History of UMass CESL

UMass Amherst has a rich history of advancing community service and service-learning. There is evidence of several early initiatives to build community service-learning pedagogy and practice among faculty, administration, and students; the chronology, titles, and oftentimes the goals of these projects are not well-documented. Two early efforts, however, still continue today. The Boltwood Project, founded by Professor Merle Willmann of landscape architecture and regional llanning in 1969, has been placing students ever since in programs for disabled individuals in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. The TEAMS Project (Tutoring Enrichment Assistance Models with Schools), founded in 1983 by Professor Bob Maloy in the School of Education, has helped UMass students learn about inequality in education through tutoring K–12 students in schools across the Pioneer Valley.

More recent efforts, however, have been better recorded.


Initiated with the help of the School of Management Dean Thomas O'Brien, VIBES (Volunteer Initiative Blending Education and Service) forms in the fall of 1989.  VIBES works with the Nonprofit Center at the Isenberg School of Management to match business student volunteers with local nonprofit organizations.

According to David Schimmel, Professor of Education and longtime champion for community service learning at UMass, a community service committee forms in 1990 to support and promote community service.  A couple of years later, Schimmel describes the primary functions of this University Community Service Council as providing advice to the Community Service Program, developing a campus plan for promoting, assisting and coordinating community service activities and assisting in the development of proposals to funding sources.

Mather Career Center houses the Community Service Program.  The Community Service Program maintains responsibility for identifying service needs and opportunities in the larger community and communicating these needs to student groups interested in serving and to faculty offering community service learning courses.

While faculty and staff are already cultivating service learning on the campus, top administrators soon publicly join the cause with Chancellor Richard O'Brien in 1992 declaring UMass Amherst "a campus that serves" and the following year Provost Glen Gordon establishing a Special Committee on Service Learning Curriculum "to encourage and expand the range of service learning courses."

The Special Committee on Service Learning Curriculum concludes that such service learning courses are among "the most challenging and influential experiences on campus."  In the spring of 1993, the Special Committee on Service Learning Curriculum awards eight competitive $2,000 fellowships to faculty members whose courses best meet specific criteria:

  1. They integrate students' CSL experience into the course content;
  2. Faculty develop the service component cooperatively with community organizations;
  3. The students' service meets community needs; and
  4. The course requires systematic reporting, reflection and assessment by students about their community service.

The faculty members awarded fellowships agree to teach their CSL courses for at least three years with the goal of having the course become part of the department's regular curriculum.

The major community service events Into Amherst and Fill-A-Bus are run for the first time this year.


In 1994-1995 the first cohort of service learning faculty fellows offers six undergraduate and two graduate courses in several different academic disciplines, including Philosophy, Education, English, Nursing and Art. 

The Special Committee on Service Learning Curriculum becomes known as the Provost's Committee on Service Learning.

By this time, the University Community Service Council has added VIVA (Vitally Involved in Voluntary Action) to its name and consists of approximately forty students, faculty members and administrators who meet biweekly to share information and develop ways to promote community service on campus.  The group describes its primary functions as expanding the curricular and co-curricular scope of community service at UMass Amherst, planning and conducting large-scale service events, finding ways to publicize both opportunities for service and accomplishments of groups and individuals across campus, and providing the Community Service Program with guidance and advice.

The Council also provides a forum for networking and collaboration among groups involved in community service; serves as a site for training, leadership development and technical assistance with regard to community service; enhances the visibility of community service and community service learning on campus; and helps to integrate community service into campus life.  VIVA provides local community agencies with a role in shaping the service agenda of the campus and promoting more effective communication between local groups and the University community.

Also in 1994, students petition to create a Registered Student Organization called VIVA (Volunteers Involved in Voluntary Action) University Service Council.  Its mission is "to provide the students on this campus with a medium which they can use to assist them in learning about and securing community service opportunities and to generate an enthusiasm for community service on this campus so that we will come to be known as the 'campus that serves.'"  The petition outlines these goals:

  1. To greatly increase the percentage of the student body who know about and participate in community service;
  2. To work towards creating a strong program at this University, which will wholly integrate service and learning;
  3. To staff the Community Service Office with persons who are knowledgeable about possible involvement in community service;
  4. To plan and conduct large-scale community service events which will bring the campus together to work for a common cause.


In 1995-1996, the number of service learning faculty fellows expands from eight to ten.

Anthropology Professor Art Keene first offers Grassroots Community Development as a curricular alternative spring break (ASB) program in 1998.  This course explores how grassroots organizations (that is, organizations that are formed of, by and for local people using local knowledge and assets) work to effect social change that enhances the common good.  In particular, it focuses on grassroots solutions to poverty, political disenfranchisement, and environmental and community degradation.  Students study grassroots development in the classroom and then spend spring break working side by side with members of a grassroots organization in a week of direct service.  


