Service Learning as a College Involvement and Success Strategy for Underserved Student Populations


Normandale Community College’s Center for Experiential Education conducted a study over a four year time frame of more than 4,000 students that showed a positive correlation between involvement in service learning courses and persistence, retention, GPA and success of all student demographics, including diverse student populations. Through participation in an AmeriCorps leadership program which focused specifically on first generation and low income students, Normandale discovered an even greater success rate for underrepresented students. Not only did students increase their success rates significantly, they gained many soft skills such as critical thinking, job skills, and a connection to their campus and community. Normandale Community College has been intentional in serving underrepresented populations and has implemented several programs to increase the numbers and success rates of these students. One of these programs, See Yourself Here, is designed for middle school students. This program builds awareness of community colleges for first-generation and underserved students to show them that college is accessible.


“The students who do service learning are the ‘A’ students anyway.” “Only students who don’t have to work have the luxury of doing service learning.” ”My students are too busy to do something like this!” “The students in my class need these services; it doesn’t seem appropriate to ask them to serve there for class.” These are familiar comments from faculty about incorporating a service learning component into their classes. There is a general sentiment that the only students who will choose to participate in service learning come from certain, more privileged environments. This thinking was incongruent with the experiences and observations we were having as staff working with service learning students. To confront these differing perspectives, we decided to explore service learning as a success strategy for underserved student populations. This was done by collecting data on student success through service learning and by examining the elements of service programs to determine the level of success for underserved students. In response to this charge, the Center for Experiential Education conducted a study with the Office of Institutional Research at Normandale Community College to discover the connections between service learning and student success. Student success was defined as an increase in GPA, enrollment in courses the following semester, and graduation or transfer to another institution.

In addition to a program impacting student grades and persistence toward graduation, it is also important that students have a sense of belonging and gain skills as they connect with the community. The Center for Experiential Education has been intentional in serving underserved populations and has implemented several programs to increase the involvement and success rates of these students. The programs include college access programming for first generation and underserved middle school students and a service leadership program that specifically recruits underserved and first generation college students. The Center also has a long history of course-based service learning designed to be available to students experiencing a variety of constraints like time, transportation, work, and family.

Current research on service and civic engagement programming provides a complex critique on involving and meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. The programs at Normandale have demonstrated that it is possible to create service learning initiatives that can directly impact students that may not be served by traditional service programs. In this chapter, we will discuss the paucity of research on the success of underserved students in service learning and share the results of our research that points to success strategies for underserved students in service learning programs.

Literature Review

The research conducted on the topic of success of underserved student populations through service learning programs focused on studies that discussed the success of students involved in service learning, service learning programs and diverse students, and the factors contributing to student success. Since the early 1990s, studies have demonstrated student success because of participation in service learning. The frequently quoted 1998 study by Astin and Sax analyzing the effects of undergraduate student participation in service learning indicated that there is a significant increase in the impact of service learning on students when students reach the 20-hour level of time dedicated to service activities (Astin et al., 1998). In Coupling Service and Learning in Higher Education: The Final Report of the Evaluation of the Learn and Serve America, Gray and Ondaatje reported that “student participation in service learning increased their connection to the course content, and students participated in reflection activities and experienced increases in GPA in the study overall” (Gray et al. 1998, 12) Service learning studies show an increase in student skills and personal development (Eyler, Giles, et al).

Eyler and Giles conducted a survey of the service learning research that currently exists and listed the general findings, including that students engaged in service learning have an increase in graduation rates, GPA, and retention (Eyler, Giles, et. al). The majority of these studies are positioned in baccalaureate-level institutions. The studies refer to ACT/SAT results for pre-college data, the NSSE for measures of self-reported student involvement, and four-year degrees as measures of student success. Though this is helpful on a broader scale, the data does not directly apply to two-year institutions.

Many studies refer to students gaining knowledge of and experience with diversity, referencing reduction of stereotypes and increase in cultural and racial understanding as outcomes of service learning activities (Eyler, Giles, et al). An understanding of diversity from the service learner’s perspective is measured as one of the results of service learning. There are more recent conversations occurring in research that consider the diverse experiences and motivations of the service learners themselves. Data on college students across the nation demonstrates that “forty percent of low-income students continued to college and 12% graduated from college, compared to 81% and 73% of those in the highest quartile, respectively” (Engle and O’Brien 2007 as cited in Campus Compact 2008). This discrepancy between low-income and middle- to high-income students in college is just part of a larger issue for students who are less represented in college. Systemically, the needs and experiences of our student body are more and more diverse. Studies have only just begun to look at the success of underserved students. The definition of underserved students for the purpose of this work includes students of color, low income and first generation students.

