Combining classroom instruction with meaningful community service is a method implemented as service learning. This can be a very fulfilling experience but can potentially have unforeseen trials and tribulations. Problems in service learning with non-profits derive from the relationship between the students and the agency. The opposing issues that arise between students and community hosts, which my group has personally experienced working with Reestablish Richmond, includes, conflicting schedules and commitment, the role students have in the organization and what the agency expects of them, as well as the dependability on both sides. Working with ReEstablish Richmond to enrich food advocacy within the city of Richmond’s refugee population, has proved to have such service learning challenges and has also made me realize that things do not always work out as planned.
Time is not only hard to coordinate with others, but it is also difficult to plan for when it feels like you don’t have any. Initially, our group had compared our availability and found there weren’t many days we could all meet because of conflicting schedules. Even with this setback, our group was able to make cancelations and certain client meetings a priority. Kimberly, the director for ReEstablish Richmond, was unreliable in having dates for activities organized. When we met with Kimberly for our first client meeting she had so many plans to have nutrition workshops, time with the refugees for us to conduct interviews, and blog assignments. This first impression of our work with ReEstablish Richmond gradually changed when there were still no dates set for anything after two weeks from meeting with her. Time constraints for our class assignments and Kimberly’s timeframe for what she wanted of us did not correspond. Steven D. Mill’s article, The Four Furies: Primary Tensions Between Service-Learners and Host Agencies, includes another student’s struggle that also related to the primary tension: student emphasis on hours vs. agency emphasis on commitment, “The agency I had experience with did not take students’ class requirements into consideration.” Agencies fail to recognize that students are willing to be fully committed but activities must be timely organized so our class assignments are also accomplished.
Service learners are essentially volunteers coming from the classroom to support or enhance the work of local agencies to make a positive change in the community. You are not necessarily a part of the organization, so it is often hard to make the impact you would like to. “For service-learners who are untrained and new to the work of their agency, it is inevitable that some balance of their responsibilities will be unskilled and potentially uninspiring.” (Mills) We experienced this primary tension of student emphasis on learning vs. agency emphasis on efficiency. Our role in working with ReEstablish Richmond was discussed at our first client meeting. Kimberly explained that she wanted us to attend and participate at nutrition workshops and primarily get interviews from the refugees to eventually write narratives telling their origin stories to be posted on the organization’s blog and have the community get to know the people ReEstablish Richmond is helping. We were excited to have this opportunity and experience. Over the first half of the semester our plans quickly changed. The grant that funded the nutrition workshops fell through and for some unexplained reason Kimberly said we could not conduct the interviews with the refugees at this time. Essentially everything we had planned to do with the agency had failed to happen. We were frustrated, confused, and most of all disappointed. Our new task was to find pictures of cultural foods for flashcards for an ESOL class. Something that seemed a million times less meaningful than what we first planned to be doing. I can relate to a student from Mill’s article who said, “Personally, I wanted to gain new learning from my service in relation to my class, and with my particular agency I often felt like I was doing busy work and not gaining real experiences.” Compared to what we expected to be doing within the organization, our roles now seem insignificant.
For any relationship to be successful, there needs to be dependability on both ends. We emailed the director of ReEstablish Richmond for dates when we should come and work with the refugees, but it took her several weeks to get back to us with nothing to show for it. Then, when we had planned to be doing the interviews and nothing seemed to be getting done on Kimberly’s end, we were frustrated with her for being unreliable. We quickly experienced the primary tension of student flexibility vs. agency dependability, but in this case the organization wasn’t showing reliability. This is a learning experience for all involved, including ReEstabish Richmond since it is a young organization and we are the first service learners they have ever had. “Helping students face the difficult realities of nonprofit work without losing faith in positive, sustainable change can be a complex task.” (Mills) It’s hard to set out to make a difference in just a semester, and in reality it takes a long period of time for non-profits to see progress in the work they do everyday. This is something my group has learned, personally experienced, and is considerate of now.
After evaluating how our service learning experience has been thus far with ReEstablish Richmond, there have definitely been bumps in the road. We accomplished very little of our goals. Meeting with Kimberly and communicating with each other what we wanted to get out of the experience went great, but when it came to executing our goals we fell short. Moving forward for the last half of the semester, I think we should set a goal of trying to actually work with refugees since that has yet to happen. We should focus our efforts on helping Kimberly with the ESOL classes, even if it does seem like busy work. Our group has already begun brainstorming ideas we could do related to some type of media ReEstablish Richmond could use on their website and blog. I think taking the most we can get out of this experience will only benefit our class assignment and us. As for how I think I have performed as a service learner, I am confident in saying that I have done my very best. I am the correspondent for my group, in charge of keeping in contact with Kimberly. I feel I have made a good relationship with her through email, even though there were issues with dates and times. I consider myself as one of the leaders in the group, working to facilitate the project goals efficiently. Nothing is perfect, including non-profit organizations. I’ve learned that service learning takes a little bit of trial and error, and that staying positive and looking forward can only make the situation better.