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Contemplatives in Action: Service-Learning at USF

Contemplatives in Action: Service-Learning at USF

Historical Context
Community-Based Learning at the University of San Francisco
Service-Learning and a General Education Curriculum
The Core Curriculum
- Rationale
- Learning Goals and Structure for the Core Curriculum
- Developing A Service-Learning Course Criteriology
- Challenges to Implementation


The University of San Francisco has built upon its Jesuit, Catholic educational tradition through the inclusion of service-learning as a "mission requirement" for all undergraduates. The University has moved from a fragmented service-learning program with isolated course offerings in the mid-1990s to the adoption of a service-learning graduation requirement in 2002. Its Service-Learning Committee guided the process, formulating both a functional definition of service-learning, as well as official criteria to be used for identifying service-learning courses.

Jack McLean has done presentations on service-learning requirements, service-learning course criteria, and service-learning in faith-based institutions at the Western Regional Campus Compact Consortium Conferences. He was formerly the Director of Service Learning at the University of San Francisco and is now the Director of Student Leadership Development at Loyola University Chicago.

Susan Prion is the Director of Assessment and Teaching Resources at the University of San Francisco. As a faculty member, she has used service-learning as an instructional technique for many years.

David C. Robinson, S.J., a California Province Jesuit working in the College of Professional Studies at the University of San Francisco, is Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, and of the Office of Educational Mission and Spirituality of Learning. In addition to his academic interests, he maintains a strong commitment to multicultural education and justice issues.

Dayle Smith, Professor of Management and Organizational Behavior at the School of Business and Management at the University of San Francisco, teaches in the undergraduate and executive MBA programs. She has authored over 10 books and a number of articles in the management/OB area, and is especially committed to service-learning and experiential pedagogies.

Jack McLean, Loyola University Chicago, 6525 North Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60626, Phone: 773-508-3912; Fax: 773-508-3895; E-mail:

Susan Prion, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117-1080, Phone: 415-422-6936; Fax: 415-422-6212; E-mail:

David C. Robinson, S.J., University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117-1080, Phone: 415-422-5832; Fax: 415 422-5036; E-mail:

Dayle Smith, School of Business and Management, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117-1080, Phone: 415-422-2192; Fax: 415 422-2502; E-mail:; Website:

Historical Context

In a highly nuanced educational tradition that dates back over 450 years, the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits, has always maintained a focus on the transformational nature of learning. Whether in the Paraguayan Reductions, or in the founding of the Casa Santa Marta for the re-education of prostitutes in Rome, Jesuits have looked to the moral, ethical, and spiritual formation of various constituencies throughout their history. Indeed, St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society, did not initially envision his fledgling order as one aimed at the founding of large institutions of learning. His first followers labored in hospitals and prisons, or taught catechism to impoverished children in urban neighborhoods throughout Italy. Yet by 1548, in the process of expanding the educational environment of young Jesuits, Ignatius found himself committed to the education of other young men in the city of Messina. That year marked the beginning of a geometric expansion of Jesuit commitment to centers of learning.

Throughout the centuries that followed, the Jesuit focus on ethical formation and justice remained steady. However, with the constantly changing demographics of university populations, especially in the United States, the face of the student body began to change in radical and important ways. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the predominance of Roman Catholic students began to wane. The role of Jesuit universities as educational foci for the development of the sons of Catholic immigrants began to fade, to be replaced by institutions that, while grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition, needed to address the formational needs of learners from around the world, many of whom had no connection to Christian culture, to say nothing of Roman Catholicism.

