Taking Service Learning to New Levels

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 26, 2009) USF has long prided itself in its tradition of reaching out to the local neighborhoods through social programs, education outreach and technical assistance to help solve neighborhood problems – an effort which earned the university a national designation for community service.

But now an effort to take the concept of service learning to new heights for the benefit of local communities, students and researchers is underway with the new Office of Community Engagement.

The goal is to continue USF’s close connection to the Tampa Bay area’s communities – which in 2006 earned USF a coveted designation from the Carnegie Foundation as a community-engaged university – and make it easier for local groups, faculty and students to use USF’s resources as a partner in solving real-world problems.

“It’s meeting on a common ground,” said Susan Greenbaum, the newly appointed director of the Office of Community Engagement. “It’s at least meeting with a common set of expectations and assurances that we can do this together.”

The message that community service is an essential element of education will take center stage on Friday, Oct. 30, in a daylong institute at the Gibbons Alumni Center. Greenbaum is hoping to draw scores of faculty to learn about how they can incorporate community service into their classes, no matter the discipline.

Keynoting the event is University of Buffalo Center for Urban Studies professor Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., who has written more than 80 articles, book reviews, commentaries, and technical reports on urban and regional planning. Taylor’s focus is on community participation in brownfield redevelopment –the practice of revitalizing urban neighborhoods. 

For USF, that’s a focus that hits close to home.

Linda Whiteford, associate vice president for Academic Affairs and Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the Provost, said incorporating community engagement into curriculum isn’t always an easy route to take for students and faculty, but doing so can transform the educational experience while serving the needs of the local community.

And Greenbaum said she hopes the renewed community engagement efforts will allow USF faculty and students to think more creatively about incorporating service-learning into their class work and give the larger Tampa Bay community a single point of contact in seeking USF’s insight into persistent community issues.

Across campus, there are many examples of how service-learning are already at work.

For example, USF students enrolled in Professor Robin Jones’ “Introduction to Urban Studies” class joined forces with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay to mentor students at Sulphur Springs Elementary, a school where the learning environment was challenged by poverty, housing insecurity, and family instability.

The program took the issues of urban communities off the text book pages and took students into the real-life challenges of children whose life experiences were vastly different from their own, providing USF students an opportunity to become one-on-one mentors for the children. The program is one of several outreach efforts by local groups credited with helping the formerly struggling school make great leaps in getting and keeping students on grade level. (The school went from an F state grade in 2007 to a B for 2008.)

In other service learning programs, students have done in-depth research into the history of housing policies in Sulphur Springs which have allowed the once stable neighborhood to deteriorate into one beset by crime, drugs and poverty. Their research gathered the data community groups can use to apply for grants to help improve their neighborhood.

Greenbaum, though, says there should be no misunderstanding of how USF envisions its role in the community. Service learning is not about positioning USF as a charitable organization, she said, it’s about creating the means for the university to become a partner for community groups while creating new paths for scholarship and research.

“It’s a two-way street,” she said. “We’re not here to do missionary work. We are here to work together.”

Community engagement and public service is part of USF’s strategic plan, and although USF students and faculty routinely provide tens of thousands of hours of volunteer work in a host of local projects, the vision for an enhanced community engagement initiative at USF expands on those activities considerably – creating what’s known in academic circles as service learning.

Service-learning is community engagement activities which are explicitly connected to academic courses. These are designed to enhance the understanding of course content, planned collaboratively and implemented with a community partner and developed to enhance students’ sense of responsibility to the communities where they live.

The benefits are many: enhanced learning, increased social responsibility and citizenship skills, cultural understanding, career development, increased student retention and graduation rates, increased faculty satisfaction and even better relations with alumni, USF’s strategic plan notes.

But an even better reason for USF – it’s the right thing to do as a key institution with the kind of creative thinking and innovation the Tampa Bay region needs to solve its problems and the right thing to do for students learning about the world around them.

“It’s not just us going out and being good to the community,” Whiteford said. “It is more of an equal partnership and a shared experience.”


The University of South Florida System is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged, four-year public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The system offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. It has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.