide resources to the community. But in the end, you know, it’s, it’s makes the most logical sense to collect the most data from our students and assessment experiences and assess that learning. I guess that’s like the learning piece. So…
Meg: Nicole, how do we judge the value of service learning? Like who is it? Is it the institution, is it student, the teacher, the faculty member who puts us on? Like how do we judge what we’re doing is good?
Nicole: How are we assessing service learning? I think, again, from a student affairs perspective, and this is not wrong, but we, we’re assessing our students learning, um, in my work co-curricularly with civic engagement programs that looks like formative and summative assessments. And really we can gather a lot of information about student learning through reflections, whether those are conversations in a group or a classroom or those are written reflections. What are students, how are they making meaning of this experience? Um, and then also at the of end our program, right? Doing all of our best practice work. It just assessing with more, uh, empirical survey um sort of things on our learning outcomes and also, you know, “How it’d go? How’d you like it? like How’d you feel? “Um, and then as I mentioned, I think it is also really important to work with our community partners as a follow-up to be like, what was this experience like for you? How did it work? How can we better prepare our students to come into your space and be ready to serve and be ready to engage with whatever population that you’re working with and to just be as prepared as they can be when they’re working with you. So it’s, so those are, I think the two key things. And I, I mean, I measure kind of at a 30,000 foot level and a passion, right? So like, do I have students that after an experience with service learning go seek out collaborative experiences in the community, um, on their own right? Are they, as a result of an alternative break trip, um, does a student now work in homeless services here in Richmond, around campus, um, and start a program, right? And, and take it from having community service be something that is passive that I participate in to something that I, am at the forefront of and lead. Yeah. So I think like it is what are those experiences like and um, what, what changes are they creating in students in terms of how they see themselves as a part of their community and they’re, what they’re able to do, right? They don’t have to wait for an opportunity. They don’t have to be asked for help. Essentially. They can say, I’m passionate about this and I want to listen to you and learn from you and work with you and have them work together. Yeah. So I think collaboration and community are, are just like two really key principles that I keep coming back to is like how can we learn to talk to each other.
Meg: Absolutely! It’s like the key foundation. It is so important. We’re not doing it enough.
Nicole: Right? It’s not the worst thing.
Meg: Oh my gosh! I think that you hit something for me that, um, just I love what you just said in regards to, you know, a student goes through a service learning opportunity and then it honestly can change their whole, um, career trajectory, right? And I, I’ve, I think I’ve seen some of those moments when I used to supervise RAs and obviously the freshmen students that used to live with me in my residence hall. And I’m curious to know, um, do you have any favorite kind of aha moments with any of your students?
Nicole: Yes. Great. So, um, a part of group service learning experiences, uh, that I find so meaningful is the ability for students to reflect across their diverse experiences about an issue. So let me explain what I mean by that. So, um, the alternative break program, which I haven’t really, let me, let me tell you a little bit about what that is. Alternative break programs are, uh, it’s there, uh, ubiquitous. You find them everywhere. There’s a national model and so they’re week long typically. They could be other lengths but week-long, national or international service trips that typically are student-led with some faculty or staff participation. So there’s strong direct service, just a lot of collaborative living and, and excellent reflection is a huge part of that. So we’ll take a group of students to another community and they’ll have the opportunity to work and to observe and to talk about what they’ve experienced, why it’s significant to them, and what it might mean for them moving forward in their life. Now what I find very beautiful is when students have disagreements, right? When we can engage in a little bit of discourse around these complicated issues because these issues are complicated. Poverty is complicated. We don’t know the answer. We can’t get to it by the end of a semester or through a bachelor’s degree. We don’t know the answers. Um, and so sometimes on these trips you can have uniformity of opinion, right? Like we all know that we, here’s what we need to do to solve it. And if everyone just did this, life would be perfect. Um, what is so beautiful in diverse groups of students encountering kind of new cultures and communities and reflecting on them together as well. You know, one student is like, uh, I can’t believe this. I’ve never been exposed to this. I’ve never seen this level of poverty is shocking to me. I have a new understanding of the way, you know, and, and I’ve developed empathy for people that, because I was unaware of before of these experiences, right? Um, another student across the circle could say, ah, you know what? It sounds like you’re making an excuse for poor people that they don’t have to succeed, right? So like, yeah, I came from a background where I was, you know, in a similar situation, like the, my experience mirrors what we’re… The people that we’re serving, right? And I am here, I’m in college, I’m making it happen. And you know, they, everyone just needs to work as hard as they can. So it’s like there’s a tension there, right?
Meg: Mm hmm. So much to unpack.