Current research on service learning and civic engagement programming provides a complex critique on involving and meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. The research on the impact of service learning on underserved student populations is limited. The lack of research on the topic is confirmed by an extensive literature review prepared for the Association of American Colleges and Universities by Lynn E. Swaner, Ed.D., LMHC, NCC, ACS, and Jayne E. Brownell, Ed.D. entitled Outcomes of High Impact Practices for Underserved Students: A Review of the Literature. This review specifically looks at research on the impact of service learning as a high impact practice for underserved student populations. The authors found that the research has limitations because the studies that do exist are small in scale both over time and in the number of underserved students included in the studies (Swaner & Brownell, 2009). The research that is available on service learning and student success for underserved student populations aligns generally with the outcomes for broader student populations with a few differences. There is less evidence of particular academic gains (increased communication skills, critical thinking, understanding of course content, etc.) and more of a focus on increased retention and improved grades and civic attitudes (Swaner & Brownell, 2009).

The National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America (Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University, 1999) studied 1,000 students of color in high school and found that there was an even higher increase in academic performance in relation to service learning than for students of color who do not participate in service learning. Cross et al. report that “K-12 students who participate in civic engagement (often associated with programs facilitated by college students) are more likely to stay in school, graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn a college degree. These outcomes improve even more dramatically among student populations that have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education, including students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds” (Cress et al. 2010, 1). What is unfortunate about these studies is that the results focus mainly on the success of the K-12 students and not the college students taking part in civic engagement programs.

Additional research on the success of students of color in college is related to college access. As pointed out by the College Access Matters II report, Diverse Student Pathways to College in Minnesota, “College access matters for students of color. Students of color were less likely than white students to receive college knowledge at home, resulting in the need to seek out information about the college preparation process from other adults or organizations in the community” In addition, “students of color on average needed at least three access points to have full exposure to the steps needed to be ready for and to enter college” (Minnesota Minority Education Partnership 2010, 14). “In addition to helping engage college students in their learning and in their communities, civic engagement involving K-12 students can strengthen the pipeline to colleges and universities and address issues of both college access and student success in college” (Cress et al. 2010, 1). “K-12 students who participate in civic engagement (often associated with programs facilitated by college students) are more likely to stay in school, graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn a college degree. These outcomes improve even more dramatically among student populations that have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education, including students of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds” (Cress et al. 2010, 1).

Studies have shown a variety of factors contribute to student success. Students who are supported by a social network of their peers and staff to encourage them are more likely to complete their degree. Research has shown “that social support variables deal with the ways in which students’ interpersonal networks affirm their decision to pursue a college degree. Associations have been established between various types of support and intentions to persist: encouragement from friends or parents and/or other family member . . . and access within the institution to discuss personal problems” (Davidson et al 2009, 373). This is congruent with the findings of Levine and Nidiffer’s study, “in which persons who impacted low-income students’ ability to enter college were those who were able to connect with students when they were ready for it and who were able to provide both hope and help” (Schreiner et al 2011, 332). By contrast, Schreiner indicates that there are certain personal characteristics that may place a student at risk for not succeeding in college. These features locate the student in a population without a long or necessarily successful history in higher education. Examples of such students include students who are the first in their family to attend postsecondary education or students with low socioeconomic status (Schreiner et al., 201).

Kuh (2008) theorizes that high-impact activities are effective because they require considerable commitment of time and effort in purposeful tasks; demand meaningful interaction with faculty and peers; increase students’ exposure to diversity; provide for frequent feedback about students’ performance; and allow for application of learning in different settings. It is feasible that the impact of a given practice may vary based on its effectiveness across these, and potentially other, dimensions. This is particularly troubling in light of Kuh’s findings related to the ‘compensatory effects’ of high-impact practices for historically underserved students, or the ‘boost’ participating students receive in terms of higher grades and retention during the first year of college (Swaner and Brownell, 2010, 7).

Institutional Background

Normandale Community College is a liberal-arts focused community college in the suburban metro area of Minneapolis, MN. The college focuses on associates degrees in liberal arts, transfer curriculum to four-year institutions, and applied associates and certificate programs in specialty areas like nursing, business, hospitality management, dental hygiene, and dietetics. The college serves 10,000 full time equivalent students each year. Positioned in a first-ring suburb in a state that has experienced significant recent immigration, the college has enjoyed the diversity of an urban environment. This diversity is represented partially by underserved student populations. The numbers from fall 2012 enrollment demographics show 34 percent students of color, 39 percent Pell eligible, and 20 percent first generation students. The total of individual students who meet the definition of underserved students is 56 percent for fall 2012 30th day enrollment statistics (Fowler 2013). This means that there is an imperative to provide quality education that meets the challenges of underserved student populations. There are institutional concerns for the recruitment of, persistence of, and services provided to underserved populations. The charge of the college is to retain those students and invest in their success.