In the fall of 1999 Commonwealth College opens its doors, replacing the Honors Program.  The college adopts community service learning as one of its core values and establishes the UMass Office of Community Service Learning at Commonwealth College (OCSL) to support its own programs as well as initiatives across the campus.  OCSL staff is comprised of an acting director (Dave Schimmel), a VISTA and two graduate assistants.

That year, Commonwealth College introduces its first-year residential learning communities, including IMPACT!, the only learning community focused on service-learning.

At the same time, Professors Schimmel and Keene launch the Citizen Scholars Program, inviting the first cohort of Citizen Scholars to begin the program curriculum.


In August 2000 a full-time director, John Reiff, is hired for OCSL and in September 2001 a full-time assistant director, Shonda Pettiford, joins the staff.  With the help of a three-year (2000–2003) grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, additional staff and programs are also added.  The grant supports the creation of "core partnerships" with six organizations:  Amherst Regional Middle School; Amherst Survival Center; Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Hampshire County; Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Hampshire Educational Collaborative; and Nueva Esperanza.

OCSL also secures a one-year (2001-2002) grant from Massachusetts Campus Compact for after-school mentoring.  The mentoring programs Mentoring Youth of Color and Mentoring Middle School Youth begin during this time.  A two-year (2001-2003) grant from Hampshire Educational Collaborative supports the creation of a course for CSL with children with disabilities, From "You Can't" to "You Can."

In 2000–2001, the Provost's Committee on Service Learning begins offering two new types of fellowships that support colleges, departments, centers, or interdisciplinary programs in a year of planning how to integrate CSL into the unit’s curriculum and ones that support the unit as it builds CSL into its curriculum.  In 2002-2003, the Committee introduces fellowships that support faculty conducting research on or through CSL.

Each fall, a group of students returns from ASB to work with Professor Keene under the heading of UACT (University Alliance for Community Transformation) to plan and then lead sections of the ASB course the following spring.  This course becomes a powerful vehicle for building student leadership in CSL.

In 2002–2003, the student Liaison Network is developed with OCSL's Core Partners.  These students work to maintain communication and collaboration between OCSL and its Core Partner organizations.  Also, this year, Massachusetts Campus Compact awards OCSL a Civic Engagement Fellow, a student who works to promote civic engagement among the student population on campus.  The Civic Engagement Fellow develops and presents for the first time the Tools for Change Conference which offers advanced training workshops for student activists and leaders.

In 2003, the Citizen Scholars Program is selected to participate in the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s three-year study of model political engagement programs.


In the fall of 2003, OCSL launches Community Service Links, a web-based database of local community service opportunities.  This web application replaces the paper publication "The Big Yellow Book."  With CSLinks, community-based organizations are afforded the opportunity to update their information—including contact information and service opportunities—as often as necessary, so that the information in the database is up-to-date.

The year 2003–2004 marks a significant point in OCSL's development.  As grant funds dissipate and OCSL sees no increases in its university funding, the office is forced to examine its ability to continue its functions.  Staff spend much time and energy focusing on the office's future, closely examining every OCSL program and initiative and determining whether or not those programs will continue to be on OCSL's slate.  As a result of this work, some OCSL programs are discontinued, functions are shifted to other staff in Commonwealth College and positions are reconfigured.

At the end of the 2003–2004 academic year, OCSL welcomes its third professional staff member, Chris Felton, to coordinate academic programs.

In an effort to make community service learning a more integral part of the Commonwealth College student experience, OCSL staff collaborate with Commonwealth College Dean Linda Slakey to create the CSL Dean's Book course.  Every Commonwealth College student is required to complete the Dean's Book series of three one-credit, half-semester courses.  By offering a full-semester, three-credit CSL Dean's Book course, Commonwealth College for the first time integrates CSL into one of its core requirements.   The course is first offered in the fall of 2004.

To offer Community Service Assistants a basic understanding of service learning pedagogy and practice and to further their knowledge and skills for working in a professional office setting, a practicum course "Organizational Practice in Community Service Learning" is developed for newly hired CSAs.  It is offered for the first time in Fall 2004 and co-taught by the Assistant Director and Events and Office Coordinator.

In June 2005, The Princeton Review releases Colleges with a Conscience, a guide to America's most civic-minded colleges and universities.  OCSL's programs help UMass to be selected as one of the 81 institutions profiled in this publication.

The 2005–2006 year brings several new additions to OCSL.  OCSL adds another regular staff position to its slate; Megumi Labonte is hired as Administrative Assistant.  That same year, the Commonwealth Essay writing competition is developed to offer students an opportunity to articulate how their work in community service learning has led to building new skills, increased knowledge, careful reflection, development of crucial reciprocal relationships, and creating social change.  CSL Dean's Book also expands to offer an additional section, HONORS 291R, for students who have completed at least one semester at UMass.