Nicole: Yes! And like that to me that is beautiful because not only are we learning to empathize with the other, right? The other that were serving… We’re recognizing it. Acknowledging that like within our own group, people trying to grapple with complex world problems and also be authentic about their experience and positionality related to those issues and still continue the conversation. I think from a civic engagement perspective, like from those outcomes, like that’s, yeah, that is my theory. How can we be honest and talk about problems and we might, in honesty, there’s not a solution and we’re, but we’re just more aware of each other’s opinions… and we can gain a level of respect for each other so that when we, again, as we continue to try to collaborate and move forward into the world with the many, you know, many things that we, problems that are yet to be solved. Like how can we truly listen to one another and have concern for one another and, and, and live in that tension and be okay in that tension. I think that is a tremendous and powerful skill. So those, I mean reflection is really what makes service learning experiences. So, such powerful learning experiences, allowing me to bring my feelings, my experiences into the conversation. Um, and being comfortable do that with others. Right? Like that’s, I think that’s really key and powerful learning experience. I’ve seen students change their majors, lots, lots of students change their majors as a result of participation in service learning activities. Like they just see a real world. I see a lane for me to get in and to make a meaningful difference and to make connections. Um, and I just, I’m going to follow that as far as it goes. And so yeah, it’s powerful. It’s, it can be empowering for students and communities and it all, it, it can also be challenging. So I think the combination of those two things is really cool and complex, um, and can get students really thinking deeply about, you know, what, what’s my role gonna be in this world? Like how am I going to work together to do something with my life? And so it’s, it’s a cool taste of that while you’re in college.
Meg: I love that! And I can see where as a faculty member or you know, a coordinator of this office, I could see where some of those conversations for y’all could kind of be difficult to navigate with them as well. You know, what is your role in unpacking all that with them?
Nicole: Hm. So student leaders really guide those conversations and we’ve got excellent reflective models. My favorite, um, is the What-So What-No What. uU, just, you know, what are you experiencing? What, or how, what meaning do you make of that? What do you think moving forward? Like what implications does it have? Um, so students really lead that charge and I do a lot of training with students to talk about, uh, the active citizen, ah, active citizenship continuum and um, reflective service models and giving them all the tools, broadly and specifically to have those conversations. But you’re right, like once we get in them, um, hopefully we’ve got faculty and staff there many times we do for these sorts of experiences. And I think it’s really, we just come from our own perspective, right? Like we, there is, there is no answer again on a lot of these issues that we’re seeking to address. We don’t know the answer yet. Um, and so we can bring our expertise. Um, and that’s, I mean, that’s when things get really beautiful is like, Hey, we’re working on an alternative break trip that’s focused on urban poverty and we have got uh, someone from the school public affairs who is then a public policy expert on the matter who is on this trip with us. And so when we start to think about these things, like what is the role of the government, for example, and supporting individuals, then we can, we’ve got someone who knows what’s going on, right? So can bring a little…
Meg: Yeah, it was plugged in.
Nicole: Exactly! So, so there’s like that content expertise that can be very powerful and meaningful. But in terms of, you know, working with students as they unpack and debate, it’s just letting them have those conversations, right? And jumping in to support if, you know, someone’s getting attacked or if there are things that are needed, but letting it really just unfold. Um, and also it’s, it’s nice to bring in an, an older perspective, cause again, the, I think diversity of conversation and these experiences is, is a really powerful element. So if our group is all undergraduates, having someone who’s like, you know, a 50-year-old- white dude, you know, faculty member coming in with that perspective, I mean that’s meaningful. And for me to feel comfortable as a 50 year old white male faculty member providing my perspective to a diverse group of 20 year olds. Like that takes a little bit of courage. Um, and so, and then maybe there can be increased understanding between those individuals. Right. So I see the role of faculty and staff members honestly as very equal in terms of group membership. They have a little bit of expertise, a little bit of additional life experience. But as we go into these conversations, a part of the setup is, you know, we all have equal voice and equal right to participate. Um, and so not, you know, definitely not like correcting, um, like with.. Yeah, not correcting. And as soon as I said that, I was like, well, there’s probably a time that they could correct. Yeah, that’s right. There’s always… I’m sure there’s a time to jump in. Um, but,
Meg: But it’s hard, you know, as student affairs professionals, we also want to like, you know, we want to help guide the conversation, but then we also want to be a part of the conversation. And so sometimes it’s hard for us to kind of like pull back.
Nicole: So true. It is so true.