The Center for Experiential Education has been intentional in serving underserved populations and has implemented several programs to increase the involvement and success rates of these students. The programs include a service leadership program that specifically recruits underrepresented and first generation college students and a college access program led by college student leaders that shares the college experience with first generation and underserved middle school students. At the college, course-based service learning is intentionally designed to be accessible for students experiencing a variety of constraints like time, transportation, work, and family.

The Center for Experiential Education began as a service learning program in 1999 and has grown to include civic engagement and experiential education programs, in addition to the strong course-based service learning program. Course-based service learning is an integral part of the Normandale Community College culture that is represented in most academic departments. Integrating classroom theory with meaningful community service projects in an effort to enhance curriculum and promote civic responsibility, students serve an average of 20 hours of service learning per course. This time commitment has shown to provide a learning experience that has a positive impact on the learner.



Impacts of Service Learning

A research study was conducted by Normandale Community College’s Center for Experiential Education and the Office of Research and Planning to assess the difference in GPA, persistence, and retention rates of students who have participated in one or more service learning experience. The study, from Fall 2008 to Fall 2012, had an experimental group of 2,081 service learning students and a control group of 2,022 students who had never participated in service learning. The study was repeated to include an additional cohort of service learning students from Spring 2011-Fall 2012 semesters, compared to a different random sample of students who had not participated in service learning activities. The repeat of the study also gave longer term success measures for students in the 2008-2010 cohort. The Office of Research and Planning used student identification numbers provided by the Center for Experiential Education’s database to track and compare student GPAs, registration patterns, and completion rates (Haynes 2013). This data was broken down further to analyze the impact of service learning programs on underserved student populations. These populations are defined as first-generation, low-income, and students of color.

Evaluations were sent to students via email at the end of each semester to assess the service learning experiences of each student. The data gathered is self-reported reflection on the connection with course content, learning outcomes, impact on the community, and satisfaction with the process. The evaluations include questions ranked on a Likert scale and open-ended questions.

Interviews were conducted by Experiential Education staff with students who had completed service programs. Not all students could be reached due to the challenges of maintaining current contact information. Interviews included open ended questions and were conducted via email and phone. The intention of these interviews was to gather longer term impact information for each program.

Leadership Through Service

The AmeriCorps and Leadership through Service programs both focus on first generation and low income students where students volunteer for 300 hours on- and off-campus in a cohort model. Low income is defined as students that are Pell Grant eligible and/or work study eligible. A first-generation student is defined for the purposes of this article as an individual whose parents did not receive a degree from the United States. Schreiner indicates that there are certain personal characteristics that may place a student at risk for not succeeding in college; these are identified as those features that locate the student in a population without a long or necessarily successful history in higher education. Examples of such students include students who are the first in their family to attend postsecondary education or students with low socioeconomic status (Schreiner et al 2011). The Leadership Through Service program helps to ensure that students with more risk factors for achieving a degree are in a sustainable program where they receive support to persist through college.

The AmeriCorps and Leadership through Service members were both required to participate in a pre-survey at their orientation meeting prior to their service and a post service survey at their exit interview. The survey was designed by the service learning coordinator to assess their knowledge in five different areas, including civic knowledge, team leadership, knowledge of the community, project planning, and public speaking. Through the design of the program, the scores in each category should rise.

The scale that was used to assess their knowledge of these different areas was a Likert scale with the values of one through five. A score of one indicated that the student was beginning to understand the statement. For example, the student was able to lead a large group in an activity or exercise. If the student indicated that their understanding of this statement was a one, it would mean that they understood the concept, but had not implemented it. If the student scored themselves a five, it was an indicator that they fully understood the statement and were able to demonstrate the skill.

There were also questions that were opened ended with no specific answer. Some questions that were included were: What does being a leader mean to you? How has learning leadership skills helped you in other areas of your life? and How do you plan to use your experience in the future? This part of the survey was very helpful for collecting feedback from the students about their opinions, attitudes, and experiences from being a part of the program.

See Yourself Here

See Yourself Here (SYH) is a Normandale program that builds awareness of community college for first-generation and underserved middle school students. Middle school students visit Normandale and participate in a college lecture, tour, and ask a panel of Normandale students their questions about college.

Data for the See Yourself Here pre-evaluation survey for the middle school students was a seven-question scaled tool with a free-write question at the end. The survey was given to every student in attendance prior to their visit. The post-evaluation for this group was a 12-question survey with a variety of yes/no, scaled, and free-write questions that were given to every student in attendance the day of the visit. The middle school faculty members’ evaluation was a four-question free-write tool given to the faculty in attendance near the end of the visit. The college student pre-evaluation was a three-question survey with a yes/no question, a five point scale question and a free-write question. The post evaluation for college student group was a five question survey with one yes/no and four free-write questions. This survey was given the first time the student volunteered and at the end of the year evaluation meeting. Answers from the pre and post assessments were studied and adjustments to the program were made for the following semester. Many changes have been made based on the feedback from all assessments.

