Fall 2002

Service Learning and Social Justice: Bringing Advocacy to Life in Counselor Training

By Margery J. Shupe, Assistant Professor,
Department of Education


Since coming to Xavier two years ago I have learned much about the Jesuits and their mission, the philosophy of service to others, and the idea of educating the whole person.  Last fall I participated in the faculty roundtable discussions entitled University as Citizen.  I remember picking up the invitation to participate in these talks and feeling immediately drawn to the idea. As a result of my participation in the discussions I found myself wholly inspired by the concept of the university as a citizen and member of the greater community.  Then 9/11 happened to us all, and like other Americans I found myself struggling with how I as one person could do more, touch more lives, and help more people.

 My desire to exact change in our world grew deeper as the events in the world unfolded. I saw my role as a faculty member as one who has the good fortune to touch many.  Suddenly possibilities were illuminated how I as a faculty member in the counseling program could creatively rework a course incorporating this notion of service to others.  My task: to have my students understand their role as agents of social change in the community. Therefore, along with my colleague, Bill O'Connell, we developed a new learning model based upon recent trends and professional literature in community counseling.


What is Service Learning?

Service learning essentially takes students out of the classroom and into the soup kitchen, nursing home, the inner city, or to the homeless shelter where they learn to care for and about people who are suffering injustice. Thus, service learning takes students out of their regular zone of contact and brings education to life by relating theory to practice.

 Service learning then is ultimately a very effective and innovative pedagogy for empowering counseling students to become more knowledgeable and more actively involved in their own communities.  Furthermore, service learning is purposeful in assisting counseling students in recognizing their altruistic qualities and promoting a sense of caring for others.   

 Many of our students are culturally encapsulated.  Through this service experience, they now have an opportunity to learn about themselves in many ways, among them: the essential counseling skill of empathy, learning about self in new situations, learning about self as a professional, and beginning to learn what client populations will be a good fit for them as a future counselor.

 This new pedagogy in counseling incorporates service learning as a way to provide students with the rich, intimate, direct and personal examination of the complexities involved in community counseling and proved to be more impactful in ways I had not imagined or predicted.

 Our research into the impact the service learning experience had upon our students was most gratifying.  In short, the service learning experiences deepened the students learning, bringing greater understanding of issues in social justice and mental health, and that vulnerable populations need advocates.  The students are now more fully aware that they as one person can have an impact on this world.  As one student stated: "My eyes have been opened, I see more  fully my place in the never ending chain where I am connected to my fellow man and human being; I am willing now more than ever to take my place in this chain and will strive toward creating a world where there is justice and equality for everyone".

 Our student's served in community agencies that represent vulnerable, often isolated populations.   All of these organizations are under funded and understaffed.  The relationship was reciprocally beneficial, for the student, for the community, and undoubtedly the University.

 In an effort to share with you the power of this project and it's effect the counseling students, I thought it would be best if you read some of the candid, earnest, and often heartfelt words of the students who participated in this endeavor.

What the Students Said about the Experience

Compassion for fellow human being
Amy (Tender Mercies):
 ? Ironically enough, although I am enrolled in a Masters program, and have far more education than a lot of the tenants were provided with, I learned from this man things that cannot be taught in a classroom, like what happened when you wear your heart on your sleeve, and what it feels like to have someone say they don?t love you?

 I was commended for being a student at Xavier.  I was thanked for my time and treated with the utmost respect.  Not only have the Tender Mercies residents taught me not to expect such negative things in life, but they have also taught me to look at life from a whole different perspective.  If tenants of excruciating lives, struggled with psychological detriments, and been without a home, can smile at me, laugh with me, share their life stores with me, and excitedly tell me about their plans and hopes for the future, so can I?.

 Our society tends to label the Tender Mercies population as 'crazy homeless drunks?. On the contrary, they were sober, had a wonderful home, and many had both of their feet on the ground.  Their heartwarming look at life, incredible insight, visions of the future, expression of emotion, and their innocent smiles can be a lesson to us all.  I will truly miss Tender Mercies and am grateful for all of the wisdom that I found there..?
Janette (Acoria):

?I left last night completely drained and completely satisfied all at the same time.  For me, there is not better feeling than the one I got after being so involved in a day and then looking back and achieving a peace in knowing I made the most of every minute at my service learning site?
Agency Funding Issues
Butch ( Willow Wood Center for Grieving Children):

?I notice that as I have invested my time in Willow Wood for this project, I have found myself taking ownership in the program.  One way that I have noticed this is that I was very concerned to hear that Willow Wood may have funding difficulties that risk bringing about it?s end.  I have a growing desired to help in some way to promote it?s success as an important agency for children and families?
Judy (Hospice):

?It has been painful to watch a 75 year old man, whose wife has brain cancer, struggle with the reality that he cannot handle her 24 hour care at home alone. ?They both live on his/her social security checks, of which hers will stop when she dies, and he does not have enough private insurance or savings to pay for residential care at $150.00 per day?.