Meg: Yeah, I can see where, you know, you just have to be mindful of kind of where you insert yourself and obviously if it’s going really south or getting, you know, too, too heated, then yes. You know, help out. But yeah, for anyone listening,
Nicole: I’ve never seen it… I, my, my, the thing, what I see is just sort of like complacency and consensus. Like that’s what I would, I would rather have a slightly concerning debate then just like, Oh yeah, that, you know, easy as pie. Like, we know how to solve this now and we all know that this is the right thing. And like we all agree. Um, I think that’s, I mean, cause that’s, you’re, where’s the learning that’s happening? They’re like, we already knew the answer and we still know the answer and everything is great. Um, or is like problematizing thinking, I talked a little bit about, uh, transformative learning. I’m into transformative learning theory stuff… like how paradigms being challenged. Even if they don’t, they’re not changed, right? Like how are these experiences? I mean that’s what they’re meant to do is to provide real worlds context too. Challenge some of my mental frameworks. Right? Or maybe confirm them, but with, with, when we all agree then, then you know, there’s not, there’s just no challenge happening there. So learn..
Meg: Right. There’s no growth happening.
Nicole: Exactly. Exactly. So we need to work really hard to create a safe space where people, especially now, like more now more than ever, to create a safe space where people feel like, Hey, it’s okay to share your experience. And I might not agree with it and it may offend me, but if it’s, if it’s, if it’s your experience and you’re speaking from, you know, like I-statements, if you’re speaking about yourself and your experience, like I can’t, who am I to invalidate your experience and say it’s, it’s wrong. So, um, so now Meg, I want to see a, a fight. I want to see fights. I want to get in there and break it up. Then I know that real learning is happening.
Meg: (laughs) I want that level of intense dialogue. Yes. Yeah. No, and I agree. I think that, you know, because it feels uncomfortable, right? When we’re having these conversations or you know, we’re in real time in a place in space that is unlike the college campus experience. You know, you’re out in the field with under served or underprivileged, you know, communities or your, you know, in a different country dealing with completely different cultures and everything and you know, a lot of clashing of those ideas and ideals. Right? And we have this tendency, a lot of, if anyone’s a strength quest-er out there listening, you know, we have some harmony people in student affairs that just want things to be hunky dory, but I think they’re, as long as it’s constructive and in a space where we can hash things out and not attack each other for genuine learning, genuine questions, you know, I think that we should have some deep dialogue because I think we’re missing out on learning about different things if you don’t have it.
Nicole: I agree. I think learning is, is hard. Like learning is painful. Like no way. Leading the knees is tackle, like understanding, like increasing my awareness beyond what it is now. Oftentimes for me is really challenging. So if students are, uh, if their emotions aren’t impacted by some of these experiences, right? If they’re not being mentally, emotionally, however challenged by their experiences, it’s likely that it’s because no learning is taking place, right? Like, I already, I already knew this or I know this. I fully understand this. There’s nothing more here for me that’s like being an expert. Hey, I know everything. Life is hunky dory, like I have all the answers. Um, but as we know, where it’s so rare that we’re heard, most of the time there’s more information and it’s challenging. The more we know, the more. Yeah. The more we know, the harder things can be. So absolutely beautiful to have a group to experience that with. Right? So it’s not just me alone in this experience of facing a new and challenging understanding of the world. It is me with a group of tpals who support me and are here to listen to me as I tried to grapple with the fact that the world is a more complicated and more challenging than I thought yesterday. Like how can I lean into that and continue to want to listen and work together? Um, in spite of it makes me feel bad. Right? Like, like volunteering and community service makes me feel good. It makes me feel happy that I’ve given back and it’s made me feel valuable and makes me feel altruistic. Like a good person. Warm fuzzies. And service learning can sometimes make me feel sad or bad, right? Uh, and we don’t want students to go to programs where they’re sad. We just, that’s not trying, but it’s okay. Like it’s, yes, it’s important and, and there’s not going to be necessarily throughout their lives a kindly administrator that’s willing to sit down on a couch with them and let them unpack those feelings about the complications of learning and of complexity. And so we can help kind of give them, in addition to the tools to, to have those learning experiences, we can help support them with some of those emotional tools. Right? Some like just development, human development to be able to continue and to, to lead in a world where it’s oftentimes painful and challenging to do. So it’s an opportunity to practice that and to have someone, a shoulder to cry on, you know, as you’re learning those skills.
Meg: Those important transferrable skills we always talk about students trying to get…
Nicole: Emotional intelligence. I am all about it.
Meg: I’m so happy you said that. I’m just, you know, I’m, I’m thinking about all the times in res life that we did, you know, extended orientation and, you know, we, I’ve done a million different types of service programs with our students and I’m thinking about uniquely and very specifically, an time a student is going on a trip or are about to do a project with someone with a student, with another student that they didn’t necessarily want to do it with or they have like ill will or like, Oh, they’re so annoying. And then they come back from this trip and they’re like, they’re my best friend. They’re amazing. Like, it’s just so interesting. Like, you know, we’ve been talking about how things change, not only can your careers change, but your attitudes and your perception changes, um, about different things. And so I love how transformative all of, you know, all of these opportunities bring together. Um, but I’m wondering, you know, as a service learning coordinator for yourself, what has been the most transformational about it for you?
