AU students volunteer through service learning program, despite pandemic

Even remotely, program offers service experiences to a small number of students

AU students volunteer through service learning program, despite pandemic

American University’s Community-Service Learning Program adapted to online operations with remote opportunities due to COVID-19, and participants say the experience is still going strong. 

Evert Justice, the former program coordinator for community-based learning in the Center for Community Engagement and Service, oversaw CSLP at AU. The program allows students to add an extra credit to a course in their schedule by completing 40 hours of community service throughout any given semester with a nonprofit organization of their choice, Justice said.

“The whole purpose behind the CSLP program is to really encourage students to take their academic learning beyond the classroom, and really do a deep dive into that material by putting it into practice,” Justice said. 

With the pandemic halting in-person service learning opportunities, adjustments were made to help continue the outreach program, Justice said. Students typically spend most of their time at the nonprofit site during the semester, but now are finding ways to serve nonprofits virtually for CSLP.

“A big part of my job that changed was really trying to connect with community partners to find those types of large-scale service learning projects for students to partake in,” Justice said. “So we spent a lot more time doing outreach to our community partners, seeing what their needs were, seeing how we can be most useful, and seeing how we can utilize our resources to kind of better their mission and their goals.”

School of International Service junior Milica Bojovic, a peer mentor for CSLP, assists new participants within the program and helps guide them through their service learning throughout the semester. 

Bojovic first became involved with CSLP as a freshman during her first semester. Bojovic said she had no idea what she was getting into when she began the program, but she was inspired to continue after her volunteer experience.

“I was of course looking for things to do, and in my Spanish class my professor introduced CSLP to me,” Bojovic said. “I really appreciated it because that was an opportunity for me to explore D.C. through volunteering and also practice my Spanish because I was working in Spanish speaking communities.”

Bojovic said that CSLP goes beyond just getting volunteering experience — it also allows students to grow as individuals.

“I realized that [CSLP] is not just volunteering and getting to communities, you're also learning so much from experience, it's always about emotional growth,” Bojovic said. “So that kind of inspired me to stay and continue developing my service.”

SIS junior Bernadette Itzkow became involved with CSLP through AU’s Peace Corps Prep Program, after Bojovic connected her with the opportunity. 

Itzkow connected her CSLP credit to her Spanish translation course, part of a translation-track Spanish minor that benefits greatly from real-world experiences. Itzkow worked with CAIR Coalition, a nonprofit organization that assists immigrants susceptible to deportation and detention. 

CSLP allows for students to explore their interests in a real-world setting, while applying their class knowledge to helping people within the community. Some students come out of the program with career interests and new passions, like Itzkow. 

She remembered translating a legal document asking for asylum in the U.S., just one of her many tasks, and having an epiphany in what could have been an easily-forgettable moment.

“I realized that this is a very real person in a very real scenario who requires this kind of assistance, and I was able to provide that, which was very surreal to me,” Itzkow said. “I think generally CSLP is really helping people solidify things that they're passionate about and career paths that they want to take, so this has definitely helped me solidify the fact that nonprofit work is where I want to be post graduation.”

Despite challenges with the virtual shift for CSLP, Bojovic said that students have overcome obstacles to continue to provide service within their communities. 

“The students have been so responsive and involved and consistent in their service, which greatly helps the communities because a lot of NGOs are exhausted now, funds are exhausted and opportunities for involvement are exhausted because of the situation,” Bojovic said. 

Justice said that an average of 26 students participate in CSLP each semester, so students interested in completing service learning should be inspired to do so to make a difference and stay in touch with communities. 

“We're at a time where we really need community, moreso than ever before,” Justice said. “I think CSLP is just a really great way to kind of engage in what community can look like even if we are a thousand miles away from one another.”

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