When we send students to UCOM I expect them to do good work. I think that they should be on time, be polite and do an excellent job tutoring the elementary students with whom they work. I want them to reflect when they return and make a long-term commitment to the program.
These goals are easy for me to make as I sit in the Service-Learning Center, a place I am very comfortable in after three years of working there. However, my perspective has changed slightly after beginning my own “service-learning” experience at UCOM. At UCOM I have to ask, even about the smallest detail—“How do you use the printer?”, “What’s the name of that volunteer again?”, “How many pounds of cheese go into the bag?” It’s frustrating sometimes not knowing what to do and feeling as though I’m not doing a very good job or being helpful to the agency. I’m tired after a day of communicating in Spanish and I don’t particularly want to reflect on my experience. And, I probably can’t make a long-term commitment to UCOM because I most likely will be leaving Grand Rapids after this semester.
How, then, do I reconcile my experiences feeling not-so helpful and not-so reflective with my goals for the service-learners sent from our office? Well, to begin with, it’s important to remember that service-learning is a process for everyone involved. Service-learners won’t be terribly helpful at the beginning of their time and may not be very reflective. Hopefully, though, after spending time at their agencies students will learn the ins and outs of the agency and start to be an asset instead of a burden. Hopefully, too, as students have more experiences they will begin to reflect naturally on how what they see and the lives they live are connected.
Also, it is important for us at the Service-Learning Center to treat the service-learners with grace and humility. We don’t know their life experiences or even their experiences at their sites, so we must be careful not to judge their involvement without a little more investigation. Our expectations for them shouldn’t necessarily lower, but our way of interacting with them must be careful.
In fact, the whole process of service-learning is a game of grace and humility. The agencies we work with must treat the Service-Learning Center staff with grace as we try to be responsible to them and to be full-time students. The students must have grace and humility with us and with the agencies as we work out organizational kinks, and we must have grace and humility with the students and with the organizations as we try to communicate and work together.
Once again, the StreetFest theme of this Fall “Walk Humbly” comes back to challenge and encourage us to walk humbly with our service-learners and agencies.