In 2005–2006, Provost’s Committee on Service Learning adds another form of support for CSL Faculty Fellows—the Undergraduate Course Assistant position.  Students who have successfully participated in CSL courses may be selected by faculty to return to the course when it is offered again and assist with such aspects of the course as logistics, management of service placements, student reflection on service experience, and evaluation; they are trained and supported through a 3-4 credit course, HONORS 393L, “Leadership in Community Service Learning.”  By this time, over 100 faculty members have been Service Learning Faculty Fellows, and several have received two or three different awards.   

Also in 2005–2006, the long-standing, campus-wide service event known as "Into Amherst" moves from the spring to the fall in an effort to be more successful at "hooking" students into community service and service learning.  The event is held in the fall for the first time in 2005; in fall 2006, the event also adopts a new name: "Community Connection Day."

In 2006, the Provost's Committee on Service Learning collaborates with OCSL staff to develop a three-year strategic plan for community service learning at UMass.


In 2008, The University applies for and receives the Community Engagement elective classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This classification, given at this time to fewer than 200 colleges and universities across the U.S., recognizes "collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity."

At the end of 2008, the Provost announces her decision to take support for CSL campus-wide directly under her office. By the end of summer, 2009, a new campus-wide CSL office has been established on the tenth floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, associated with the Learning Resources Center. The fifteen-year-old Service-Learning Faculty Fellows program is placed on hold because of budget constraints. The program supporting CSL in the Honors College takes on a new name, the Community Engagement Program (CEP) of Commonwealth Honors College.

In Fall, 2009, CEP begins managing its share of a three-year Learn and Serve America grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service awarded to the five-campus UMass system to support the sharing of best practices in service-learning across the five campuses. Also this fall, CEP begins a program of Student Community Liaisons, assigning experiences students to work directly with core community partners to help them recruit and manage students in service and deepen their relationships with CEP and with UMass.

In 2010, UMass revises its General Education courses from 3 credits to 4 credits, encouraging faculty to develop CSL as the basis for the additional credit. The campus-wide CSL office begins working with faculty to help them develop new CSL components in their Gen Ed courses.

Also in Fall, 2010, the Bachelor's Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) recognizes a new track within its major: Civic Engagement and X (CivX), a structure that allows students to create individually-designed civic engagement majors, combining selections of courses from five Civic Engagement content areas with another group of courses that explore their own special interests (the "X Factor").


In Spring, 2011, the Faculty Senate approves a proposal to create a new certificate program: the Certificate in Civic Engagement and Public Service, available to students beginning in Spring, 2012.

In September,  2011, the two service-learning offices--the UMass campus-wide Community Service Learning office and the Community Engagement Program of Commonwealth Honors College—are reunited into one office to support the entire UMass Amherst campus:  the UMass Civic Engagement and Service-Learning office.


In Spring, 2012, the CESL office begins collecting data to identify in the online course schedule those courses which have a Civic Engagement component (teaching about and involving students in action for the public good) or a Service-Learning component (Civic Engagement courses that also meet a more detailed set of criteria, including community-based projects or placements addressing community-identified needs and goals).  In Fall, 2012, the campus begins a three-year grant from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education Vision Project focused on developing the capacity for promoting civic learning and civic engagement.  This grant supports faculty development, student leadership development, and a partnership with Holyoke Community College around assessing the learning outcomes for students participating in service-learning.  Also in Fall, 2012, Merle Willman, who had run the Boltwood Project for decades from retirement, turns the program over to CESL, and its students are integrated into courses offered through CESL.


In Spring, 2013, the campus develops a new strategic plan which names community engagement as one of its core goals.  Members of the Provost's Committee on Service-Learning work through 2014 with the Joint Task Force on Strategic Oversight to clarify how the campus can embrace this goal.  One important thread in this tapestry is the degree to which policies, procedures, and campus culture regarding faculty personnel decisions--promotion, tenure, and merit pay--give value explicitly to the community-engaged research and teaching that faculty may choose to do.  In Spring, 2014, CESL staff working with the Faculty Senate Council on Public Engagement and Outreach submit the campus application for renewal of the Carnegie classification as a Community-Engaged university.  In 2014-2015, John Reiff and Joseph Krupczynski (chair of the Provost's Committee) get a grant from the faculty union, the Massachusetts Society of Professors, to run a set of workshops with department and college personnel committees and department heads and deans.  Since personnel committees are charged with evaluating whether faculty's work is excellent, the project supported by the grant will explore what excellence looks like in community-engaged research and teaching in a range of different disciplines across the university.