Do All Students FIT in Service Learning?

Kayla Hietpas | Emily Rothstein | Meghan Bonham | Jazz Peavy | Emma Wiessner

If you have ever applied for a job or college, you know that volunteer experience is important. You spend all of your time trying to find the perfect organizations to put on your resume to help you in your future, but you might not consider the fact that not all organizations are the same. There are many factors that should go into picking the right organization, in order to make sure that it is the right fit. You must be passionate and invested in the organization, motivated to do your best work, and ready to make this organization a priority. This semester we were posed with the question of trying to figure out the relationship between community partners and the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Are student volunteers actually making a positive difference in these organizations? Does service learning really work?

We started by questioning the dominant narrative — all volunteers are good volunteers — and tried to figure out, just what is involved in making sure the students are the best fit for their organizations. Through analyzing the topic of a student’s fit when working with an organization, there have been many conclusions made based on our research that highlight the overall significance and purpose. There seems to be a connotation that when an individual goes to volunteer at an organization that they are always going to be an excellent addition. People assume organizations see all volunteers as a benefit, rather than actually looking at the effort the individual is putting in. Through our research, we have found that the majority of organizations say that the biggest problem with student fit is when the individual isn’t passionate about the work they are doing. It’s been found that students who volunteer are sometimes there to either build their resume or complete hours for a class. In either of these instances, it is found that the student is less passionate and committed to the organization. They show up late, aren’t engaged when there, or simply don’t do the work well since they see it as an assignment rather than helping. On the other hand, when a student willingly is there to volunteer solely for the benefit of the organization and they are passionate about the work, that is when there is a positive fit seen. Due to these findings, we were able to assess the importance of the factors determining if a student will be a good fit for an organization or not. This information will be very beneficial in order to move forward with this research and to discover continuing trends.

This research project has been going on for sometime now, starting with the Morgridge Center for Public Service, who then added the help of students into the process. The Morgridge Center initiated the research by finding organizations that the University has worked with that would be willing to participate. Many were invited to participate in one of four focus groups that were conducted by students, an associate professor at UW Madison, and Morgridge Center staff. The focus group asked many questions revolving around the organization’s relationships with the university and their experience with students thus far. The themes that emerged from this focus group included fit, relationships, logistics, access, and capacity, student training, burdening the community partner and inclusion of partner. These themes became the guiding principle to create a more in depth interview guide. Students conducted a total of 17 interviews. After each interview was conducted, all interviews were coded by students, based on previous themes found during the focus groups.

We understand that because a lot of this research has been done by students, that the context and conditions of this research plays a big role in the findings. For example, the students conducted the interviews, but they also chose which organization to interview, and they usually made the decision based on if they had a standing connection with that organization already. If the student had a good relationship with the organization, the member representing the organization probably has good things to say about student involvement. Representatives from the organizations may also have been apprehensive to say negative things about students and/or the university to the students themselves. Answers that were given during the interviews may have been skewed because the interviewee may not have wanted to offend or come off as negative to the student in fear that it may cause a decrease in the students that come to volunteer with the organization.

Through coding these individual interviews, we ended up finding results that were different than we expected based off of focus group findings. As a group, we were expecting to be coding a lot for “fit” throughout these interviews, but it actually came up less often, and when it did come up it seemed heavily related to other research areas such as “relationship” and “student training or prep.” However, just because “fit” between student and organization was coming up in a different way than we expected, doesn’t mean it isn’t just as important to analyze.

It seems like community partners were more apt to give examples of partnerships with students that went well, than those that maybe didn’t go as well. One of the biggest distinguishing factors between a partnership that had good results and one that was either mediocre or poor, is the alignment of interests between partner/student and a student’s willingness to commit to a project. Many partners mentioned when a student lacks the drive and self-direction to work on a project, they can become more of a burden on the organization than a help. On the opposite side of the spectrum, one interviewee expressed, “The best examples are when we’ve gotten students who are focused, self-starting, and have a vision for their relationship with the program. And that really comes down to the students having a vision and being disciplined.” Community partners communicated they notice an obvious difference in the attitude of students who are there because they have to be, and those that want to be, and therefore, have become pickier as to who they allow to work with their organization. A partner commented,

“so, I wish I knew how to get connected with students who might be interested in volunteering in that role. Or maybe, whether it’s for like a practicum or service learning or related to education, or working with families and kids, you know, I wish I knew how to get better connected with those students or any students who might see that as a good fit for them.”

Other partners have also expressed that it is hard to find a consistent volunteer base of students who have the same level of interest as the organization, and therefore, more commitment. Having a good fit between student and organization may be essential in producing great service learning results, and this is not a topic to be ignored.

Just from our own observation we were seeing these trends of passion in the student’s’ work and their fit in organizations, but we wanted to find literature that would back up this claim and would help us to analyze this situation a bit more. The theme that we are looking into deeper is the idea of student fit in an organization. In this particular article, a major argument was that involvement can mean different things and there is the behavioral aspect and the physical aspect. We think that both of these are deciding factors in the idea of student fit. Yes, it is important for students to be physically involved; going into the center, participating in different events, etc, but it is also important for the student to be emotionally and behaviorally involved; caring about what they are doing, putting in effort, etc. We think a great quote that summed up this idea was “The amount of student learning and personal development associated with any educational program is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement in the program” (Astin p 519). There is no one formula that will guarantee that all students are a good fit in an organization, because all students are different and it all comes down to how much priority the student gives to their community partner.

One of the subcategories of this theme was commitment and passion. In the article, What We’re Learning About Student Engagement from NSSE, we learned that there are certain demographics of students that seem to be more engaged. We think the part of that finding that is most interesting is that one of those demographics is those whom have more diversity experiences. This came up in many of the focus groups that there needed to be more diversity education prior to being put in the community, and it seems to be because that helps the students to be more engaged and passionate about what they are doing. Knowing this is evidence for the train of thought that some of us have been following in class. The idea that Fit and student preparation go together. If students are more prepared with diversity experience and culturally competent training, students will be more likely to be engaged and motivated to work with their community partner.

As for differing expectations, Chapter 3 in “Unheard Voices” discusses how there can be issues if students come in with certain expectations. If students come in assuming that they will be seen as a gracious savior for volunteering their time, then they could become a burden for the organization. This specific chapter sums up the fact that in order to be a good fit, students need to be actually helpful and give effort to whatever work they are asked to do, even if it is not what they assumed they would be doing. From all of the readings we have been doing, we are learning that there is a lot that goes into the idea of the “perfect fit” for a student.

Through all of this research, we are still confident that volunteering is important, and that students are a great benefit to organizations and community partners when they are a good fit for their organization. We now know, however, that not all students are a good fit in every organization and that is alright. Students need to spend more time finding an organization that they are passionate about and invested in that they are willing to make a priority. This will ensure that the dominant narrative — all volunteers are good volunteers — does not persist, and we can then be confident as a university that our students going out to volunteer will make a positive difference.