The students quoted for this article in See Yourself Here, LTS, and service learning sections outside of the cited evaluation responses were students who participated in leadership roles in the program from previous years and were students that we were able to obtain email or phone numbers for to ask their opinions of their learning outcomes from their involvement in the program.


Impact of Service Learning on Student Persistence, Success and Retention

The strong history of service learning at Normandale Community College is reflected in assessment results that indicate a correlation between increased student GPAs, persistence, and retention rates. Comparison of the average GPAs of students who did not participate in service learning and those who participated in one or more service learning courses reflected a positive correlation between service learning and increased GPAs. The average GPA of students who did not participate in service learning was 2.61 over the course of nine semesters. Students who participated in one service learning experience had an average GPA of 3.03.

Though an increase in GPA can be influenced by other variables, the results are statistically significant at the 99% level and a positive correlation can be drawn between service learning and increased student success in GPA. The results showed that, of the control group, 61.4 percent had graduated or were still enrolled.  Of the experimental group (all service learning participants with one or more service learning experiences), 74.1 percent had graduated or were still enrolled. This difference has statistical significance at the 99 percent level when looking at all terms Fall 2008 through Fall 2012 combined (Haynes 2013).

Additionally, the study found that the number of service learning experiences had a correlation to increased student success. Student success in this study was defined as the student graduating with a degree, being currently enrolled or having transferred to another institution. The control group (non-participants) had a mean “success” rate of 68.6 percent, whereas 83.7 percent of students who participated in one or more service learning activities had graduated, transferred, or were still enrolled.


Table 1 — Average GPA by number of Service Learning Records

  0 1 2 or more
Fall 2008 2.571 (n=3783) 2.908 (n=233) 3.301 (n=17)
Spring 2009 2.578 (n=3762) 2.906 (n=212) 3.276 (n=13)
Fall 2009 2.481 (n=4541) 2.935 (n=258) 3.049 (n=12)
Spring 2010 2.500 (n=4492) 2.966 (n=233) 3.319 (n=16)
Fall 2010 2.493 (n=4915) 3.110 (n=232) 3.188 (n=20)
Spring 2011 2.499 (n=4759) 2.935 (n=226) 2.826 (n=18)
Fall 2011 2.487 (n=5032) 2.899 (n=275) 2.615 (n=2)
Spring 2012 2.526 (n=4820) 2.978 (n=196) 3.134 (n=9)
Fall 2012 2.456 (n=4923) 2.904 (n=314) 3.383 (n=11)


Table 2 — Persistence by Term, Service Learning Participation

  Next Term Persistence
YRTR Service Learning Participant Number Percentage
Fall 2008 Participants (n=250) 214 85.6%
Non Participants (n=243) 177 72.8%
Spring 2009 Participants (n=233) 153 65.7%
Non Participants (n=245) 134 54.7%
Fall 2009 Participants (n=270) 241 89.3%
Non Participants (n=264) 187 70.8%
Spring 2010 Participants (n=251) 155 61.8%
Non Participants (n=257) 147 57.2%
Fall 2010 Participants (n=254) 211 83.1%
Non Participants (n=278) 186 66.9%
Spring 2011 Participants (n=248) 168 67.7%
Non Participants (n=255) 143 56.1%
Fall 2011 Participants (n=284) 242 85.2%
Non Participants (n=292) 212 72.6%
Spring 2012 Participants (n=207) 130 62.8%
Non Participants (n=280) 144 51.4%
Fall 2012 Participants (n=330) 267 80.9%
Non Participants (n=277) 189 68.2%
TOTAL Participants (n=2327) 1781 76.5%
Non Participants (n=2391) 1519 63.5%


Another significant finding of this study is that the demographics of participants in service learning are generally consistent with the demographics of the college. There is a higher rate of participation among female students. Overall, the population of the service learning participants has a racial and ethnic breakout similar to that of the overall sample population, as well as the overall student body (Haynes 2013). Because of this finding, the Office of Institutional Research and the Center for Experiential Education did another comparison of students who participated in at least one service learning experience and fit into the underserved student designation in comparison to students who did not participate in service learning but fit into the underserved student designation. The findings were consistent with those for the general student population.