As a result, the Jesuit emphasis on faith and justice, or a faith that does justice, has had to expand its parameters and self-understanding. Community-based learning, and specifically service-learning, provide a practical, and dare one say incarnational, model for enhancing student understanding of, and commitment to, issues of social justice and change. Service-learning creates the widest pedagogical frame in which to embody the mission-values and traditions of Jesuit education, while avoiding the pitfalls of formational methodologies that might be viewed as sectarian or exclusionary. Students of any religious tradition, or of none, can participate as equal partners in a learning environment that can challenge many, often unarticulated, presuppositions about the nature and reality of poverty, racism, and other systems of injustice. Such a process is very much in keeping with the Jesuit focus on application. Traditional acts of charity, while laudable, are only one step in a more complex process of formation. It goes without saying that direct human contact is essential. However, in order to educate for change, Jesuit institutions recognize that students must experience an amalgam of elements-interpersonal connection, applied solutions to real problems, theoretical constructs from the disciplines, and a knowledge/skill set that prepares them to be agents for systemic change. Emotional connection in isolation is not enough. Political strategy in isolation is not enough. Desire to make a difference must be wed to the capacity to initiate that difference.

The University of San Francisco, with nearly a century-and-a-half history, has had to address all the issues noted above. In a span of only forty years, the University has grown beyond an institutional identity as an educational center largely composed of young men from Italian and Irish Catholic immigrant families, to one that encompasses co-educational classes made up of ethnic, racial, and religious constituencies from around the globe. As a community that embraces and celebrates diversity, the University has had to foster those educationally integrative strategies that allow students from widely divergent backgrounds to participate in shared activities that tap into their capacity for moral and spiritual development, while avoiding ideological impositions.

Service-learning is congruent with a Jesuit educational mission that requires academic excellence to be coupled with a deeply personal commitment to community service and development. It is a rarity in academic circles to find a pedagogical practice that can legitimately be said to provide cognitive outcomes at a highly conceptual level, while nurturing affective and spiritual outcomes through the same set of activities. From a Jesuit perspective, that is education at its best. The University of San Francisco has embraced service-learning as part of its general curricular core, in order to promote transformational learning for every student who seeks an education there.

Community-Based Learning at the University of San Francisco

USF has witnessed a metamorphosis in its service-learning program over the past eight years. Beginning with isolated course offerings, the university subsequently created an Office of Community Service and Service-Learning, developed a Service-Learning Task Force, and currently has a university-wide standing Service-Learning Committee. In a recent revision of its General Education Curriculum, USF has added a mandatory requirement for coursework that includes a service-learning course component. With this transformation, the University has demonstrated a deepening commitment to service-learning, and witnessed its effectiveness as an instructional strategy.

Although innovative faculty members had utilized service-learning (or community-based learning) for some time, no formal service-learning structure existed at the University prior to 1994. With increasing focus upon both community service and service-learning, many saw a need for a central office to coordinate campus-wide efforts. Backed by a Corporation for National Service Grant, the University opened its Office of Community Service and Service-Learning in November 1994, with a part-time Coordinator. After the funding expired USF began to support the position from its general budget. Most recently, this position has been upgraded to full-time, in a Service-Learning Office. Inclusion of this office in the new Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good represents a major shift in perspective. Academic strategies are now concretely tied to the enhancement of university mission.

Prior to 1994, service-learning at USF was very fragmented. Although there were scattered service-learning course offerings, most members of the academic community were not even aware of what was happening in other parts of the campus. Many who were aware of service- learning at USF knew it existed in particular departments, but frequently did not see it as relevant across the curriculum.

The University gradually attempted to develop a strategic plan for expanding its service-learning program. It realized that past efforts had been scattered and unfocused, and that certain schools, colleges, and departments had never been consulted in formulating service-learning goals or plans. The University was also anxious to keep service-learning a faculty-driven pedagogy. It reasoned that the most effective way to get faculty buy-in was to give them an authentic voice in developing the program. Thus, USF decided to establish a Service-Learning Task Force that would give focus and direction to future service-learning initiatives.

