Service Learning and Civic Engagement at HBCU’s

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the NAACP’s Daisy Bates Education Conference. The panel included John S. Wilson, the director of the White House Initiative on HBCU’s; Nelson Bowman, director of development at Prairie View A& M University; Harold Martin, the chancellor of North Carolina A&T University; Ron Mason, the president and chancellor of the Southern University System; and Leonard Springs of the Department of Education. The panel focused on retention and graduation rates as well as funding and fund raising at HBCU’s and it sparked some interesting conversations.

I’m the kind of panelist who likes to take notes when others are speaking. I always learn so much by listening to the perspectives of others. During our conversation about fund raising, one of the audience participants asked the panelists how young people learn to give back to HBCU’s or learn that giving is important. She referenced service learning and wanted to know what HBCU’s were doing in this area. She wasn’t aware of any programs.

Interestingly, there is a link between service learning and future giving. When young people gain a sense of empathy and better understand the circumstances of others—both personal and systemic—they are more likely to give back later in life. Unfortunately, HBCU’s are often left out of service-learning conversations. If you pick up one of the many, many books on service learning or its cousin, civic engagement, you will rarely see an example from a Black college.

The lack of examples in mainstream service-learning books is not due to a lack of service on the part of HBCU’s. These institutions are where many of the core concepts of service learning and civic engagement sprang. HBCU’s, from their beginnings, have reached out to the community, providing a safe haven during Jim Crow and segregation, registering blacks to vote, sponsoring book drives and mobile libraries, feeding and housing nearby communities, and providing child care.

Many HBCU’s continue to serve local communities in this way. For example, at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, students are required to do 50 hours of service learning as part of their undergraduate curriculum. I have always had mixed feelings about requiring students to do service, but after meeting five of the students who are completing the requirement, I feel confident that the A&T students are learning an immense amount from the service. They not only see the connections between service, engagement and their curriculum, but they understand why giving back is important as well.

There are service-learning programs like the one at A&T at many HBCU’s across the country. And there has been some preliminary research on these programs. A few years ago, the National Center for Dropout Prevention published the results of a study they did with several HBCU partners. Campus Compact also did a small study related to the service learning efforts of HBCU’s. It proclaimed that “HBCU’s play an important role in preparing the next generation of community leaders.” However, little else has been done in this area.

Hopefully, the young HBCU students who are participating in the service learning programs will eventually do research related to their experiences so that more of the HBCU service-learning programs will receive the attention that they deserve—both on their own and in general discussions of service learning models.

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