Nicole: I want to journal about this for two hours, Meg. I don’t know. Um, again, the, the diversity piece, like incorporating the diversity piece into the conversation about service learning has greatly impacted the way that I see people working together to solve problems and amount of time that it takes to do that work in a meaningful way, you know? Yeah. Those, those complicating conversations that we have that are like, Hey, there are 10 different ways to address this issue. There are 10 different ways to react to this issue. And it’s kind of important that we take all of those into consideration. And then some, right? So this idea of, I mentioned earlier about a student affairs professionals, we want to privilege student experiences over necessarily like the community partner experiences. So doing this work has made me understand that we’ve got to listen to everyone, right? We have to be reactive to everyone to get to the best solution. Um, and you know what, we might not even get there, right? We might not even get to the solution today, but even just creating a space where everyone is equally heard and valued is like an ideal. It’s this beautiful golden ideal that is so, so challenging. So it helps me slow down. I think, um, that would be the transformation I could see in myself from beginning in student affairs to now is like, you know what, to do this correctly, it’s gonna be messier and it’s gonna take longer because I’m going to have to make sure that all of these constituents are at the table and are being heard. Essentially. It’s the big takeaway is that this work is so hard. The work of social justice, the work of social change is so challenging and it’s better for it to be complicated and, uh, to involve conflict and to take a long time then to not almost always, it’s better for it to be hard. It’s no fun Friday afternoon, but like in general it’s so so important. And that extends to like this work and not just the, my general worldview, right, of how we have to, it’s hard to work together. Like solutions often are simple because they’re excluding the perceptions of many others. So, yeah. So we have to forgive ourselves because we, when we’re working together, we, it’s, we can’t wrap it up and put a pretty bow on it immediately. Right? Like as, as administrators, that’s what we love to do. Give us a spreadsheet, right? Like, Hey, here’s the spreadsheet. Everything’s aligned. Look at them. We got full alignment, we got clarity schedules, we know exactly what’s going to happen and what’s gonna happen… What the outcomes will be as a result. Right. Masterful, beautiful plan. Um, and we just, I can’t do that with service learning, right? We can have a spreadsheet, we’re going to have some like indicators and some timelines, but to do this work in a meaningful way that can give students the skills to go out into the world and solve complex problems. It’s gonna have to be messy and it’s going to have to be long and it’s going to stress me as an administrator out unbelievably much because I’m not sure as people are adding on and things are developing and shifting and changing. It’s like I, it’s hard for me to even put things in a box. I’m thinking of right now. We’ve got, um, some student groups across campus that are doing voter mobilization and registration and we’re having some great successes. Seeing them work together in ways that we haven’t seen them do in the past to combine their efforts. Um, and it’s messy. We don’t know how to organize it and students don’t know how to organize it and it’s a lot of additional communication and you know, when things come together like that organically, it’s um, exciting and, and it’s also challenging to understand everything that’s happening. So I guess being okay with that discomfort as an administrator and a facilitator and not wanting to insert myself to create like black and black and white structures for students. I think that that’s personally been my biggest challenge and learning experience in this work is like letting students, uh, work together make it complicated, maybe fail. Um, yeah, let them figure it out because that, I mean, that is how, again, going back to that learning piece, like that is how they’re going to experience meaningful learning is by me not organizing it for them, but I just don’t want to do it every day. Every day I’m looking here, sorry, is to how can I start a spreadsheet to organize this learning excuse,? Make it clean. It’s not clean. It’s sloppy and it’s messy and it can be dry, but it’s powerful, but it’s terrible. It’s service learning,
Meg: It’s service learning1 For anyone listening to today’s episode, just know that if you feel messy and frustrated and that all of these things are happening all the time and chaotic and feeling, apparently Nicole’s saying that this is normal.
Nicole: No, I really think it is. Meg. I think like we have to be okay with the messy because, ya know, the world’s a messy place, but we can still love our spreadsheets so, so hard.
Meg: Thank you, Nicole, for coming on “Will There Be Food?” today. I’ve had so much fun chatting with you about service learning. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Nicole: Thanks, Meg. Thanks for keeping it messy with me today.
Meg: You’ve been listening to “Will There Be Food?” with me, Meg Sunga. My guest this week was Nicole Patterson, coordinator for student leadership and civic engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University. You can follow “Will There Be Food?” At hello presence on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. For our episode transcript and show notes, head to presence.io/podcast. Don’t forget to rate us, subscribe and share with all the friends. And let us know what topics you want us to cover next. “Will There Be Food? is a production of Presence. It’s hosted by me, Meg Sunga. The show is directed, edited, and mixed by our producer, Luke Burton. Our executive producer is Cassandra Corrado. Catch us next week when we’ll be talking about what happens when students can’t go home for the holidays.