The Powers of Service-Learning

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

A vast amount of students are in constant search for ways to insure the major they have selected to pursue is the correct career path for them. This is especially so for most psychology majors. Psychology majors are continuously on the hunt for ways to interact with the people around them to, hopefully, assist them in choosing the correct field of psychology for them. The more time they are able to spend with others, analyzing, teaching, even learning from them is allowing psychology students to gain both the field experience and involvement they desire. Service learning is a great way for psychology majors to do just this. With a large number of foundations and groups to work with, there are endless opportunities made available. From tutoring, to working with the elderly, to volunteering at a hospital, service-learning offers students the unique ability to learn how to work with others, how to speak to others, the needs of others, and, ultimately, the service-learning acts as way for psychology students to find their niche in particular fields of psychology, all while helping the community. 

            Service learning can also allow students to experience, first hand, the concepts they learn in class. Along with field experience, working with the groups they are assigned or choose can help them piece together large social issues such as prejudices, stereotypes and gather further understanding of pro-social behaviors, identity and self, and intergroup relations. For example, I chose to be an after school tutor at Spencer-Westlawn Elementary School, a lower income, mostly African American public school here in Mobile County. I found the idea of this job to be very intimidating for me at first. This is because I did not believe I possessed the knowledge or capability to help students in very many ways, especially with their lower school material I had not dealt with for a number of years. However, I realized very quickly that I was going to be learning right along with them. This realization, brought me to the conclusion that I was not only helping the students with their school work, but I was also given the rare opportunity to use this as field learning and experience.

            I had heard a great deal of stories from my friends who had participated in this particular service beforehand, but I could never really grasp or understand them fully. I figured it was just teaching a few children times tables or helping them understand their vocabulary of the week. Little did I know, I was thrown into to something completely unexpected. The children did have work, yes, but the level of which the children were with the English language was alarming to me. I knew going into job they would be underprivileged kids, just from what I heard from my peers, however, I did not realize the amount of help they actually needed, especially with spelling and grammar. It was so strange to me working with fourth and fifth graders that could barely form a correct sentence, let alone excel in any of their classes, due to their lack of basic knowledge. I, also, found it very strange the students not only looked up to me because I was older, a normal situation in a student-teacher relationship, but automatically assumed I was smarter just because I was white. This was shocking to me because I never considered the possibility that children that young would see skin color as a sign of greater competence. It was incredibly sad and eye opening to see the children’s own stereotypical thoughts of my skin color at work, that my being Caucasian meant that I was, ultimately, more competent, better educated, and better off than them. I learned that prejudice was prevalent, but it was a prejudice toward themselves more than me, or white people in general. They believed because of their background and skin color they were less competent and, therefore, much less likely to succeed let alone excel in school. I, also, discovered the “why even try” attitude was definitely more prevalent in the young boys than the girls. I can only guess attributors for these feelings, such as their parents or siblings or even teachers making them as if they are not capable or that their education is of little importance. Whatever the reasoning, it was very obvious the young boys did not find school to be a very important variable in their lives. Upon talking to a number of them, I learned that these children lacked the necessary support from their family at home. The children did not believe in themselves or what they could accomplish because no one else did and they not only had to struggle with the material, and lack of support, but due to this lack of support they also struggled with the extent their ability to actually understand the material. Horror stories of teachers telling my peers the kids were “lost causes” at age nine and ten was not alarming to me until I was thrown in the middle of it, until it became reality. I realized it is not at all this children’s fault they think that way.

             The experience at the elementary school, also taught me a great deal about myself. Seeing myself as a leader or teacher of sorts really opened me other career paths for myself and even personality traits I had no idea I even possessed. I found helping the children with their classwork was no problem at all and was actually very enjoyable when they were able to grasp concepts. The children and their excitement were truly inspirational to me and it really taught me that I possess a great deal of patience and can really help somebody when I am needed. However, this experience also helped me discover learning about the children’s lives, being able to ask them questions about their home lives, families, and thoughts and feelings on school is something I find extremely intriguing and something I might even want to turn into a career. The things they told me were incredibly eye opening and being with the children exposed me to something much different from day to day routine. I was really able to get an idea of a different kind of society from the one I am a costume and a different side of myself I have never had to bring out until this particular experience. This opportunity really allowed me to get an idea of what working at a school or with young children would be like and I found it is something I really enjoy.

            Service learning was something I never considered doing, let alone something I thought would alter my perception of my community and even myself. Being exposed to these young children encompassing a wide array of prejudices and stereotypes, already, was something I found extremely worrisome and I hope through my encounters with them I put an end to a number of them. I did not sped hardly enough time with them, but I plan to do so in the future to, hopefully, gather further information on the world through the eyes of America’s youth.