Great care was taken to include at least two faculty representatives from each of the University's six colleges and schools on the task force. For the new group to be credible, all facets of the University needed to be involved in the process. Committees with limited representation had discussed service-learning in the past, but this was the first time a task force with such broad representation had convened. The final configuration of the Task Force included four representatives from the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest college at USF, and two representatives from each of the other schools or colleges (Business, Education, Law, Nursing, and Professional Studies), including those schools that were predominantly or exclusively centered around graduate programs. In addition, there were representatives from the Division of Academic Affairs, the Division of Student Affairs, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.

The University recognized that service-learning took place in and out of the classroom. It also recognized that it was not always easy, at first glance, to distinguish between a community-service activity and a service-learning activity. Both aspects of community-based outreach were important to the USF mission. However, given the specific pedagogical needs of service-learning, it was necessary to provide clarification to both faculty and administration. Thus, the Service-Learning Task Force was established with a dual reporting structure. Rather than just report to the Provost/Academic-Vice President, the task force also reported to the Vice-President of Student Affairs. Likewise, the two Vice-Presidents made all appointments to the Service-Learning Task Force jointly.

This newly formed task force was successful in developing a functional definition of service-learning, identifying existing service-learning courses at USF, establishing guidelines for Syllabus Development Fellowships to encourage development of new service-learning courses, and sponsoring faculty-development workshops. As each new initiative developed, the Task Force gained added momentum and significance.

Recognizing the importance of service-learning to furtherance of the mission, the President formalized the Service-Learning Task Force into a university-wide standing Service-Learning Committee in the summer of 1999. He charged the group with responsibility for infusing a service-learning ethic into all levels of the institution.

As outlined above, the Service-Learning Task Force, and now Committee, started a number of differen

t initiatives, but none has had a greater potential long-term impact for the University than the revision of the General Education Curriculum to include a service-learning requirement. Most institutions feel that the best representation of mission resides in the General Education or Core curriculum. The University of San Francisco revised its Mission statement and concurrently developed a new core curriculum to better reflect that new mission.

Service-Learning and a General Education Curriculum

In spring 1998, the Provost authorized the Joint University General Education Curriculum Committee (JUGECC) to recommend revisions to USF's General Education Curriculum (GEC). During the period from 1998-2001, the Committee undertook the following activities:

Reviewing the literature on university core curricula and general education programs;
Identifying national trends in the design of general education curricula;
Examining core and general education programs at similar universities;
Gathering information from students and faculty on their perceptions of the strengths and limitations of the current GEC.
After three years of intensive work, the committee presented the proposed Core Curriculum to the institution and its Trustees. Approval of the new Core was given at all levels. Of particular note in the process was the consistency with which faculty members from across the schools and colleges maintained support for both the Diversity and Service-Learning components of the new Core. The territorial conflicts involved in composing or revising general education requirements are an unsettling reality in all post-secondary institutions. However, faculty disagreements regarding emphases within the Core, and the number of courses required within each discipline area, did not undermine campus-wide enthusiasm for the mission-driven requirements.

The Core Curriculum


This General Education Curriculum, titled the Core Curriculum, is based on the premise that the beauty of a General Education must lie behind its checklist of courses, that is, in the actual student experience of courses primarily taught by the University's full-time faculty. To further support the University Mission, the committee recommended that students complete a Service-Learning course and a Cultural Diversity course as part of their overall requirements, without adding any additional units to the total number required.

Learning Goals and Structure for the Core Curriculum

Based on the work of the Committee, the feedback process, and several iterations of the final proposal, the JUGECC developed a series of learning goals to guide the Core Curriculum.

  • Students should be able to speak and write effectively.
  • Students should be able to express ideas in an articulate and persuasive way.
  • Students should be able to understand a mathematical problem and design a solution.
  • Students should be exposed to a wide breadth of disciplines, as a foundation for a general liberal arts education.
  • Students should understand the process of seeking truth and disseminating knowledge.
  • Students should understand historical traditions.
  • Students should appreciate and be able to critically evaluate the arts.
  • Students should understand the nature of society and the relationships between individuals and groups.
  • Students should understand the nature of the physical world, the uses of the scientific method, and the implications of technology.
  • Students should comprehend the variations of people's relationship with God and develop respect for the religious beliefs of others.
  • Students should understand the moral dimension of every significant human choice, taking seriously how and whom we choose to be in the world.
  • Students should understand and value cultural and ethnic differences in a multicultural society and globalizing world.
  • Students should gain the skills and experiences necessary to link education to service.
  • Students should be exposed to opportunities to work for social justice.

Figure 1

The JUGECC determined that, in addition to completing GEC course requirements, the baccalaureate degree candidate would also complete a minimum of two courses within the GEC or within his/her major that integrated two mission-driven characteristics: Service Learning and Cultural Diversity. These requirements could be met by completing course sections designated as "SL" or "CD". Courses that integrated service-learning as well as courses that meet the Cultural Diversity designation would be offered across disciplines and schools. The Cultural Diversity Requirement could be met by courses that promoted understanding and appreciation of the richness and diversity of human cultures. The Service Learning Requirement could be met by courses that integrated a form of community/public service into the academic undergraduate learning experience. Even a cursory inspection of the learning goals found in Figure 1 indicates that a service-learning experience would help address the issues raised in items 5, 8, 11, 12, 13, and 14. Thus, both educational mission elements and pedagogical strategies could be aligned in a single course offering. As the learning goals were translated into course-specific learning objectives, every discipline could incorporate appropriate community-based components. Moreover, the values reinforced through service-learning could assist in promoting potential academic partnerships across the traditional boundaries of departments and schools.

Developing A Service-Learning Course Criteriology

As the JUGECC crafted a final recommendation for the revision of the General Education Curriculum, the Service-Learning Committee began focusing upon how to officially identify service-leaning courses and how to determine criteria for the various colleges to use in granting service-learning designations. The Provost and Academic Vice President asked the Service-Learning Committee to develop recommended criteria for identifying courses that would meet the service-learning requirement by providing both pedagogical tools and a generally applicable criteriology.

The broad representation on the Service-Learning Committee proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Multiple perspectives were brought to the table and it was not always easy to reconcile them in drafting a single proposal for service-learning course criteria. The Service-Learning Committee ultimately retained Richard Cone, then Executive Director of the Joint Educational Project (a service-learning program), at the University of Southern California. Dr. Cone facilitated a workshop for the Service-Learning Committee to assist it in clarifying the essential elements of a USF service-learning course. Once those elements were identified, the Committee proceeded with crafting acceptable language. It also revised its functional definition of service-learning to be consistent with the proposed service-learning course criteria. The final proposal for a service-learning definition and course criteria was presented to the Provost and Academic Vice President. It was accepted with only minor revisions. The Committee's service-learning definition and course criteria follow.

Service-Learning Definition
Service-Learning is a pedagogical method that engages students in organized service activities and guided reflection; the service activities benefit the client or community and, in combination with reflection, enhance the academic curriculum of participating students.

In accordance with its Mission , service-learning at the University of San Francisco promotes interaction with diverse communities and organizations, in order to help students and faculty develop the knowledge, skills, and sensitivities to be effective agents of social change. Service-learning is distinct from acts of charity because it is reciprocal; students, faculty, and community organizations teach and learn through their interactions. Teaching and learning are informed by the realities of the world, and service is informed by theoretical and conceptual understanding.

Figure 2

The integration of service-learning into an undergraduate* or graduate course has five key components:

Service activities are mandatory

The service-learning experience is required of all participants; every student enrolled in the section must complete a service-learning activity. The number of required hours for service-learning activity may vary by course and discipline (usually 15 hours or more). However, in all cases, the student learning outcomes of the course determine the hours required.

Clear connections exist between service activities and the academic discipline

The service-learning connection to the academic discipline and/or content of the course must be explicit: connections are clearly delineated in the course syllabus. Integration of a service-learning activity is outcome driven (i.e., service-learning is not an "add-on" to the course; rather it should be explicitly described in the syllabus as a methodology for achieving specified student learning outcomes). The service-learning assignment is explained in detail in the course syllabus, including its relationship to USF Mission.

