In the process of drafting a new three-year strategic plan, our administrative team has been thinking a lot about the importance of incorporating service learning into the campus environment. Service learning, or community-based learning, is a growing concept in higher education that places emphasis on providing opportunities for students to engage in the community, providing them real-life experiences outside the classroom setting. The desired outcome of this approach is to equip students with work readiness skills that assist in their smooth transition to the real world while nurturing the development of a sense of caring for others.
Service learning is not new to Southwestern Adventist University. Since we opened our doors in 1893, we have been sending students out into the local communities by organizing spring break mission trips, offering opportunities for year-long student mission assignments in remote and needy areas of the world, and providing weekend volunteer service activities in Johnson and Tarrant Counties. With a tagline of Knowledge, Faith, Service, we are forever mindful of the importance of service to our neighbors both here and around the world.
What is new to Southwestern Adventist University is the intentionality of integrating service learning across the curriculum to ensure that all students share in these experiences.
One initiative launched just two years ago is the annual Service Day. On October 11, 2019, this year’s student-led, service-oriented event, known as SWAU Ignite, engaged over 200 students, faculty, and staff. They volunteered at 17 nonprofit organizations in Johnson and Tarrant Counties.
In addition, our Honors Program seeks to enhance student involvement in the community in a number of ways. For example, new students to the Honors Program participate in a field trip each week for the first half of the semester, visiting various nonprofits in Johnson County exposing students to volunteer opportunities. During the second half of the semester, each student chooses an organization and volunteers at least 10 hours of time.
Our biology department teaches students in the Ecology and Conservation program the importance of taking care of the local natural areas. These students are working with Mansfield’s Parks Department on a stream restoration project and they continue to serve Cleburne State Park by conducting a variety of animal surveys, building and deploying habitat structures for fish, and assisting with cleanup projects, such as invasive plant removal and trail maintenance.
Enactus, an on-campus team that strives to use entrepreneurial ideas to implement community projects that improve livelihoods, gives students hands-on experience creating, managing and leading project based initiatives. Currently, sixty-seven students are members of the team. They have worked on projects for the Navajo Nation, gardening initiatives, after school entrepreneurship programs, and women’s empowerment, among others.
Many more of our departments are implementing service learning activities throughout the school year. The nursing department has launched a new initiative called the Center for Wellness Integration that advocates for the health and wellness of community residents, providing an opportunity for students across the campus to serve in meaningful ways and gain invaluable experiences. Our religion department has initiated a pastoral internship program, placing students in local churches for a year to be mentored by local pastors. Our business department welcomes corporations to campus to conduct interviews with students encouraging internships in the service areas of healthcare and senior living management.
Recently, I saw a T-shirt design that our Navajo mission team is creating for their annual spring break venture. On the back of the shirt will be these words: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another…” 1 Peter 4:10. At Southwestern Adventist University, we are being intentional about integrating service learning into our curriculum, enabling our students to identify their gifts and passion, and providing opportunities for them to use those gifts to serve others.
When our three-year strategic plan rolls out next fall, I look forward to the positive impact the many new service learning initiatives will have on our students and our community.
This article is an opinion piece written by President Shaw for the Cleburne Times Review