Service Learning VS Volunteering – what’s the difference and how can I get involved?

So, you have always been interested in volunteering and helping others, but since you came to campus you keep hearing the term “service-learning” and it’s got you thinking – What’s the big deal? Why the new jargon? Is volunteering the same as service learning?

We got in touch with Dr. Barrett Brenton, Faculty Engagement Associate at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement to answer some of these questions and share how you can get involved. Dr. Brenton works with faculty, students and local community partners to develop a variety of community engaged learning and research opportunities.

What is service learning and why is it important? How is it different from volunteering?

Academic Service-Learning (ASL) or Community-Engaged Learning (CEL) is a high impact and active form of learning that 1) is a course-based and academic credit-bearing experience, 2) incorporates structured and meaningful reflection on the volunteer activity that is linked to course goals, objectives, and learning outcomes, and 3) has a reciprocal and mutually beneficial impact on the community.  Community-Engaged Learning has been shown to be effective in developing transferable skills in critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, decision-making, collaboration and communication.

Simply volunteering and only doing service, while still valuable, often does not provide an opportunity or structure for meaningful reflection on the impact of the experience, nor is it generally deigned for developing transferable skills.  The Reflective component can be part of an academic course, as mentioned above (or by applying to get academic credit for their internship through the CDCI Program at the Fleishman Center), or facilitated by a site supervisor or program coordinator.

What is an example of a current service learning activity?

An example of a service learning activity is The Binghamton University Community Schools initiative, which is a partnership between the College of Community and Public Affairs, the Center for Civic Engagement and local school districts that provides opportunities for Binghamton University students to volunteer and intern with local youth. Opportunities include:

  • internships and volunteer positions
  • class-based tutoring
  • after-school tutoring and programs
  • lunchtime engagement
  • anti-bullying programs
  • parent and family engagement
  • event-based volunteerism

Through these programs, Binghamton University students provide academic assistance and social support to students in need of all ages, increasing their self-esteem and overall motivation for school work. Binghamton students also gain experience providing one-on-one and small-group instruction in the classroom. Many students elect to take the 4 credit CEL course called “Community Schools” CCPA360/EDUC360 as the reflective component. Check it out!

For more Academic Service Learning opportunities, check the CCE Service Listing Database, which provides connections to a number of community partners that can be searched across a wide-range of categories, including: Youth; Seniors/Elder Care; Hunger/Food; Health/Mental Health; Disability; Environment; Homelessness/Poverty; Civic Participation; Arts and Culture.

How can I engage in service learning now or in the near future?

Take a course that integrates community-engaged learning/ASL into the curriculum.  Courses that have been designated as ASL/CEL classes can be searched for in the Banner registration system. Feel free to reach out to the CCE if you are looking for these types of courses.  In addition, participate in a structured co-curricular volunteer experience that incorporates meaningful reflection with a community partner that has an established relationship with the university.

Are there any special considerations related to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Most community partner organizations have been both logistically and financial challenged by the pandemic.  However, their resilience has risen to the occasion.  When reaching out to a community partner about volunteering please keep in mind changes in their capacity during these times. Many volunteer opportunities have been transformed to virtual experiences that still provide reciprocal and mutually beneficial outcomes between students and community partners.  To a more limited degree, in-person services have continued but only through following strict guidelines of social distancing and the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as recommended by the New York State Department of Health guidelines.

How can I stay informed about service-learning opportunities and events? 

Sign up for the Center for Civic Engagement’s Weekly Student Newsletter (be sure check archived issues, as well!) and also check CCE’s Service Listing Database:

What is CCE’s role in service learning at Binghamton University?

The CCE’s primary mission is cultivate partnerships that strengthen communities and develop active and engaged citizens. In that capacity, it serves as a hub and bridge for connecting university students, faculty, and staff to the community and opportunities that are reciprocal and mutually beneficial to all.   

By Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi
Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi Career Consultant Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi