Service learning’s ripple effect: Millennials and public service

Special to Philanthropy Journal

By Amber Smith

Service learning doesn’t just look good on paper. It has demonstrated academic, professional and psychological results that have helped impact the culture of Millennials as a generation.

An early study (1994-1998) engaged more than 20,000 college students across the country to measure the effects of service learning by comparing changes in academic outcomes, the values students subscribed to, self-efficacy, leadership and career goals, and whether students planned to participate in service after college.

While service learning and participating in service in college showed positive effects across the board, the impact was the most significant in one area in particular: the student’s likelihood of pursuing a career in public service. And this was true regardless of what students’ initial career interests were before their service learning experience.

Other studies have supported this conclusion. Even in cases in which students already had a general career field in mind, service learning experiences helped them explore their values and passions and influenced their career focus.

This is especially good news, considering the concern over the past decade about a leadership deficit in public service and nonprofits specifically. If we follow the trail of evidence linking service learning to Millennials’ strong interest in public service as a career, perhaps we’ll see a little light at the end of the leadership deficit tunnel.

Millennials as teachers and parents

With Millennials graduating and traveling the murky paths of young adulthood, some are finding fulfillment as teachers in a unique position to keep the service-learning ball rolling in new and exciting ways. Millennial teachers, with inclinations towards collaboration, technology and innovation, can prime the service-learning pump by:

  • Fulfilling their personal desire for achieving social good in their careers by enhancing teaching with high-impact service learning projects.
  • Introducing and collaborating on service learning techniques (and perhaps even their own experiences as students in service learning) with fellow teachers of other generations.
  • Introducing students to new, technology-oriented and skills-based ways to make a difference. Technology remains a top need for nonprofits, and this need will only increase as the world’s dependency on technology does. Millennial teachers, with their own sense of technology-savvy, will be able to show our next generation’s students how to use this natural proclivity to meet some huge community needs.

Millennial parents – who perhaps had their own service-learning experiences as students – can perpetuate service learning’s impacts by preparing their own young ones for school and life that includes service. An expectation of service from youth could mean that the next generation of students will submit college applications wrought with volunteer experience, causing colleges to raise the bar and expect an increase in the frequency of service and quality in a student’s service life. This creates a ripple effect that we can only hope will continue a trend of service and giving for generations to come.

Millennial parents can do their part to help kids take an interest in service and prepare for service learning by doing two things. First, parents should note their children’s talents and interests and try to match service experiences to those talents and interests. Matching experiences to interests leads to greater enjoyment in service for adults and youth alike.

Secondly, service learning is most effective when students have the time and ability to reflect on their service experiences, and this goes for young subjects as well. We’ve seen this in a recent study, too, in which it was noted that discussing service with youth can be highly impactful, more so than solely modeling service behavior.

Service learning has likely shaped Millennials’ cultural attitudes and career inclinations, but it doesn’t have to be a marker of our generation alone.

Amber Smith completed the Masters in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management program at NC State University in December 2011. She founded Activate Good at 21 and serves as its executive director. The Raleigh-based nonprofit connects individuals, groups and companies to volunteer needs with partnering nonprofits in Wake County and the greater Triangle. Smith blogs at Heart of Zeal.

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