AMHERST, Mass. - John Reiff has been named director of the University of Massachusetts Office of Community Service Learning at Commonwealth College. The office is supported by the college, and aims to link students from throughout the University with projects that will benefit the community. "I want this office to serve as a bridge between UMass and the surrounding communities," said Reiff, who assumed the post on Aug. 1. "It''s crucial to develop relationships between people in the community and people at the University."
He stressed that the emphasis is on communities and students working together in real partnerships, rather than following the "often-condescending model of an outsider coming into the community and saying, ''This is what we think you need,'' without even getting to know the people, or asking them what they think the needs are. That''s disrespectful, and ultimately counter-productive."
Commonwealth College Dean Linda Slakey said she sees the office as being an inherent part of fulfilling the University''s mission: "The University''s founding mission as a land-grant institution is the obligation to serve the people of the commonwealth," she pointed out. "Community service learning is one important way the University is tapping into the intellectual and civic resources of its faculty and students, in order to be of assistance to the community." The office is launching its efforts with several community-based organizations as core partners, including the Amherst Survival Center, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, 21st Century Community Learning Centers (a set of after-school programs run by the Hampshire Education Collaborative at seven regional middle schools), and North Star Academy in Springfield.
Students gain a great deal from service-based learning, according to Reiff: "This is a very powerful way to learn, because students are actively engaged in what they''re doing. The material they learn stays with them." Service learning also helps students learn to deal productively and with people who may be different from themselves, he pointed out. "People develop relationships of respect across those differences, because they have shared goals," he said. "You have to be able to connect with people who are not like you, both in the workplace and in the rest of your life." Additionally, students gain an understanding of what it means to be an active and involved citizen: "You don''t just pay your taxes. You have the power to help create the kind of society you want to live in," said Reiff.
The Community Service Learning program offers numerous courses in a range of disciplines that include service as part of the curriculum. Some of the topics include museum outreach, environmental problem-solving, and the psychology of aging. Students may also explore a topic by fashioning an independent-study course. "One of the beauties of this approach is that service learning really can be integrated in a wide range of disciplines," Reiff said. "Students can explore psychological effects of domestic violence while serving at a women''s shelter; study physics of radon measurement by collecting indoor radon measurements in the local area; or learn accounting techniques while assisting elderly citizens in filing income tax returns."
One important component of service learning at UMass is the Citizen Scholars program, which students enter as sophomores or juniors. There are 30 Citizen Scholars this year. During the two-year program, students take five service-learning courses, and perform 60 hours of community service each semester. Another opportunity is IMPACT!, a learning community for first-year students who live together on the same floor of a residence hall, take a service learning course together each of their first two semesters, and design service projects in addition to the service they do through their courses.
Reiff takes issue with the common belief that college-aged people are unconcerned about their communities, or being of service: "There''s a great deal of cynicism politically that doesn''t translate into cynicism about the importance of making a contribution to your community," he said. "What''s really happening with young people is there is a very widespread commitment to community service. Increasing numbers of young people have been involved in community service during their K-12 years, across the nation. This willingness to volunteer is out there in society in a significant way." In 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available, UMass students gave 165,000 hours of community service, he noted.
Reiff did his undergraduate work and earned his master''s degree at the University of Texas at Austin, and earned a Ph.D. in American culture at the University of Michigan. He has worked at universities across the country in promoting service learning, including at the University of Michigan, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and most recently Tusculum College in Tennessee. He has also helped numerous colleges and universities develop service-learning programs, and held workshops for faculty.
NOTE: John Reiff can be reached at 413/577-1207.