 I have gained so much from this service learning project. Knowledge about how Hospice is funded, the challenges that accompany that, the lengths that staff go to in order to deliver excellent care at a very difficult, yet almost sacred time in people?s lives.  Hospices? commitment to professionalism was awe inspiring, and it is my hope that I can make the same kind of contribution some day through the field of grief counseling.?
Listening to Others Who May not Have a Voice?
Eve ( Victory Parkway Nursing Home):

 ?I felt very aware that I was in their home and a little conscious about how they might respond to my presence.  So I tried to be myself. That seemed to work because the residents seemed happy to see me and most wanted to talk longer.

 Even though she did not speak any words to me, I felt that we had connected on a very basic level and that she had been helped by the connection.  Perhaps this was just wishful thinking on my part.  Perhaps my presence had no effect at all.  I believe it did though.?
Ethical Issues
Janette (Acoria):

 ?Then we discussed ethical matters.  It helped me to see just how prevalent ethical dilemmas are in the counselor?s daily routine.?
Teresa (Aids Volunteers Of Cincinnati ):

 ? Confidentiality is considered critical at AVOC, in fact, during my first visit, I was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement?.this document called for strict confidentiality with regard to any client information, as well as any info about volunteers and financial donors to AVOC.  Although this was surprising, it made sense to me considering the unfortunate social stigma that still lingers around HIV/AIDS issues.  These kinds of confidentiality measures are crucial to make people feel safe about giving of their time and/or money to an agency dedicated to serving those with HIV/AIDS.  I am looking forward to future visits.?
Cultural Encapsulation
Lauren: (NK Center for Children & Families)

 ?It (Service learning site) has truly been a revelation for me..not just in the sense of how a group is run, or another community agency, but it furthers my belief that I have lived a very sheltered life.?
Social Justice
Lauren: (NK Center for Children & Families):

 It is beginning to feel like I am actually helping to make a difference.? Shelby (Catholic Service of Hamilton ): ?The agency is committed to extending God?s love for the human family by assisting people to live more fully and freely, to accept that love for themselves and to share it with others.?
Agency Infrastructure
Stephanie (Beech Acres):

?The service experience really showed me that my heart is really in working with clients, not policy and grant-writing.  I relish the interactions with others that make policy writing more real?

 I learned how beneficial it can be to understand the infrastructure of an agency when carrying out direct service or requesting funds for new programs. I now feel better equipped to enter a job at an agency, just with this minimal exposure I have gained from this experience.?
Service As Innovative Pedagogy

If we as faculty can encourage students to learn more about the world and their place in it, our students are likely to become better counselors and better human beings. Developing a global perspective encourages students to view their clients from a multidimensional and comprehensive perspective which is important in truly experiencing their world as they (the clients) experience it.

 For counselors in training, the service experience crystallized an understanding of their role as an agent of social change and deepened the students? awareness of the issues involving mental health and social justice.  In particular, the students came away with increased competence with issues of diversity, clarification of their role as future counselors, and vital exposure to vulnerable populations.  An additional benefit of using service learning in counselor training pedagogy is that it begins to prepare them for their forthcoming practicum and internships, even perhaps relieving a bit of anxiety.

 Service learning provides a rich resource for community based learning in so many ways. Service learning in counseling programs immerses the student in diverse settings that will better prepare them to be counselors of the future.  Service projects not only help the students to enhance their self-knowledge but also are beneficial for making contributions to the community.  When carefully conceived and scrupulously implemented, service learning contributes to the highest quality education and can be a pedagogical gold mine.


The author thanks the following: Dr. Bill O?Connell for his collaboration and support of this project; the Faculty Development Committee at Xavier University for the Wheeler Award; and the Dean?s Grant from the College of Social Sciences , both of which funded grants which supported this project.

 A research project resulted from this article, and the manuscript has been submitted for consideration in the Journal for Humanistic Counseling Education and Development (Shupe & O?Connell, submitted September 2002).

Kolvenbach, P.H., (Spring, 2001).  Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education.

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