This study has helped Normandale Community College make the case that service learning has had a positive impact on student success and indicates that our program strongly aligns with other studies on service learning and student success. Many professionals and researchers in the field have named and tried to confront the challenges in measuring the transformative effect and outcomes of service learning. A student who is about to complete his bachelor’s degree in Psychology at a transfer institution shared that for two years as a part time student, he “went to school, home and work,” that it was his service learning class that specifically got him involved. His reflections on how service learning still impacted his life four years later include improving his skills as a student, especially prioritizing his school work; improving his public speaking skills and his ability to teach peers; and learning how to be on time for his commitments, which increased greatly after his initial service learning experience. Service became a regular part of his life through service programs like the AmeriCorps M3C and other programs outside of school. He had always intended to get a degree in Psychology; service learning gave him the motivation to complete that degree because he was exposed to the kinds of jobs he could obtain with a bachelor’s degree.

While stories from students reflecting on their experiences are helpful, we currently do not have the ability to know the full story of student involvement and success as we are only beginning to have the data to track students from the middle-school program through their associate’s degree or other higher education degree programs. We have included qualitative data throughout this article to show the impact these programs have had on the middle school and college students to date, and to give you a glimpse of what we are hearing from them after participating in the programs.

Leadership Through Service

Normandale Community College has had an institutional commitment to support a part time service program for the past six years. The college was selected to participate in the AmeriCorps M3C and AmeriCorps Students in Service programs. After the substantial federal cuts to the Corporation for National and Community Service, funding for the AmeriCorps M3C and Students in Service programs was not renewed. Normandale Community College saw the value in providing this type of program because of the benefits that the students were obtaining. Therefore, the Leadership Through Service program was created and funded by Normandale Community College through an Access and Opportunity Grant.

In Leadership Through Service, the students are responsible for the planning and implementation of each program. The implementation of the program includes marketing, recruiting of volunteers, and program assessment. After the member has successfully completed their term of service, the member receives a $1,000 education stipend that can be used to pay for college tuition or previous loans. This is an appealing opportunity for students that are experiencing financial hardship. It also provides them with valuable career/job skills and builds their resumés. During the course of the year, two cohorts participate in the program, which builds in a peer mentor who helps students feel welcomed and valued and helps to ensure involvement and cohesiveness of the team. One term is from January to January and the other is from June to June.

The Center for Experiential Education staff work one-on-one or in small groups with the members, contributing to their academic career. According to Astin, “student personnel workers who frequently operate on a one on one basis with students are in a unique position to monitor the student involvement in the academic process and to work with individuals in an attempt to increase that involvement” (Astin, 1984, 526). At least one person from the Center for Experiential Education staff is able to meet at least once a week with the each student. During this time, the staff members discuss the student’s personal and professional development. They also help them find resources if needed, like tutoring if they are struggling in a class. Members of the program participate in weekly meetings for on-campus committees and monthly as an entire cohort. During the monthly cohort meetings, icebreakers and team builders develop a sense of community; time is provided to reflect on their service; and the Torchbearer award, given to one member, is announced. The award encourages students to take initiative and go above and beyond the basic program requirements. It is a peer-nominated award, selected by secret ballot for the member who has excelled throughout the month. Each member holds a minimum of one office hour per week in the Center for Experiential Education, working on their individual projects.

Normandale Community College students have benefited from participating in part-time AmeriCorps and Leadership Through Service programs because of the connection that the participants feel to the campus and community. The AmeriCorps and Leadership through Service programs engage students in three hundred hours of service on and off campus. The members enhance and develop their leadership and work force skills throughout the program and receive money for their education. The positive results are seen in the high retention and graduation rates of the students that participate in the program. Overall GPAs of the participants are higher upon completion of their term of service and the students also gain useful skills for the future.

The member’s term of service is a one-year commitment during which the individual is required to complete 300 hours of volunteer work on and off campus. For the off campus commitment, members are able to volunteer at most non-profit organizations. Members are encouraged to volunteer at a non-profit that aligns with their education and/or career goals or a career they would like to explore. The coordinator places members into one of the many leadership opportunities for their on campus service. Participants are paired up with at least one member from the previous cohort for the on campus commitment, to create a sustainable leadership cycle. The on campus commitments include the following:

  • See Yourself Here! Program – a middle school outreach program that encourages Middle School students to attend college
  • International Kid’s Club – literacy activities that take place at an elementary school and that are geared toward refugee and immigrant families
  • Intercultural Service Circles – a program in which English Language Learners can practice conversational English skills.
  • Programming- teams of at least five individuals who are responsible for planning annual programs like Trick-or-Treat for Hunger, Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, and National Volunteer Week.
  • Campus Cupboard – an on-campus food pantry that provides food assistance to Normandale Community College students who are experiencing food insecurity.
  • Hats for the Homeless – student leaders teach other students to knit or crochet. The students are required to create at least one hat, scarf, or pair of mittens. The items are then donated to a local homeless shelter.

