Service benefits everyone

July 31, 1998

Many universities have mission statements that commit the institution to community service as well as to teaching and research. It is not always clear what priority community service rates - in many universities it ranks so low as to be almost invisible. Yet it is in this area that universities are able to make enormous contributions to many of the great problems plaguing society, to turn graduates into responsible citizens and to reclaim the high ground they once had as organisations crucial to a well-functioning society.

I would like to make community service of some kind a prerequisite for a degree. Already many of our students do service, but in predictable fields - social work, nursing, medicine and law.

Laudable. But I am worried for two reasons. First, I see hundreds of students who do not give community service a single thought and whose main concern is becoming a yuppie as quickly as possible. Second, I think it is unacceptable that universities do not see society's worst ills as problems that they themselves must address in tangible ways.

Recently I visited the sites of some outstandingly successful projects in the United States. What an eye-opener! Community Outreach Partnership Centers have been established at a federal level through an initiative of the department of housing and urban development. The government provides seed money for university-community partnerships that set and meet measurable targets. All of this is based on the belief enunciated by US President Bill Clinton: "Few institutions have more to contribute to the revitalisation of urban communities than America's colleges and universities - and few have a greater stake in its success. As educational institutions, they are creators, repositories and disseminators of knowledge and understanding that can help address urban challenges."

Even more important, universities have specialised knowledge in many fields, and there are no societal problems that do not require multi-disciplinary efforts.

There is no doubt that involvement with the community can reshape the research agenda, produce new sources of information and be powerful learning experiences for staff and students, especially in diverse communities.

At the University of Maryland Baltimore campus, the Shriver Center (set up by Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps), students undertake to look after, for one year, ten troubled adolescents who have been referred from the justice or social services departments. The students oversee homework, tutoring and medical care.

They make sure they attend school, teach them life skills and help them integrate into the community by working with families. Each afternoon, the students meet to report on their charges and what they did that day.

Having sat in on one such session I have no doubt that these young students will have a better understanding of what ails our world and what role they can play in making the world a better place; and, as individuals, they will be altogether better people. One of the youngsters who had a particularly difficult day with one of his charges was a medical student. I am sure he will make a better doctor as a result of his participation in such a programme.

This visit to Maryland was invested with particular meaning for me because I had been told that we were about to visit a very underprivileged community. We drove off, and when my host stopped the car, I thought maybe he had run out of petrol and that was why he stopped. I looked around to see brick houses, electricity wires, telephone cables, tarred roads, pavements, running water, grass lawns and even a basketball court. I thought of our underprivileged communities in South Africa (and in India and South America and other places) with shacks of plastic and cardboard, no running water, no electricity, no roads, no anything. What different worlds we live in. The American dream still beckons.

Virginia Commonwealth University demonstrates what determined effort can achieve, not only for the community but also for the staff and students and for the perception of the university's role in society. The university has literally changed the face of the neighbourhood.

In one project, conceived "in the spirit that partnerships, not fences, promote safe and nurturing communities", the university has created a link with its northern boundary neighbour, the Carver Community. Activities include "networking and neighbouring, leadership and community training, assessment and evaluation". Another project is violence prevention, which the University of Natal seeks to emulate.

In Minnesota, I was introduced to the Minnesota Compact. Under this, 65 institutions have pledged their support for community service learning and are funding a small centre that concentrates on evaluation and assessment. The field of service learning seems to have exploded in the past five years. Coming into it at this stage, one has the benefit of such evaluations (for example, they caution against making it prescriptive for students). There is now a refereed journal dedicated to the subject and a large body of case material, as well as Web sites to keep one informed.

I was a bit disappointed that some universities joined in this effort primarily because their campuses, which when established were practically in the country, now found themselves in distinctly "down-market" areas.

One dean, who shall remain nameless, said: "There is no escape from the issues of poverty, crime and physical deterioration that are at the gates of urban higher education institutions. The choice is to hold on to the mythic image of the university on the hill and suffer for it (as faculty, students and staff become increasingly difficult to attract and retain, and as communities of scholars give way to collections of scholarly commuters), or to become engaged in an effective and proactive fashion."

Enlightened self-interest has always been a powerful motivator - I suppose I should be less idealistic and more kind.

One cannot but wonder whether this service-learning revolution is happening in the US on such a large scale because the country has such a good record for volunteerism and philanthropy. This culture certainly makes it easier for the universities of the world to become part of solving the ills of our society.

Let us hope that governments, individuals - including university staff and students, business and funders elsewhere in the world - come to the realisation that universities have the most wonderful resources to harness - if they care.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the University of Natal.

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