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Service learning takes students into community, bringing classroom lessons to life


CSUEB students in the service learning program help allay the damage, as they learn about the ecosystem, during a recent trip to the Colma Creek wetlands. (Photo: Scott Chernis)

  • August 6, 2012

Cal State East Bay’s Service Learning program makes a positive impact on students looking to explore possible career fields while getting valuable work experience. At the same time, program participants provide much-needed services to communities and citizens around the Bay Area by volunteering for tasks such as taking blood pressure at a neighborhood health clinic or cleaning away fallen branches, leaves and debris from a public school yard.

“Service learning (allows) students (to) learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs,” said Mary D’Alleva, director of CSUEB’s Community Service Learning program. “It is integrated into the students’ academic curriculum or provides structured time for a student to think, talk or write about what he or she did and saw during the service activity. That provides them with the opportunities to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situations in their own communities.”

D’Alleva, a lecturer in CSUEB's English Department, has led the service learning program for the past decade, establishing partnerships with community organizations that provide most of the service opportunities for the students. In its formative years the program has operated as a bridge for all university students, no matter their class level, to pursue community service and gain insight in gain insight in a new field.

Community partnerships developed by D’Alleva also provided the foundation for the university’s new Freshman Day of Service, which debuted late in winter quarter and continued through spring quarter. The aim of the day of service is to expose students to community service at the outset of their college education, she explained.

Biology major Riddhi Sood participated in a wetlands cleanup project.

“I had fun and certainly learned a lot,” Sood said. “It was an awesome experience.”

More than 900 CSUEB freshman students took part in the program, volunteering one Saturday between March and May to fill a community need such as planting trees and removing weeds and helping serve, pack or distribute food for thousands of residents in Alameda County. They also operated youth sports events for elementary school students and high school-age young people, painted facilities for nonprofit agencies and performed community cleanup projects.

Students selected service opportunities that helped nonprofit organizations such as Alameda Point Collaborative, Downtown Oakland YMCA, Eden Youth and Family Center, Hayward High School, Hayward Public Library, St. Vincent De Paul Society and Americorps.

Additionally, D’Alleva collaborates with Cal State East Bay faculty and staff members of academic programs in mixing hands-on experience for students into their coursework.

Lecturer Laura Beer, for example, consulted with D’Alleva in integrating service learning into her geography and environmental studies course, “Global Environmental Problems.”  Each quarter Beer and other faculty members in her department take students to a spot in the Bay Area where they can witness environmental problems and issues studied in the classroom.

For one weekend field trip, held in conjunction with the “Save the Bay” program, the class of 35 students traveled with Beer to the Colma Creek wetlands just north of San Francisco International Airport where environmental pollution is evident. In about four to five hours, the group removed acres of ice plants and trash that interfere with the native habitat in the creek.

“I teach about the problems, but also about how we’re all going to be solutions to these global problems,” said Beer. “We can be a solution in our local environment and through non-governmental organizations like ‘Save the Bay’ and a variety of others that are in not only our local community, but globally.

“The goal is to, No. 1, connect with nature, No. 2 learn how we can be part of the solution,” Beer said. “You can talk and show pictures and show videos in class, and no matter how technologically savvy you are in the presentation, there is no substitute for field experience. My goal is to teach the students, even if they are in other majors, that there are ways that science can be involved in their lives on a day-to-day basis.”

Several students who took part, including freshman Sood, indicated to Beer that they would like to return to Colma Creek or other Bay Area wetland locations to do similar cleanup work in the future.

Sood, an international student from India, said she was appalled at what she witnessed at Colma Creek.

“Getting close to such environmental damage and actually seeing it, has been an eye-opening experience for me,” Sood said. “I didn’t know how much damage has been done to our ecosystem.

“Through this program, I now know about these problems and can see how individuals like me can make a difference and be solutions to these problems.”

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