UB Expands Undergraduate Service-Learning Opportunities

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: May 19, 2005

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo is expanding opportunities for undergraduates to engage in service-learning activities through membership in the Western New York Service-Learning Coalition.

Founded several years ago by faculty members at Daemen College and Niagara University in an effort to facilitate collaboration, share service-learning resources and better serve students interested in service-learning activities.

The coalition brings together all of the primary colleges and universities in the Buffalo Niagara area, as well as numerous human-service and community agencies, in pursuit of a three-pronged mission, according to Edwin Clausen, vice president for academic affairs at Daemen and a co-founder of the coalition with Marilynn Fleckenstein, director of the Learn and Serve program, and professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Niagara University. That mission:

• to help engender a spirit of civic responsibility among students.

• to provide a mechanism by which to improve the environmental, social, economic and cultural viability of the Buffalo Niagara community.

• to provide community-based agencies with "human power" to accomplish their goals cost-effectively and efficiently.

Clausen points out that all of the member colleges and universities are equal partners in the coalition -- no one institution can claim ownership. That was done purposely, he adds, to ensure collaboration and that projects do not become territorial.

This inclusiveness makes the coalition unique among its peer groups, notes Joseph Gardella, Jr., professor of chemistry, associate dean for external affairs for the College of Arts and Sciences and UB's point person with the coalition. While there are many examples across the country of institutions collaborating on service-learning projects, "we could be the first to have comprehensive coverage -- every college and university in Western New York is a member of the coalition," Gardella says. And that extensive collaboration should make the coalition more attractive to such funding sources as local and national foundations, he adds.

"Buffalo and Western New York is a very poor community where all the colleges and universities are on the same table. You're not getting a proposal from UB -- you're getting this coalition," he says.

UB's size and its status and reputation as a research institution make it a key partner in the coalition, Clausen notes.

"UB brings a great deal of resources to the coalition," he says. "We can't have a viable, really functional coalition if we exclude institutions. For the good of the coalition, we have to have UB as a partner."

Moreover, the professional schools at UB have a "huge track record" in engaging in service-learning activities, says Gardella. "Now you have this great opportunity for undergraduates at these smaller schools to be partnering up with a law school, a medical school that naturally have service missions because they're professional schools. They don't talk about it in the buzz of 'service learning.' They've been doing it for a long time."

The coalition is serving as a clearinghouse for area service and community organizations looking for student and faculty volunteers to assist in projects, Gardella says. It sponsored a Service-Learning Fair last September in an attempt to link service organizations with local colleges and universities. It also hopes to attract foundation funding to set up an "e-bank," a Web-based database to coordinate volunteers with service-learning placements, he says.

Another goal of the coalition is to design service-learning courses that students from any of the member colleges and universities can register for.

The various articulation agreements that the member institutions already have in place would allow students to register for such courses easily -- "as if students were transferring credits" from one institution to another, Gardella points out.

He adds that coalition members can use the Blackboard software program to share course syllabi, and UB is providing a UBlearns site for the coalition.

"If we have a course that's taught at D'Youville, but you want students to register from all of the schools, where's the single place they can find all of the info? Using a Web-based vehicle is a lot easier," he says. "UB can commit the academic computing infrastructure to support the cooperative courses."

It's this curricular component that distinguishes "service learning" from "general public service," Gardella points out.

"Service is wonderful and we want people to do it, but if you really want service learning, you have to have a connection with the academic program," he says. "It has to be driven in the curriculum, the faculty has to be engaged in it, it has to be assessed by a faculty member, you've got to give grades in it."

"It's not everybody getting an 'A' for putting 20 hours in helping the poor at a soup kitchen. Put 20 hours in at the soup kitchen, but if you want academic credit for it, there has to be an academic component to it," he says. "It's not only providing the volunteers to the soup kitchen, but giving the soup kitchen the business tools, the management tools, the legal help to sustain itself."