The Leadership Through Service and AmeriCorps programs have assisted low income and first generation students to increase retention rates and GPA. The many different facets of the program, including one on one attention from staff, involvement, and peer support, have aided in the participants’ success. This finding is congruent with that of Levine and Nidiffer’s study, “in which persons who impacted low-income students’ ability to enter college were those who were able to connect with students when they were ready for it and who were able to provide both hope and help” (Schreiner et al 2011, 332).

Normandale Community College data has shown that AmeriCorps and LTS members have higher retention rates than Pell grant recipients. One hundred percent of the students that completed their AmeriCorps term returned to college the following year and 90 percent of students that completed their Leadership through Service term returned to college, compared to the Pell Grant recipients, of whom only 48.7 percent returned. The average GPA for AmeriCorps and LTS members prior to the program is 2.88 and the average Pell Grant recipient is 2.80, demonstrating that the program is attracting students who do not vary greatly from the average low-income student. There has been a substantial increase in GPAs after the completion of the program. GPAs are viewed by professor and potential employers as an indication of the student’s work and study habits. The average GPA of a member upon completing the program is 3.08. This is a 6.5 percent increase, which is significant because this means that some students have increased their average from a C average to a B average. This could mean more scholarship opportunities for students or acceptance into a better college.

One student commented on why his academics improved:

While I was in AmeriCorps, I had to coordinate all my service commitments and leadership responsibilities on top of work and school. It was a challenge but I learned how to be organized and manage my time effectively. These skills have made me more successful in my academics. I now know how to plan my schedule, and I am more efficient with my studying; I have done much better on exams and have seen my grades rise every semester since joining AmeriCorps. In addition, my AmeriCorps experience has made me more determined than ever to follow my dreams and overcome the challenges that face me. I hope to one day get my doctorate in public administration and change the world for the better, and my AmeriCorps experience will have laid the foundation to make it happen.

One AmeriCorps member had an experience in the program that changed the direction of his education and career goal significantly:

My participation in AmeriCorps has transformed me on a personal and professional level. Through AmeriCorps, I developed a greater understanding of what it means to be an active member of the community, and I now have a greater sense of social responsibility. AmeriCorps laid the foundation for everything I know and understand about leadership; I learned you must always lead with integrity and compassion and that your success as a leader comes from your ability to provide vision and inspiration to the ones you lead. By the time I finished my membership, I had developed a deep bond with my fellow AmeriCorps members and the program had inspired me to dedicate my life to serving the community. Nothing has had a more pivotal impact on my life than serving in AmeriCorps.

During AmeriCorps’ and Leadership Through Service’s monthly meetings, faculty members were invited to present workshops, including A Crash Course in Public Speaking, Conflict Management Resolution, and StengthsQuest. The program increased the participants’ development of skills for the classroom and workforce. The Conflict Management Resolution workshop, which was facilitated by a Communications faculty member, educated members on how to resolve conflict among competing priorities. These interactive workshops also helped the students to improve their knowledge in areas like public speaking. When the members took the self-report pre-assessment on their knowledge of how to resolve conflict, the average score was a 3.0 and their post-assessment reflected a score of 4.5 on a five-point scale, with five being the high score. Members also became more confident in preparing and giving a speech. There was a marked increase from 3.0 to 4.3. The ability to give a motivational speech improved dramatically from 2.6 to 4.2. Another component of their success is related to the fact that they give on average 20 public presentations throughout the year, ranging from classroom presentations to introducing key presenters at public events. This type of program can have an impact on the future of the student’s career plans. One student commented:

Through AmeriCorps I had the opportunity to work with people from all walks of life and do volunteer work in many parts of the community. I gained a sense of where I belonged. In particular, my volunteer work at Simpson Homeless Shelter has inspired me to pursue a career that will change housing policies and eliminate homelessness. AmeriCorps exposed me to the many career opportunities available to me and has given me the motivation I need to follow my dreams.

This demonstrates how the program cements individual plans for the future. The assessment data relied on self-report evaluations on the same five-point scale referenced above. Students consistently improved their knowledge in policies impacting the communities they served. On this topic, pre-survey numbers indicated that the average knowledge base was 2.8 and average post-survey scores were 4.3. There was also a significant impact in group dynamics. The members felt that they were better equipped to support the performance and the development of other team members. Pre-survey numbers were 3.9 and post-survey numbers were 4.9. Teamwork and group dynamics continuously developed throughout the year because of the individual committees and group activities. At the end of the term, members were able to develop a plan for a project, goal, or event more confidently, as illustrated by a score increase of 1.4 (Lilgreen, 2011). A student commented:

Having the opportunity to work with an amazing group of leaders, together we learned the value of community service and developed into civil servants. The beautiful thing about AmeriCorps is that it is really team oriented. You learn the value of collaboration and are able to establish lasting relationships with your member leaders. Together the AmeriCorps members share a unique experience which they carry with them into the future; I have stayed in touch with my cohort, and though we all have gone in different directions, we share a common bond that united us during our AmeriCorps journey.