Service activities benefit the client or community in a meaningful way

The service activity must involve reciprocity between the community and the university. In other words, faculty and/or students collaborate with the client or community to identify clearly the mutual benefit of learning for the student and the "value-added" service to that client or community. An opportunity must exist for the student to have meaningful exchanges with the client or community, to explore the nature of a problem, issue, and/or challenge, and its impact on the participants.

Students engage in a carefully articulated reflection process around the service, the discipline, and themselves

A systematic (e.g., ongoing and regular) process for reflection must be clearly defined in the course syllabus. Reflection on service-learning experiences provides students with an opportunity to:

  • Link theory and experience (i.e., learn more about the course content as a result of the service activity); and
  • Evaluate the impact of service on the client or community; and, experience some level of personal growth through participation in service-learning.

Faculty assess the student learning outcomes of the service experience

A systematic (e.g., ongoing and regular) process for assessment must be clearly defined in the course syllabus. Assessment of service-learning experience provides information on the degree to which student learning outcomes were met; and the degree to which the student's service is valuable to the client or community.

Challenges to Implementation

Since the University-wide committee decided that final determination of the courses to receive a Service Learning designation would reside within the individual schools and colleges, authority returned to individual department and curriculum committees. They would weigh the number of SL courses offered/required in a particular discipline against the total curricular burden that students carry (e.g., a student should not be taking more than two SL designated courses per semester). The respective curriculum committees would establish explicit criteria for internships within the SL designation (i.e., paid internships must meet all SL criteria and make a significant case for inclusion). In addition, individual departments would encourage faculty to attend faculty development service-learning workshops, as well as collaborate with both community partners to provide support for the service-learning experience, and with Risk Management to address issues of liability and risk. College Curriculum Committees, using the above criteria, would determine whether a particular course received a service-learning (SL) designation.

As the Core Curriculum is implemented, additional challenges face both the university as a whole, and the Service Learning Committee in particular. The need to increase offerings of SL-designated courses across the curriculum so that students in all colleges will have ample opportunity to pick and choose their service-learning experiences in specific discipline areas must be recognized. To meet this need, the University must continue to offer faculty development institutes where faculty are trained and benefit from the resources of the Service-Learning Committee. These institutes provide assistance in helping faculty integrate service-learning into their courses. From a student perspective, the Committee and the university in partnership should consider recognizing those students who take a number of SL courses during their matriculation at the university. The effort and commitment of study and community service through service-learning are significant. Students who go beyond the graduation requirement in a meaningful way do much to celebrate the university mission. In general, ongoing assistance and additional resources for faculty to provide incentives for SL designated sections of particular courses in the curriculum are needed. A final challenge resides in keeping the spirit and intent of SL designated courses alive and well as part of the Core, and as a true representation of a unique university tradition (rather than a perceived "burden" for faculty and students).


The University of San Francisco has learned a great deal about the mission base and the logistical implementation of service-learning curricula. It will continue to learn from its experience as its new Core Curriculum unfolds in the coming year. To build upon that experience, the Service-Learning Committee has been charged with the responsibility for reviewing the Service-Learning Definition and Criteria at least every two years for appropriate changes. Any proposed changes will be submitted to the Provost for consideration and approval. Having completed a long and labor-intensive journey, the University of San Francisco has developed not only the academic infrastructure to develop successful service-learning courses, but also the administrative framework in which to promote and develop the experience for future generations of students.

For a detailed history of the early 'colleges,' see John O'Malley's The First Jesuits, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 200-242.

"Client or community" is used in this document to describe any client, client organization, community or community partner.

Undergraduate Course Sections with an SL designation meet the graduation requirement for a service-learning course experience as described in the new Learning Core. SL-designated courses are specifically directed to meet mission identity in curricular structure, as articulated in the Learning Core.

© 2003