Expanding Vision: the Service-Learning Center over 50 years

Photo courtesy Service-Learning Center
Photo courtesy Service-Learning Center

The walls in the Commons Annex office may be neutral in color, but the decor is not. The student coordinators in the Service-Learning Center (SLC) cover their desks with post-its, quotes, photos, magazine clippings and poems. In the desks, you might encounter a hidden stash of food, or a few of last semester’s textbooks. But don’t mistake the SLC’s casual atmosphere for half-heartedness. Its occupants are driven, thoughtful and committed to their work: “equipping Calvin College students, faculty, staff, community partners, alumni and other friends of the college in and for the pursuit of God’s shalom in learning together, primarily through community-based service-learning, social justice activity and civic participation in Grand Rapids and other partner communities.”

The SLC’s programs center on student experience, and academically-based service-learning (ABSL) incorporates the activities and reflection into the classroom. Calvin has been active in this area since the mid-1990s, when a cohort of Calvin faculty and staff attended a conference at Brown University that inspired them to bring ABSL to campus. Now, service-learning figures in the recently released strategic plan, “Calvin 2019: Strengthen, Support, Secure,” which pledges to maximize student opportunities in service-learning and support faculty pursuing ABSL as pedagogy.

The plan describes ABSL as a “high-impact practice,” a nod to publications like the Journal of Higher Education and the Journal of Education and Christian Belief, which have hailed academically-based service-learning and other experiential education pedagogies as significant in the development of students as citizens. Research cited in the former journal found that service-learning is linked to higher academic achievement, demonstrated civic responsibility and positive social and cognitive outcomes. Service-learning falls neatly in line with Calvin’s freshly revised mission statement: “Calvin College equips students to think deeply, act justly and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.”

ABSL is one of a number of programs offered by the SLC, which facilitates service-learning for spiritual and character formation as well as educational value. The SLC sponsors blood drives, ACT tutoring, spring break trips, residence hall community partnerships and StreetFest. As the first day of orientation for incoming students, StreetFest introduces new Knights to the city of Grand Rapids and the mission behind the college. Service-learning describes Christian college pedagogy, which educates students toward serving their community and their God.

StreetFest has comprised part of Calvin’s orientation for more than 20 years, and the SLC has been in existence for 30 more. The now nationally recognized department began with a dozen students tutoring local schoolchildren under the banner of KIDS, Kindling Intellectual Desire in Students. The founders, Jan VandenBosch Veenstra and Sharon Draft Slager, built on the work of the Sociology Club and drew inspiration from a conference at Michigan State University, which had begun the Student Education Corps in response to Governor George Romney’s urging for college students to develop volunteer programs. These early programs were focused on education.

“We were doing it for the kids. That was our limited horizon. Today, it’s all ages, all places and all different things. But that was the expanding of an idea that began with ‘we’re gonna help kids,’” Veenstra said. But the idea took off, and in 1967, the college invested in full-time staff for the program. Even then, KIDS competed with other student organizations for funds, and its directors had to exhibit entrepreneurial spirit. KIDS director Jonathan Bradford, who led the program from 1973-1978, said, “It was kind of pioneer spirit, it was kind of like a bootstraps, do it yourself kind of spirit. The very same thing that motivated students to march in the street against Vietnam would be the very same spirit that would motivate a kid to tutor, to reach out to a fatherless child.” For students of the activist ‘60s and ‘70s, the mindset was “let me be involved, let me make a difference, let me be the change.”

As the KIDS program matured, it was absorbed into Calvin’s student life division. Shortly after Bradford’s tenure, the program took on the name “Student Volunteer Service” to reflect expanded offerings. Students didn’t just tutor; the SVS era was best known for the Emergency Moving Service, which assisted families in moving between homes and/or shelters. The large trucks emblazoned with the Calvin seal made an impression. The office still gets phone calls from community members asking for the Emergency Moving Service, which was discontinued in the late ‘80s.

Many of the SLC’s services begin at the initiative of its student coordinators. Since the program’s inception as a student organization, the SLC has centered on student leadership. Though no longer run by a student advisory board, the bulk of administrative work in the office is taken on by a dozen or so student coordinators who participate in leadership training and professional development. Many of these staff members have served in other capacities as well, such as community partnership coordinators in the residence halls, spring break trip leaders or transportation assistants and chauffeuring students to their service-learning placements.

Students involved with the SLC over the past several decades cite this model as a key component of their development, professionally and spiritually. Patsy Orkar ’93 recalls “working with people who were very different from me on the SVS team, but after a year of working together, we became a family.” Among alumni, the office is remembered as a place in which students tackled big questions and were challenged in their vocation as Christians and lovers of justice. Amy Jonason ’08, currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, writes of her experience on staff: “I became aware of the gray areas and the many complexities that surface when we try to do justice. I’ve become passionate about trying to understand the missteps that people make when they set out to do justice in the hope that my work will help organizations fulfill their missions more faithfully.”

A large number of KIDS, SVS and SLC alumni work in education, development and the non-profit sector more broadly. Others carry lessons about the pursuit of shalom into business or academia. Many of them have remained close with their SLC co-workers and have found those relationships to be deeply influential.

Kelly Organ ’12 writes, “I carry with me the group of friends and mentors who are all, on some level, ‘dreamers’ — those memories and their lives and examples encourage me when I get cynical or my gaze is drawn too close to the earth. Philosophical, principled, idealistic, faithful, radical people influenced my life in the SLC and that’s probably the most significant thing I carry from that place.”

As the SLC marks 50 years, celebrations honor the people who have invested in it and taken its mission into their post-graduation lives. The June 6-7 celebration will draw together generations of service-learners to reconnect and reinvigorate the SLC’s mission, recognizing God’s faithfulness in Calvin’s efforts to pursue shalom.

More information is available at calvin.edu/slc/50th-anniversary.html.