Lori Ann Olsen and Dr. David A. Nelson, Marriage, Family and Human Development
Recently, more and more universities have seen the benefit of service-learning programs incorporated in their curriculum. The value of hands-on experience solidifies the knowledge learned. Alternatively, knowledge that is not applied may be quickly forgotten. When a student is involved in hands-on work, in the ‘real world,’ their experience becomes a part of them, holds more meaning, and often stays with them in a way that regular college lectures do not. Service learning programs not only enhance the student but also provide needed assistance to communities.
Many studies have tried to assess the actual learning that takes place in these types of programs. However, few have also studied the intrinsic personal benefits that come from these experiences. Altruism, the giving of oneself to others, is presumed to have a profound effect not only on the ones being served, but also on the ones serving. My research focused on the personal benefits that may come to service-learning participants, in addition to the knowledge and greater cultural understanding that they may gain.
I chose to study volunteer participants in an international service-learning program. This particular program provides an opportunity for college-age students to go to China or Russia as a volunteer teaching English to young children. In the context of a play atmosphere where only English is spoken, English is transmitted to these young children.
Doing service for four to five months in an international setting, it was hypothesized that the volunteer teachers would experience personal growth. It was also expected that greater cultural understanding would take place, as well as knowledge of the history, people, and culture they were a part of. Language skills might improve, the skills needed to work with children, as well as group-dynamics might also improve. Certainly those whose majors dealing with teaching, children, international development, or Asian studies, would feel great benefit from this type of program.
I wanted to document some of the changes that may take place in a person from when they first leave American soil, till the end of the experience 4 or 5 months later. To do this, I asked all volunteers going to Russia or China or fill out a questionnaire before they left. This survey focused on several unique aspects and indicators of growth such as, emerging adulthood, attitudes about children, self-esteem, global awareness, and other areas of personal, spiritual, physical, and religious growth. I had the same participants fill out the exact same survey at the end of their experience.
To get a more intimate feel for the benefits of service-learning in this program, I went to China as a volunteer teacher to experience it for myself. While I was there I coordinated the collecting of the questionnaires and surveys. In addition, I held several “focus-group” meetings where I would get 4 or 5 volunteers together at a time, and create an opportunity for them to discuss how they felt about the service they were involved in, asking a variety of questions to probe their thinking as they reflected on their experience. I provided personal notebooks, and often had them respond to questions about their whole experience. I did this on a regular basis with the 18 other volunteers who were teaching with me. Through this process, I hoped to get a personal view of how the volunteers may be changing or growing over time. The questionnaires provided me with numerical information showing the before and after picture. In addition, I wanted more detailed information on any growth or changes that may take place throughout the experience and gain a deeper look as to what caused this change and how. While it was an extra effort to get everyone together for these meetings, many people personally commented to me that they were grateful for the chance they could meet with others, and learn how others were handling the same experiences they were having. This was a very good experience and brought the research to a deeper and personal level.
Since coming home from China, I have been working on collecting the questionnaires, and entering data into the computer to begin the processes of analyzing. I have also worked with the qualitative data taken from the focus-group meetings, and had some of their written responses typed up to better analyze them as we look for themes and areas of growth. This allows us to understand in the volunteers’ own words, how their service-learning experience affected them. Together, these two main sources of data should come together to show how volunteers changed as a result of this experience.
This task has not been an easy one. There were 140 total participants in China or Russia last winter. Of that group, I received 84 pre-experience questionnaires. These 84 were asked to complete the same packet at the end. While a few are still trickling in, the response rate of the final packet was disappointing, with only about 40 packets being returned. The largest obstacle we faced was motivating the participants to fill out the 75-minute packet, even though they were getting nothing in return. Also, the leaders who were asked to administer the survey at the end of the experience often did not take the packet seriously enough, and many just fell through the cracks. Because of the large number involved and the many different locations the sample was in, it was hard to keep a firm handle on it. After working hard to get the pre- and post- packets we do have, we now have an adequate number of packets to yield some significant findings.
This research had been a great experience for me. From the projects inception, I have worked in its development and done much to see it carried out. I have learned much about how research is carried out and the process one must go through to get good data. The knowledge I gained here will help me as I prepare for graduate school.
After completing the analysis of the data, we expect to find many aspects of significant growth that are a result of this service-learning experience. This research is a preliminary study, and is part of a much bigger study that should be used to enhance service-learning programs in the future, including BYU’s own Jacobsen Center for service and learning. The findings in this study will be used to expand the legitimacy of service-learning programs in education.