Service Learning Gives Berkeley Students a Sense of Purpose

By Kate Rix

On the Hawaiian island of Molokai is a former leprosy colony situated on a remote peninsula ringed by towering volcanic cliffs. This is where archaeology graduate student James Flexner goes every year to sift through what is left of the settlement, which was active in the late 1800s. Flexner’s archaeological work includes mapping house sites, analyzing artifacts, and making presentations for the local community near the former colony.

“I also try to do informal things, where I invite people to come out to the field to see what we’re doing,” Flexner says. “One Hawaiian guy came out to dig with us.”

Berkeley graduate students in archaeology work with students from Bay Area schools on mock digs.This is the kind of interaction the archaeology program within the Anthropology Department at Berkeley strives to include in its training of new archaeologists, both in order to debunk the reputation of archaeologists as swashbuckling Indiana Jones types, and to inform scholarship with a deep understanding of place and people’s lives. That is why graduate students in archaeology visit local schools and conduct mock digs with sixth-graders.

During school visits, graduate students hide artifacts from early California or ancient civilizations in a “mock dig”—a wooden frame filled with kitty litter—and teach the methodologies of archaeological research. The young students are instructed not to grab a clay pot and pull it out, as excited as they may be to find it, but to carefully brush, measure and draw the find on a site map.

This is just one of the many opportunities for service learning at Berkeley. While archaeology graduate degrees actually require service learning as part of the program, many other degree programs encourage similar outreach, where students can apply what they are learning in class to real-world needs.

“Sometimes students worry about finding a job when they graduate,” says Spanish and Portuguese Department lecturer Amelia Barili. “Service learning gives them a real motivation, a tangible sense of purpose and an ease with the language.”

Undergraduates in Barili’s Advanced Spanish Grammar and Composition course come to the course knowing rules of grammar, but many of them lack fluency in the spoken language. As part of their semester’s grade, students can choose to spend 12 hours either in the library doing research or volunteering at East Bay Sanctuary, an advocacy organization for immigrants. Nearly all of the 50 students who take the course each semester choose the volunteership, where they answer phones and interview immigrants for their work visa and asylum applications.

“The best thing for learning to speak fluently is service learning,” says Barili. “Even if a student has to ask the same question three or four times before they’ve phrased it correctly, the clients are so grateful and the student has had to think on their feet.”

Spanish language student Matt Stevens helps an immigrant translate legal forms at the East Bay Sanctuary.This work outside the classroom — whether teaching archaeological methodologies to sixth graders or working with refugees fleeing persecution — highlights the essence of service learning: everyone benefits.

Service learning has deep roots at Berkeley and takes place across all disciplines. The Department of Art Practice has an ongoing course series in Art as Social Practice, which links art students and the public on collaborative projects. This year Berkeley Art Practice students will work with residents of several Berkeley neighborhoods to link sections of the Ohlone Trail using a mobile mural.

Working together with residents, students will help plan a mural that can be moved along a trail from University Avenue up to Russell Street, cutting across about 12 blocks of old Santa Fe railroad tracks. The project will bring art students together with residents and city employees to discover how each neighborhood along the trail wants to represent itself on a mural they will create together.

“The goal of mobile mural is to develop an inclusive process with the community and all of the partners,” says Art Practice department chair Hertha Sweet Wong. “The students will explore how to communicate with people, recording what their visions of themselves are and how to translate them into art.”

The concept of service learning itself has recently been examined and expanded to include enriched learning opportunities for undergraduates. The Berkeley Engaged Scholarship Initiative (BESI) supports faculty to develop courses that include community-based components. In its second year, BESI invites faculty to conduct research on questions that emerge from the community itself, giving students an opportunity to work directly on identified social needs.

“Students who have had embedded research opportunities in their courses are so much better prepared for the job marketplace,” says Victoria Robinson, who coordinates BESI with colleague Megan Voorhees. “We want to give students choices in their education at Berkeley, so they aren’t having to juggle internships on the outside with course work.”

Courses in the Engaged Scholarship program include that of Na’ilah Suad Nasir, associate professor of African American Studies and Education, in which students volunteer in the Alameda County Juvenile hall to observe how ideas about culture and race influence the learning achievement of African American students.

“This kind of study could have been done theoretically,” says Robinson, “But Na’ilah has a relationship with Juvenile Hall and they needed these programs to be developed. This program gives faculty the chance to develop research questions with real community needs in mind and then include undergraduates in their work.”

Faculty working through BESI receive a $1,500 curriculum development grant. So far there are 16 courses across several disciplines incorporating BESI”s model of community-based research, and Robinson says that the goal is to expand the program.

“This is an ambitious program but we have been very effective,” she says. “We have shifted the baseline of what’s expected at Berkeley. It’s not an add-on, it’s the central DNA of what we do at Berkeley.”


For website updates, please contact

UC Berkeley | Site Credit | Accessibility | Site Map

Copyright © 2007-2011 | The Regents of the University of California

| Updated: Sep 30, 2009