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Community Service Learning in College

This research draws on interviews, reflections, and field notes about the experiences of college volunteers in the Read Empower Attain Create Hope (REACH) project, a volunteer community-service-learning project that brings undergraduate students into a juvenile detention center (juvenile hall) in Southern California. REACH has two main parts. In the volunteer program, 25 to 30 students conduct weekly discussion and writing workshops in juvenile hall and periodically publish incarcerated student writings with a national magazine called The Beat Within. Students work in small groups to design and lead these workshops on topics of their choice and do not generally receive course credit. As the faculty founder and program supervisor, I provide some training in facilitation techniques and lesson planning, but do not directly supervise student volunteers in juvenile hall. The second component of REACH is built into the academic curriculum through a course I teach based on the “Inside Out” model that brings 15 college students together with 15 incarcerated students to look at whether there is a cradle to prison and cradle to college pipeline and what we might do about it.[1] Students move fluidly between these two parts of REACH, sometimes starting as a REACH volunteer and later taking an Inside Out class, or becoming a volunteer after taking the Inside

Out class. Many stay on as volunteers for 3 to 4 years, but others only take one Inside Out class and then do not continue on as volunteers.

The REACH program is located within the Race and Ethnic Studies (REST) Program at my university in order to encourage students to link their work in juvenile hall to academic coursework that explores the significance of race in their own lives and in American society. In the students’ end of semester reflections and exit interviews, I ask them explicitly to think and talk about how race mattered in the context of their work in juvenile hall and how their work in juvenile hall shaped their understandings of their own identities and the significance of race and class in America. We aim to challenge the colorblindness that characterizes most volunteer programs in and out of college and to craft a model of social justice community service learning (Green, 2001; Mitchell, 2010).

  • [1] The “Inside Out” Prison Exchange Model was started by Lori Pompa (2002) at TempleUniversity.
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