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Internships, Study Abroad, Community Service Enhance Learning [USA Today]

November 17, 2008
Lasha Carey wasn’t especially interested in community service work before she enrolled last year as a freshman at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J. But that’s changed in a big way through the power of peer influence.

Inspired by classmates who gave her a taste of their work in Trenton neighborhoods, Carey now tutors inner-city kids, helps the homeless learn basic job skills and leads fellow students on one-day, urban outreach trips.

“I saw these other college students who were my age and were making such an impact on the community,” says Carey, of Howell, N.J. “I feel like I need to be doing something, too.”

Educators love to hear about experiences like Carey’s. They call them “high-impact activities,” which stimulate and sustain the active learning that distinguishes highly engaged undergraduates. Whether these activities consist of terms abroad or internships near home, they’re leaving profound imprints.

Schools that successfully encourage high-impact activities win kudos from the National Survey of Student Engagement. They also testify to what can happen, on campuses of all types, when students are coached to follow their hearts and adhere to intellectual disciplines in the process.

Community service

Campus culture largely determines whether or not first-year students get involved in community outreach. At some schools, they do so within days of arriving on campus.

At Drake University in Des Moines, first-year orientation culminates in a day of cleaning up parks, painting run-down homes and other forms of service. Baylor University in Waco, Texas, incorporates outreach into its optional summer orientation program as well as its required one in the fall.

“Engaging them in service even before they are students sets the pattern for the rest of their time as Baylor students,” says Samuel “Dub” Oliver, vice president for student life at Baylor.

Another sign of a high-impact, volunteer culture: students have no trouble figuring out where they’re needed. At Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va., the VT Engage program sends e-mail to individual students when local non-profits need their particular skills. Drake students, meanwhile, can show up any Friday afternoon at a designated spot and get a ride to a site where elbow grease is much appreciated.

At The College of New Jersey, every student who isn’t in a first-year seminar with an outreach component takes part in a one-day, student-led service project. At day’s end, students process aloud what they’ve observed and felt. Two-thirds then say they want to become regular volunteers, according to Pat Donahue, director of the Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement at TCNJ.

“If you support the students but don’t script it, they will take it to heights that will be unbelievable,” Donahue says.

Study abroad

Certain study-abroad programs stand out from the pack, NSSE findings suggest. These often immerse students in settings where they can’t help but rethink assumptions and mature as learners.

Some schools get students to mix with locals on a meaningful level. Kalamazoo (Mich.) College requires students to devote 10 hours a week to an indigenous, grassroots initiative in their host country and write about their experiences. Centre College in Danville, Ky., uses host cities as “laboratories” for every semester course offered in its six overseas locations. That means students must consistently engage local people and institutions on topics from politics to art. Otherwise they won’t receive passing grades.

Others operate overseas campuses. About 25% of University of Evansville (Ind.) students live and study for a semester at the school’s manor house facility in Harlaxton, England. Local families “adopt” individual students, as they’ve done since the early 1970s, and include them in everything from religious services to family dinners.

About 80% of students at the University of Dallas, a private Roman Catholic school, spend a semester at the university’s facility near Rome. Through five courses, professor-led field trips, 10 days of independent travel and involvement in local religious life, students gain a better understanding of how all the pieces in their college educations fit together.

“You can look around campus and tell who’s been to Rome just by the maturity with which they carry themselves,” says Rebecca Davies, director of the Rome program office at the main campus in Irving, Texas.

Sometimes students lack the language skills to study at a foreign university, but that’s usually not a barrier for students at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., where 26% of students study abroad. The school offers 23 English-based programs in countries where English is not the native language.

Internships

High-impact internship experiences vary from setting to setting, but they often have a structure that helps students learn to seek out, on their own, whatever they need to know.

At Simmons College in Boston, students fulfill specific tasks en route to completing required internships. Communications majors, for instance, write an analysis of how the organization works and give a presentation (usually in PowerPoint) to their classmates. Along the way, they must conduct three informational interviews.

Interviewing someone inside an organization “forces them to do some networking at the site,” says Sarah Burrows, director of internships for Simmons’ Department of Communications. “It’s a little intimidating, (but) it gives them an opportunity to show what they’re made of.”

Students sometimes work with faculty to customize internship experiences. At Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., students meet individually with faculty mentors, who help them frame specific goals and evaluation criteria. At Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., students in summer internships often participate concurrently in a leadership institute, which uses readings, writing assignments and online discussion groups to help put individual experiences in broader contexts.

Learning doesn’t always end when internships wrap up. At Saint Louis University, a few seniors discuss their internship experiences at a symposium. By listening and asking questions, newer students get a head start on structuring their own internships ā€” and avoiding others’ mistakes.

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