Community Engagement Guidelines

Tips for Starting Your Service

Beginning anything new can be a simultaneously wonderful and challenging experience.  This page lists pointers to keep in mind as you begin to work in community organizations.  It is important to read and think about these guidelines before you start your service.  Also remember that UMass CESL can serve as a resource for you.

Guidelines for Working at Service Sites

Show respect for the community organizations and individuals with whom you work. Placement within community programs is an educational opportunity and a privilege.  Keep in mind that not only are you serving the community, but also the community is serving you, by investing valuable resources in your learning.

Ask for help when in doubt.  Your site supervisor understands the issues at your service site and you are encouraged to approach her/him with problems or questions as they arise.  UMass faculty and staff are resources as well.  Don’t wait to ask for help.

Learn the culture of your organization.  Every organization develops its own culture—a set of shared understandings that govern many aspects of life within the organization, ranging from how decisions are made and communicated to what is viewed as appropriate dress and language.  Much of this is unconscious; you discover it by bumping into it.  Be observant, but also ask "How are things done here?" whenever you can.

Check your assumptions.  Be sensitive to the fact that you may have preconceived ideas about people and places that are not accurate.  Some of these assumptions may involve the important differences between you and the people with whom you are working.

Be punctual and responsible.  .  Approach your service with at least as much seriousness as you would in a paid job.  You are participating in the organization as a reliable, trustworthy and contributing member of their team. Plan ahead and be realistic about the time you can commit, especially during exams or before a paper is due.

Call your site supervisor if you cannot avoid lateness or absence.  Always give your site supervisor as much notice as possible if you cannot meet your commitment.

Respect the privacy of all clients.  If you are privy to confidential information about the persons with whom you are working, i.e., organizational files, diagnostics, personal stories, etc., it is vital that you treat it as privileged information.  If you are referring to a participant, outside of the service site, do not use identifying information (for example, use a pseudonym, not their real name). Do not take or publish pictures or videos at the site without asking your site supervisor and obtaining permission of the individuals or their guardians

Be aware of personal safety.  All of our community partner sites are safe and welcoming settings but some are in urban or distressed locations. Use common sense. Don't bring unnecessary valuables with you; keep your personal possessions with you or in a safe place at the site (do not leave valuables in a car). Ask your site supervisor if you have questions or concerns. 

Be conscious of your behavior.  Do not engage in behavior with program participants or staff that might be perceived as sexual or abusive. Don't tolerate any sort of inappropriate behavior directed at you. Talk to the site supervisor(s) if you have any questions or concerns. They are there for you.

*Information for these guidelines is adapted in part from the work of Tania Mitchell.

Things to think about for yourself

Learn about the organization’s goals and your role in working toward those goals. Each organization has developed a mission and goals. The mission helps to guide the organization and the goals are more specific ways in which an organization works to achieve its mission. As a volunteer, you are a part of the organization and thus are working toward the greater mission of that organization. It is helpful to familiarize yourself with your organization's mission and goals as a way to situate the work you are doing in the larger context of the organization's work.

Seek out preparation and support for your work as a community volunteer. It takes time and training to get adjusted to a new organization. There may be several opportunities for you to get training and support in your service placement. In addition, UMass CESL and Five Colleges Inc offer trainings for college students who are a participating in of community-based learning. Check out the CESL website and the Five College Community Based Learning website for information on upcoming events.

Schedule a weekly time to do your service and be reliable. You will find that over the course of the semester, you will fill your schedule with a variety of activities. By scheduling your time at the community site in advance you will decrease the risk of not completing the service hours or project requirement for the service-learning course. It is very important for your learning and the community partner’s desired outcomes that you follow through.

Keep a log of your service hours. Many service-learning courses require you to complete a specific number of service hours. Others require you to complete a specific project. Although the grade you receive for the course is based on the learning that happens in your service, the number of service hours generally symbolizes an ongoing commitment you have to the organization. It is important that you keep track of your hours and/or project progress. We recommend that you keep a personal log and make a copy available to your site supervisor. Your supervisor may be asked to complete an evaluation form at the end of the semester so, it is important that they can easily reference your log.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help! There are many supports in place for you: the supervisor at your site, the instructor of your course and the staff at UMass CESL. We are all here to support you during your service and beyond.