Spartan Heritage: Service-Centered for 20 Years—and Counting

By Jody Ulate

Photo by Josie Lepe.

Through the Center for Community Learning and Leadership, an estimated 80,000 SJSU students have contributed more than 1,400,000 hours to the community through service-learning.

The hub of San Jose State’s service-learning operation is located in a converted Clark Hall classroom. Running on a high-octane blend of caring and inspiration, the small staff collaborates in exuberant bursts of conversation over the top of cubicle walls. Awards, posters and craftivism projects line the walls and tabletops. Every inch of space is used for student leadership development, consulting with faculty members and building partnerships with community organizations—and all activities are linked to the academic mission of the university. After 20 years, there’s no slowing down at the Center for Community Learning and Leadership.

“There’s service-learning in every single college. We’re quite proud of that,” says Elena Klaw, the center’s longtime faculty director and professor of psychology. “We inspire students to think critically and to act meaningfully within the communities where they live and serve.”

In 1999, Governor Gray Davis called for a community service requirement for all students enrolled in California’s public institutions of higher education. The primary purpose of his initiatives was to enable students to give back to their communities, to experience the satisfaction of contributing to those in need, and to strengthen an ethic of service among graduates of California universities. The CSU was the first of California’s systems of higher education to respond.

The Center for Community Learning and Leadership is now the primary university office that supports service-learning courses with the goal of creating and sustaining mutually beneficial community partnerships that address both course goals and community needs. Service-learning improves student retention and engagement in college, while helping SJSU’s community partners.

“Our students are having a tremendous impact on our community,” says Andrea Tully, the center’s assistant director. “A number of local nonprofit agencies couldn’t exist in the capacity they do without our students and service-learning faculty members.”

For example, more than 70 percent of Third Street Community Center’s volunteers in the last nine years have been SJSU service-learning students. In addition, SJSU students represent more than a third of Reading Partners’ volunteers in the South Bay. And many students are hired after graduation by agencies where they have worked as service-learners.

“We hope to be the beginning, not the end point, in students’ civic engagement. This is the work we all should do as educators,” says Klaw. “And we are evolving to keep doing more.”


Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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