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Locally, Higher Ed Service Learning Takes on Virtual Approach

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By Cambria Pilger

Partners in Campus and Community Engagement (PICCE) — a regional cooperative of higher education and community partners — recently began a virtual, service-learning program to join students, faculty and community organizations in weekly reflection.

PICCE created the program, Learning Together Spokane (LTS), as a way to stay connected despite the changes from COVID-19.

Participants receive an email twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, with a short, reflection prompt and link. The link takes them to a shared Google Doc where they can add their thoughts alongside those of others.

LTS is an “ongoing, collective response,” but “it’s not necessarily biological,” said Brian Davenport, associate dean for Honors and Community Engagement at Eastern Washington University and PICCE member.

The shared format gives members a chance to read responses from other community members but not talk physically with one another as they would in-person.

“Since COVID disrupted how we partner with nonprofits and churches in Spokane, we engagement folks have mourned the loss of contact with our partners,” wrote Ross Watts, director of the Dornsife Center for Community Engagement at Whitworth University, in an email regarding LTS.

While LTS is not “quite in the lieu” of in-person activity, the reflections give members “touch points” with the greater community, Sara Clements-Sampson said. Clements-Sampson is the Community Health Investment Manager at Providence Health and PICCE member.

LTS is now incorporated differently at each school and organization. At Whitworth University, it has been adapted into the campus “FlexModel” for the service-learning classes. Some students in these courses are still doing in-person volunteering and can also do daily reflection exercises through LTS. A nutrition class has also used the journaling prompts as a supplemental assignment.

At EWU, students across campus also participate. Those in the honors program are assigned the prompts as part of their work, and others have engaged from different classes, Davenport said.

At Providence Health, the employees usually take time at the beginning of each meeting to “center themselves,” Clements-Sampson said.

“I was intrigued because [LTS] was taking that internal piece of Providence,” and applying it to the greater community, she said.

LTS grew out of an initiative at Western Washington University, called Learning Together Today. It was a weekly, five-day reflection program, led by the Community Engagement Fellows at WWU, that began soon after the school shut down its campus in March.

One of the fellows shared their prompts with Davenport, and the first LTS prompt was sent on Sept. 8.

“It [fills] kind of a social-professional gap,” and is a form of “meaningful exchange,” Watts said.

Mariah McConnaughey described the journals as a “window into our own thoughts and perspectives,” because people post very “frank” responses to personal questions. McConnaughey has been a member of PICCE for more than four years. She oversees the volunteer program at SNAP (Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners).

McConnaughey found herself recalling previous experiences, such as her time in the Peace Corps, in response to the prompts.

Journaling is a way to pause from busyness or stress and think about what’s going on around you. Participants can post their ideas on future prompts, before they’re sent out. But, if participants don’t have an answer, they don’t have to post, Davenport said.

“It sounds like it’s going to be a big addition to your schedule,” said Davenport. “But, it really isn’t.”

When PICCE first discussed its service-learning changes (due to the spread of COVID-19) this summer, McConnaughey was concerned that SNAP didn’t have enough room for students to serve in the same capacity.

Many other community partners felt “stretched” with resources and ability to stay connected with the usual program, Watts said. The majority of the partners said they would love to continue working alongside PICCE but, “it just seemed really overwhelming.”

PICCE is made up of six universities and community colleges as well as various community partners across Washington. Each school leads different community engagement programs. However, with COVID-19 restrictions, many of the schools have switched to an online-only platform for community engagement.

PICCE hosts events between college campuses and community organizations, focused on engaged learning, partnership, community wellbeing and values like social justice and civic responsibility. It also focuses on service-learning and community engagement initiatives.

Most of the program’s outreach focuses toward community members who may be missing their usual networking opportunities, social outlets and colleagues. Journaling can help people better understand their worldview, faith and values, Watts said.

“This is a community space that is open to anybody,” Watts said. She encourages anyone who wants to be involved to join the virtual community.

About Cambria R. Pilger

Cambria Pilger is a senior at Whitworth University, studying journalism and mass media communication, with minors in Spanish and business. She is a proud Colorado native, freelance writer and residence life intern at school. Beyond her career, Cambria is passionate about exploring, learning new skills, making art, playing video games and getting to know people.

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