Advisors can see differences in the behaviors and skills of the students in the program. According to one advisor, the difference this program has made has been tremendous for the participants. She adds, “I have witnessed students struggle especially with their public speaking skills and the difference after one year is astounding. The deliberate practice that is part of the LTS and AmeriCorps term truly makes an impact on their academic success and career goals” (Lilgreen, 2013).

See Yourself Here

Normandale Community College saw a need for underserved middle school students to begin thinking about and preparing for access to college. In response to this need, a middle school outreach program called See Yourself Here! was created. This collaborative program was developed and implemented by the Center for Experiential Education, Leadership through Service (LTS) Students, the Center for Multicultural Services, and faculty members. See Yourself Here exemplifies the commitment to which Normandale Community College attributes its continued progress in improving access and retention to underserved students on our campus and in the surrounding communities.

See Yourself Here allows the middle school students to experience an actual college day. Underserved middle school students come to the Normandale Community College campus and participate in a lecture given by a faculty member to gain college classroom experience. Pre-readings are sent to the students prior to the visit to prepare for this college class experience. This is followed by a tour of the campus given by Normandale Community College students, with a stop at the college ID office to get their own Normandale See Yourself Here College ID card to take with them when the day is over. They also receive a See Yourself Here t-shirt to wear at their school. The day concludes with lunch and a panel presentation by Normandale Community College students where the visiting students are free to ask any question they have about college.

Normandale LTS students gain valuable leadership skills by taking responsibility for running this program from start to finish. The students recruit fellow students to serve as tour guides and panel presenters. They distribute applications to their fellow LTS students and also to students not involved with the program, keeping in mind they are looking for students who reflect the students they want to serve. LTS students provide training on how to give a tour, making sure that the tour guides have the resources they will need to give a successful tour. This includes several routes, starting at differing points so they will not have two groups in the same location at the same time. They demonstrate how to lead a tour, speaking loudly and facing the group when they talk. They need to know how to engage the middle school students, focusing on areas of interest for their age range. They also train the students in how to be a good panel member by role playing a sample panel that includes attentive, respectful, and participatory panelists as well as inattentive, disengaged panelists. They review things like dress code, setting a good example, and promptness with all student participants. The LTS students prepare a schedule for the other students and notify them of when they will be participating, and they send reminder texts and emails to them the week before each event. The LTS student leaders gather relevant information and prepare bags for each of the middle school students to take with them so they and their families can find out more about applying, advising, financial aid, student life, and the college overall as they review the materials at home. The LTS student leaders collect the pre-surveys and photo release forms from the middle school students and give the pre-surveys to the college students. Following the event, they distribute and collect the student, teacher and college student post-surveys. The data from these surveys is then entered into a spreadsheet by the LTS students prior to the next See Yourself Here event. They use this information to determine if changes are needed in the program. The LTS students meet weekly to assess and make adjustments and prepare for the next SYH visit.

The Normandale Community College service learning students that lead the campus tours and answer the middle school student’s questions acquire leadership and community building skills, which help them in their academics and job preparation. One student leader in the program said:

See Yourself Here provided me with the first leadership role I ever had, and it both challenged me and instilled in me a level of accountability that I didn’t have before. Following my participation in See Yourself Here, I continue to serve my community and take on new leadership roles and have learned how to balance them with my commitment to my academics. Last year, I was elected President of the Normandale Student Senate; I received the President’s Leadership Award and ended my final year at Normandale with a 4.0 GPA. I credit a lot of my success to what I learned through See Yourself Here. The experience taught me how to be organized and manage my time properly, as well as providing me with dynamic opportunities to practice and strengthen my communication skills, which I have been able to apply in the classroom. I no longer fear pubic speaking and am successful working on group projects. I have learned how to successfully manage conflict as well as how to be a problem solver.

Another student leader commented, “having been a part of See Yourself Here increased my ability to have good time management and scheduling skills, which was huge for my success in college. My job skills were improved because I became a better problem solver and a better leader.” See Yourself Here also provides the opportunity for student leaders to engage with other students from various cultural backgrounds, which fosters an environment of inclusiveness, understanding, and respect of the variety of cultures represented in this group.

The See Yourself Here program has creatively addressed how to provide outreach to middle school youth and engage them in thinking about their futures in higher education, while developing the leadership and programming skills of Normandale students. The following are comments from the post survey from the middle school student participants that demonstrate the programs measurable outcomes for these students.

  • “Excited, happy, I felt like a college student.”
  • “It’s cool I like the I.D. card and after today I can’t wait to go to college.”
  • “I thought the lecture was amazing. The man who taught it was a great teacher. I understand it all.”
  • “I felt like I was a real student. It made me feel like I was actually in college and I like that feeling.”

