Learning to Serve and Serving to Learn

At the Academic Service-Learning Symposium, George Washington University students showcased work they've done for their courses and communities over the past year.

Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski listens to a student's presentation at the Service-Learning Symposium.
Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski listens to a student's presentation at the Service-Learning Symposium. (Photo courtesy Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service.)
May 06, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt


At the George Washington University, service has become part of the curriculum in subjects from the ecology and evolution of organisms to the creation and management of a philanthropic foundation. Students and faculty shared the semester’s accomplishments with friends and community members at the spring Academic Service-Learning Symposium.

About 165 people attended the symposium, which included poster presentations, workshops, mobile service projects and a career and internship fair with local, national and international nonprofits and agencies like City Year and the U.S. Peace Corps.

Maurice Smith, coordinator of academic service -learning and director of the Civic House Academic Residential Community in the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, said that integrating community service into academics has been a way for these faculty to demonstrate their commitment to the university’s strategic plan. The number of service-learning classes has doubled from about 35 when Mr. Smith arrived at the university in 2012 to 70 classes from May 2014 to May 2015.

“We are looking at the issues affecting our community, and we’re applying that to our academics every day,” Mr. Smith said.

The disciplines represented ranged from biology to human services and social justice. In a morning all-faculty panel, professors from across the university discussed the challenges and rewards of structuring service -learning into their courses.

Anna Helm, an assistant teaching professor of international business in the GW School of Business, said she tries to bring service -learning to the for-profit sector, partnering with companies who work on green products and clean technology. Service -learning, she said, teaches her business students practical real-world skills. “It gives them a sense of ownership: writing a plan, implementing a plan, setting goals for themselves. They have to be persuasive, to justify their ideas and to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds.”

It also can have a “positive spillover” into the students’ future choices, she said. Students who participate “have a greater want to engage in community service in their life going forward.”

At the symposium’s closing last Tuesday, several students received research grants for their service projects. Samantha Cook of Digital Hope and Miriam Adil of Stereowiped each received $5,000 from the Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning. In outside partnerships, senior Evan Young and junior Maz Obuz received GW’s inaugural D-Prize: $2,500 from a Silicon Valley nonprofit that rewards innovative thinking around “known solutions” to poverty, matched with $2,500 from the GWupstart Social Innovation Lab.

Mr. Obuz and Mr. Young are the founders of Project Dharavi, an initiative to stop the health problems caused by open defecation in India by providing clean, private squat toilets to residents and selling the collected waste to biogas companies. The money will allow them to visit India this summer so they can test their assumptions, meet with potential partners and get feedback from the communities they hope to serve.

While some students were presented with grants, others did the presenting. Members of Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski’s “Foundations” course in human services and social justice learned how to establish and manage a philanthropic organization, creating the GW Achievement Foundation to help provide accessible educational opportunities to at-risk youth in the Washington, D.C., area. The foundation received 81 grant applications and awarded grants, made possible with funding from the Learning by Giving program of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, to two: $5,000 to ACCESS Youth, which creates programming to keep disadvantaged youths out of the criminal justice system, and $5,000 to Reach, Inc., which helps teenagers author children’s books and then distributes them, free, to elementary school classrooms.

“This symposium is a great opportunity for us to bring together our community partners with our students, staff and faculty—for all of us to see not only the research and work that are being done, but the thoughtfulness that goes into that work,” Mr. Smith said.