As the service learning coordinator for the Pomona Unified School District in California, my goal is to increase student volunteerism, particularly in secondary schools, and have as many students as possible participate in their communities, to be part of something greater than themselves. When students become more involved in the community through volunteering or service learning, it has a long-lasting impact on their development into adulthood.
While volunteering is beneficial to both the student and the organization, service learning challenges students to go beyond volunteering. In service learning, students work to identify a problem or need within their community and make a plan of action to help. For example, they might find an area of social justice they’re interested in, conduct research on that topic, and collaborate and communicate with their peers in implementing change.
Service learning has an academic component in addition to volunteering. There’s usually a writing piece, a call to action, and reflection on what students learned or accomplished. All these elements elevate this experience to be one that they will grow from as an individual as they benefit the community. Additionally, many universities recognize the value of service learning.
An article published by the International Center for Global Leadership highlights the benefits of service learning for university acceptance. Universities understand the impact of creating a service learning project, which enhances students’ communication and leadership skills and helps them to be more successful making connections and building relationships within their community.
Volunteering is also a valuable experience. In 2003, President George W. Bush established the President’s Volunteer Service Award to recognize volunteers. “Led by the AmeriCorps and managed in partnership with Points of Light,” as it says on their site, “this program allows certifying organizations to recognize their most exceptional volunteers.”
The award is given to any U.S. citizen or permanent resident across the country who performs a specified number of hours of service within a 12-month period. The student volunteers time to an organization that benefits the community. Although its impact might be similar to service learning, there’s no academic component.
The levels of award, from bronze to gold, depend upon the student’s age and hours they spend volunteering. After the student has accrued qualifying volunteering hours, the certifying organization can submit a request for an award and medal. Schools, organizations, and churches are examples of certifying organizations. It’s best before pursuing this award to find a local certifying organization that can submit the application for the award when the service is completed. Here are some rules and eligibility requirements.
Another option for volunteering recognition is the Congressional Award, established in 1979 to “recognize initiative, service, and achievement in young people.” To receive the Congressional Award, a student must exhibit and demonstrate their ability to set and reach goals in four categories.
The first category is voluntary public service. The second is a personal development goal determined by the student. An example might be to improve their organizational skills. They would set a plan of action and a method to verify that they met their goal. Third is a physical fitness goal—e.g., having an objective of building up stamina by establishing a hiking routine to increase their cardio. Lastly, there’s an expedition or exploration goal, which encourages students to get to know their community, both local and distant, better—for example, planning an overnight trip for themselves and their family or friends to someplace new.
Students can earn awards from the bronze to the gold levels, based upon completing these four areas. Students can register directly online, and the award “accommodates young people with special needs or disabilities who are willing to take the challenge.” This award isn’t monitored by a teacher, but students do need a mentor and can request that a teacher take on this role to encourage and assist them as needed. The cost to register is a onetime fee of $25 unless the student can demonstrate financial need. The Congressional Award is great for getting students in the habit of setting and reaching goals. If the student reaches the gold level, they’ll receive recognition from their congressional representative and be invited to local and national events to acknowledge their achievement.
I hope that more schools will start promoting service learning or volunteerism within their own school districts to build leaders for our communities as students move forward past high school.