When the State Faces Financial Woes, Faculty, Students Can Make All the Difference Through Innovative Service Learning: A Call to Faculty

by Julia M. Yakovich

This may not be widely known, but the pedagogy of Service Learning can be a true catalyst for economic change. More and more faculty are investigating how they can make a difference in our communities through course efforts because Service Learning 1) efficiently offers a way for faculty to utilize an effective and innovative pedagogy where students become active learners while collaborating with communities (local or global), 2) engages students intentionally in critical reflection and social justice awareness, 3) helps prepare them for the job market, 4) bolsters on-the-ground research in collaboration with our community partners, 5) allows students to think critically about life after graduation and their place in the world, 6) connects students to local challenges and become local problem solvers and doers.

There is a place for all fields of study within Service Learning. Let’s take a closer look at business. Entrepreneurship is a sure way to increase economic activity and will be a reliable way to attract young professionals to smaller urban centers. Take for instance, our urban centers right here in CT: Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, New London and the like. Most of these cities are in or near our very own UConn Campuses and that is one of the many reasons we have our regional campuses; to have our faculty and students in the action. It is imperative for us to develop student entrepreneurs, because yes, they will be the ones to take chances in their early careers. Through Service Learning we create safe spaces for students to test their strengths in the open air of society. Our students have the ideas, they have the answers; we must be listening and able to assist them in their journey to creating a strong, vibrant society.

Let’s talk feasibility and implementation. Faculty have a course. Reflect on how how it can be tied to society and the challenges we face. What is the connection? Is it food? Environment? Social Services? Government? Health? Education? Business? How does it connect to your course goals and objectives? Is there an agency, non profit, small business that you have an existing relationship? If so, ask questions about how your class can align with their mission or greater objectives. There is a place for you in this pedagogy of Service Learning. The Office of Public Engagement is here and ready to help you brainstorm to take your course to the next level. Let us create a plan to connect the dots between theory and practice, content and action. You and your students could be the facilitator of the next great ‘thing’ for our fair state of Connecticut.

For instance, David Noble in the School of Business taught his Strategic Analysis course (MGMT 4209) and teamed up with Main Street Waterbury and the City of Waterbury where students researched and then proposed usable ideas for business incubators to increase the local urban economy. The next time this course is taught the students will build on to those ideas and further investigate HOW to get these ideas off the ground. Service Learning courses have pragmatic elements if planned accordingly and one semester can be a building block for those to follow. Conversely, if a faculty member teams up with a coordinating course, those courses can act collaboratively in alternating semesters. There are many ways to make service learning courses work for you.

Oskar Harmon, at the Stamford Campus has his students working on research and evaluation of tax implications, tolls, and transportation for different governmental agencies. Phil Birge-Liberman from the Waterbury Campus had students research the food desert(s) for GEOG 4200 Geographical Analysis of Urban Social Issues.

Why are these courses increasingly important to the state economy?  There is untapped potential for these intentionally linked educational and community focused initiatives (projects, research studies, internships, independent studies, programs, and grants) to address the state’s perpetual ‘brain drain’ as cited in this article from CBIA (Connecticut Business and Industry Association).

The goal of today’s universities and colleges involve filling the needs of community partners while simultaneously remedying the inefficiencies historically plaguing our urban centers and the state as a whole.

Potential General Outcomes:
-Gain the attention of the millennial generation to explore our localized urban communities
-Expose students to city opportunities and develop the workforce prepared to work at or before graduation
-Support economic development efforts and create the innovation required to bolster human capital
-Integrate student intelligence into new urban initiatives
-Encourage students to stay and live in the city
-Create sustainable partnerships with universities and generate grant money for innovative projects and programs
-Develop innovative projects/entities for funders or other businesses looking to expand

What have our Service Learning Fellows been up to?