Every year, many Tulane students, particularly underclassmen, clamor to complete their service-learning requirement. This graduation requirement, instituted after Hurricane Katrina in an effort by the Tulane administration to help assist the renewal of the city, sounds ideal at first. “Learning by doing” allows students to connect with the community around them, apply the knowledge they are acquiring beyond the classroom, and perform good deeds in a facilitated structure with little additional effort. This past semester, I myself completed my service learning requirement. Yet when I began my service learning work — farm work at Grow Dat, a non-profit farm in City Park meant to empower youth through growing food — I couldn’t help but wonder how effective, not to mention rewarding, all of this work really was. Was pulling weeds at 8:30 on a Saturday morning really the positive contribution I wanted to make in the New Orleans community?
After talking to other students, it quickly became apparent that our service learning program may need serious rethinking. The program may not be actually effecting the change it seeks to. To start, from my own experience and others’, there is no real accountability that professors are held to in regard to the impact of their service learning. The service learning component of a class isn’t often publicized, so students are unable to decide if the organization is something that they would be interested in before taking the class. My friend, who collected data in Audubon Park for their service learning, brought up another point: there was no real metric being used to measure the impact that students do. Whether they are making good progress or doing more harm than good, students have no real way of knowing and it’s unclear what infrastructure is in place for measuring this impact. Therefore, the service learning may not actually be addressing the city’s needs.
In addition to its lack of direction and accountability, service learning at Tulane may not actually be providing any major fulfillment to students. For starters, professors typically choose the partner organizations and arrange the nature of the service learning, with little input from outsiders and with students having little autonomy over the process. Considering that service learning is already mandatory, this aspect of it only further contributes to its monotony and to the culture of apathy towards it among students. Furthermore, while service learning is supposed to combine class topic with service, many of these options are irrelevant to the material students learn and may feel like a waste of time.
In full consideration, while service learning at Tulane is well-intentioned, it may not actually be serving its proper purpose and instead leading to both students and the New Orleans community questioning its value. With the already existing rift between our privileged population and the city, the way we approach service learning should be reconsidered.
Cover Photo: Tulane Architecture