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Service Learning vs Community Service

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Nicole Adams

Many people confuse the terms “service-learning”, “community service,” and “volunteering”. While they’re often used interchangeably, each is a little different. Volunteering and community service are usually supervised and directed at specific tasks; service learning differs in that it’s often tied to academic goals and curriculum, and encourages students and participants to reflect on their experiences.  

What is Service Learning? 

Community is never built from the outside, only from the inside. Service learning focuses on identifying the strengths and expertise of a community, and honoring the members and practices that strengthen it. By developing relationships with locals and working within communities, outsiders gain a deeper understanding of root causes and broader social and economic issues, are able to engage in these real-world issues and social problems, and get to have a hand in becoming part of the solution.

The key differentiator is learning, and it’s a hands-on, experiential type of education that offers something beyond what a classroom could ever offer. Students work with communities to identify a need, develop solutions that address that need, implement a plan to put that solution into action, and then reflect on the results of their actions. Service learning allows folks to understand and engage with others, while developing skills and attitudes to become multicultural community builders in a rapidly changing and diverse world.

  • What are the true needs of these people or this community?
  • What are the root causes of these needs?
  • How, where, and from whom can I learn more?
  • How can I work collaboratively to contribute to a solution?

Service learning is also reciprocal- communities benefit from the support of those newly immersed into it, while those students also learn from the deep connections made. In a more formal educational program, service learning combines academic goals with cultural and community immersion that  benefits both the student and the community. Activities reinforce the curriculum and students have an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned. 

How is Service Learning Different Than Volunteering? 

Both volunteering and community service are non-paying tasks performed for the benefit of a community or its institutions. Community service is often used to describe volunteering that is mandatory or required by a court, judge, etc, but can be used interchangeably considering that both serve the community. Volunteering is a philanthropic act where you give time and service by offering to do something intended to improve the quality of life for others. 

Volunteering is often a “one and done” activity such as helping with a food or clothing drive, cleaning up parks or public areas, or working in a soup kitchen on a holiday; volunteering can also be a commitment to an organization, where you go back multiple times to do the same or different activities. Both volunteering and service learning involve giving time to a community without receiving financial compensation, and can take place anywhere in the world, locality or abroad.

Service Learning is the complimentary union of both studying and volunteering. Your course or program and volunteer service happen simultaneously and you’re encouraged to reflect on the experiences. Instead of tackling a specific task, service learning involves working collectively to identify and troubleshoot difficulties and is an opportunity to apply skills and education in a collaborative “real world” setting.

Our service learning opportunities abroad enable you to embark on a journey of self-discovery through community service, learn different cultures through immersion, and make a positive impact within your host community. Call 800.982.9203 us with questions or curiosities or contact us today. 

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