Learning to Serve: Cumberland’s Service Learning Trips Bring Students and the Community Together

On an overcast day in November 2012, more than 200 Cumberland students lent their hands—and their hearts—to organizations in the Greater Nashville area. Packing food, renovating offices, and removing trash, the freshmen students learned firsthand what it means to serve one’s community.

The students were participants in the latest of Cumberland’s Service Learning Trips. Formative experiential activities required of all first-year students through the Foundations of Scholarship and Learning (FSL) course, the trips allow students to learn powerful lessons about diversity and privilege while serving.

Service Learning Trips Photo 1 - 2ndHarvest1The brainchild of Assistant Professor Dr. Joshua Hayden, Cumberland’s Executive Director of General Education Experience, the biannual trips began in the spring of 2011. Rooted in service learning concepts, the trips enhance students’ college experience—and help them better understand how their future career decisions may impact others—by engaging the students directly with diversity in the Middle Tennessee community.

“The Service Learning Trips help students understand that the college experience is not just about sitting in a classroom or studying, but also about engaging diverse ideas and communities,” said Hayden. “They go out of obligation, but they often discover a completely new world that they never imagined.”

Such was the case for many of the FSL students who piled into buses and vans to volunteer at a number of organizations in Nashville on November 7, 2012. Overseen by University faculty, staff members, and Peer Mentors, the students volunteered at the American Cancer Society Memorial Foundation Hope Lodge, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, East Nashville Cooperative Ministry, and several other organizations.

Service Learning Trips Photo 2 - ENCM makeover 2011 043Whether preparing meals for the homeless at the East Nashville Cooperative Ministry or removing debris from the Harpeth River Watershed, students made a powerful difference in the lives of those they helped. In one service trip to the Second Harvest Food Bank alone, participants packed 22 pallets of 84 boxes, providing food for some 1,850 families.

The benefit to the students was equally powerful. For students like Keaton Gaffney, who assisted cancer patients at the Hope Lodge, the experience was an eye-opening one.

“Honestly, I was scared,” said Gaffney. “I even consider myself an outgoing person, but I had no idea how to strike up a conversation with a cancer patient.”

As the day progressed, however, conversations began, observations were exchanged, and understandings were built. Gaffney began to realize that the patients were little different from herself, and that one can see life from any number of diverse perspectives.

Service Learning Trips Photo 3 - ENCM makeover 2011 042“The guests at the Hope Lodge showed me that joy is a choice no matter what the circumstances,” said Gaffney.

She was one of many students who discovered a different world—and the part they might play in it in their future careers—in Nashville that day. Through Service Learning Trips, students are not only assisting their communities, but also growing as people.

“These trips help us project our institutional values to the greater community,” said Hayden. “At Cumberland University, we are trying to develop students who will want to serve wherever they go.”