The Impact of Service Learning on White Attitudes

Untitled-1logoBy Nick Rocha – Service learning programs have been a growing trend among institutes of higher education.  Many universities and colleges provide week-long or semester-long programs that are designed to encourage students to interact with other students and communities.  “The general philosophy is to encourage a mutually beneficial partnership between students and a community group, with students providing needed services to a community that in turn provides rich professional and personal learning opportunities for students” (National and Community Service Trust Act, 1993).  How might service-learning, specifically multicultural service-learning, affect the racial attitudes of White, middle-class students?

There has been a great deal of research that highlights the value of multicultural service-learning.  According to Guilfoile and Ryan of the Education Commission of the States, “a growing body of research shows that students engaged in high-quality service-learning learn to collaborate, think critically, and problem solve” (2013).  In addition, service-learning can challenge stereotypes, reducing student ignorance, intolerance, prejudice and modern racism.  In contrast, “critics have expressed skepticism about bringing White middle-class students to low-income communities of color, especially when benefits to the community are unclear” (Reardon, 1998).  White students often benefit from feelings of self-worth, but they often view themselves as the “advantaged providing a service to the disadvantaged [and] this may perpetuate students’ negative stereotypes of community members” (Hess, Lanig, and Vaughan 2007).  This deficit-oriented approach “may contribute little to their intellectual and practical understanding of social justice and racial inequality” (Reardon, 1994).  What aspects of service-learning influence whether or not White, middle-class students’ attitudes perpetuate negative stereotypes or strengthen a higher intercultural sensitivity towards other communities?

Multicultural service-learning programs often consist of five themes: Investigation, Preparation, Action, Reflection, and Demonstration (Kaye and Connolly 2010).  The investigation involves the collection of student interests and a social analysis of the issue being addressed.  Preparation involves the continuation of knowledge of the issue and the organization of the service-learning objectives.  The Investigation and Preparation stages are critical for the development of White student attitudes regarding disadvantaged communities and racial stereotypes.  Even though White middle-class students are reluctant to talk about race for fear of appearing racist, discussing structural racism and White privilege prior to the Action stage of service-learning helps to make power relations visible and critical reflection on racial attitudes possible (Green, 2003).  Additional research will needed to be conducted regarding student multicultural learning outcomes through service-learning, but it would seem that service-learning on its own merit does not positively influence White students’ racial attitudes (Houshmand et.al 2014).  Service-learning should provide a significant amount of background knowledge regarding power relations, White privilege, and racial colorblindness in order to encourage students to critically reflect on their service experience and their social status.

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