Further study of the survey results shows the impact of this program for the middle school students in their likelihood to attend college. Of the five schools that visited spring semester 2013, students indicated in pre-surveys that 59 percent were “definitely going to attend college” and in the post-survey, this number increased to 72 percent. Students reported in their post assessments that the program, specifically the college tour and Normandale Community College student panel, increased their understanding of college” (Kanwischer et al 2013).

Middle school faculty gave very positive feedback for their students, as well as about the Normandale student service learners and LTS members. The following is a letter from a Lead AVID teacher:

Though it has been several weeks since we visited campus, I wanted to take a moment to express our appreciation to you and Normandale for affording our students the experience of participating in See Yourself Here. There were several things that stuck out to me and truly enhanced the quality of our experience:

  • Flexibility: When we arrived, it sounded as though another group had mistakenly shown up on the same day, having mixed up their schedule. Without skipping a beat, your student team jumped into action and took us to where we needed to be, set us up with our tour guides, and welcomed us with smiles and enthusiasm. I didn’t realize that you were juggling two groups (one which was unexpected) during our entire visit until someone told me during lunch! Well done and thank you for making us feel like we were the only group on campus!
  • Structure: I think you have figured out a GREAT structure for middle school students. The quick transitions between activities, the “shwag”-shirts and IDs, and very little down time all made for an engaging day. I continue to see kids with their IDs around their necks and wearing their t-shirts repeatedly.
  • Student Leaders: I thought your student leaders were a wonderful group that had a lot of great things to share with the kids and very closely reflected the racial and ethnic make-up of our students. Both of these details are supremely important, and I’m glad for the strength in both areas.

Thank you very much for providing our students with the opportunity to visit Normandale and experience life as a college student!

Post-surveys from teachers confirmed the program increased the student’s vision for college and knowledge of how to get there. Teacher comments included: “Students were exposed to a good slice of college life” and “It is a great jump start to having them start thinking and talking about college and their dreams of college in reality” (Kanwischer et al. 2013). A Normandale student leader for the See Yourself Here program had the following thoughts on the effect of the program for the middle school students:

Part of the See Yourself Here program is to host a student panel for the middle schoolers where they get the opportunity to ask any college-related questions that they wanted. They asked very insightful questions with regards to cost, class structure, and the difficulty of the college. Many already had career ambitions that they had wanted to pursue, but didn’t know whether or not they were capable of doing such things. As they opened up to the student panel, many of them began to realize that they were once in their position and that they are now pursuing their ambitions as well. This also gave them the opportunity to clear up many of the rumors associated with attending college and their respective barriers, such as ways to pay for college, the structure of the classes, and ways to pursue their passions and career goals when they got to that point in their lives. They realized that their level of commitment and success in high school would eventually determine whether or not they would succeed in college. This gave them the understanding that as long as they put in 100 percent of their efforts and managed to graduate with their high school diploma, that they too can attend college and begin pursuing their life long goals.

The Normandale student leader post-survey results showed that the See Yourself Here program has a definite impact on the college students at the time they are doing it. One student reported, “ I learned a lot more of what is going on in school; I’ve gained knowledge and leadership skills by answering questions and showing them what college life is like. This experience has helped me a lot because I am a very shy person and this has helped me to be more comfortable and confident when I’m talking in front of people, developing strong communication skills. It showed me I can still be involved with my busy work schedule, and that I know how to lead to group” (Kanwischer et al., 2012).


Normandale Community College has found that service learning programs intentionally designed to focus on underserved students from middle school through college have benefited these students greatly because of the connection the participants feel to the campus and community. The positive results for underserved students are seen in the high retention and graduation rates of the students that participate in the programs. Additionally, the overall GPAs of the participants are higher upon completion of their term of service. The students also gain useful skills for the future. This is aligned with Astin’s findings that “the factors that contributed to the student’s remaining in college suggested involvement, whereas those that contributed to the student’s dropping out implied a lack of involvement” (Astin 1984).


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About the authors:

Wanda Kanwischer

Wanda Kanwischer, Interim Dean of Students at Normandale Community College, founded the service-learning program at Normandale in 1999. She has a strong passion for student success and community development. Her leadership in the field has been recognized by the MN Campus Compact.

Amanda Lilgreen

Amanda Lilgreen is a Student Life Coordinator at Normandale Community College. She develops leaders through a holistic approach. Previously, she worked at the Center for Experiential Education and was an AmeriCorps M3C Fellow.

Monica Saralampi

Monica Saralampi is a former Experiential Education Coordinator at Normandale Community College. She develops meaningful learning experiences for students in the areas of service-learning and internships and serves as an assessment leader in student life. Her work prior to Normandale includes non-profit and community education settings with a strong passion and commitment for serving the community.