Recently I had an opportunity to read somebody’s ideas and a brief experience of learning through service. The writer was a university student from a capitalist nation, and wrote about their few days of volunteering in an Asian country. My reflection is about their approach to service-learning. My understanding of service-learning comes from multiple contexts of being a student and an adult volunteer in various groups and organisations, and being an educator. As a school student I was in Girls Guide and Red Cross groups. As a college student I was in National Cadet Corps and National Service Scheme groups. Later on, as a college lecturer, I was trained as an officer of National Service Scheme and guided a contingent of a hundred students. Based on these diverse experiences, I would now like to share my understanding of how one needs to approach service-learning. Especially if we are from or living in a capitalist, welfare society.
Service-learning pathway is offered in a university study course as part of a specific subject. This seems to be gaining popularity for various reasons among both students as well as the academia. The rationale seems to be based on building community relationships, creating an opportunity for students to open themselves up for a deeper awareness of issues bothering the community and their society. They are “gently” put on an experiential ground to try and feel community and collective bonds/threads/webs. In this process, they are to be exposed to the issues and problems that diverse populations of their society are living in their everyday life. Students are to understand how ‘service’, in a welfare state, may benefit people of diverse life conditions and contexts – most of who may need support to sustain their everyday life as active members of the society. Whoever is the beneficiary, the organisation that they are with serves them to improve their quality of life. While doing this some of the human capabilities are addressed too. This rationale demands a deeper understanding of various political, economic, social and cultural stands and standpoints of the state and also the civil society. The issues are concerned with equity and participation to live as active citizens. Human rights, human capabilities and human freedoms scaffold service-learning.
University students, who opt to do service-learning as part of their course, are placed with organisations where they participate in ‘serving’ the beneficiaries in ways to enhance their quality of life. They grow as people with a new life experience. While doing this they are expected to ‘unlearn’ to relearn. This means they must engage in an exploration of their own standpoints of what they consider as ‘service’ and what they are opening themselves up to learn. Are they assuming the stand of benevolence? What are their feelings about power, control, position, giving, sharing, receiving, Voice, active listening, acceptance and their weaknesses? They are needed to question themselves on their values, beliefs, practices and attitudes. About themselves, about the world, and about the Other. What are their assumptions, pre-suppositions and convictions?
This needs to happen before entering the experience space in their service-learning and during, and after. What changes happen to them? The person within. Their values, beliefs, attitudes, practices, assumptions, their standpoints and pre-suppositions after the experience. They are needed to critically reflect on those changes to see what they are relearning. This is a journey, one that progress the learner as a community member, as a critically reflective person on the structures and processes of their society and a lifelong learner. This journey enables them to see how they are situated within their Actionable Space. This growth within the learner is envisaged to enable them, within their own professional and personal background, to express their agency more strongly.