"Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." Every morning when NPR's Garrison Keeler sign-offs off with this signature line, Seth Pollack is reminded of his mission. Seth, an associate professor and director of the Service Learning Institute, spent ten years in the field "doing good work," and now is helping students realize the impact that service can have in communities, and in themselves.
But don't let the simplicity of the phrase fool you. CSUMB's take on service learning has elevated simple "community service" from mere good work into something far more complex. "In a helping situation the typical concept is that power isn't equal. The person who helps has a lot of power and the person who is being helped doesn't have a lot of power. We try to help students understand that and think about who they are in that context. The goal of service learning is to think more deeply about the dynamic of trying to help," explains Seth.
Unlike most programs that just send students out to get work done, service learning at CSUMB brings students back into the classroom to discuss the issues of identity, diversity, and social justice that arise when working in various communities.
These are issues that Seth knows well. "When I teach and work with students I am always drawing on my experience as a peace corps volunteer. For five years I worked in communities as a stranger." Seth was in the Peace Corps in Mali, a desert country in West Africa, where he worked primarily with women's groups on issues of conservation and economic empowerment. His status as a man and status as a Westerner with outside knowledge were important factors in his interactions.
"There is an expression in Mali: 'No matter how long a log stays in the water, it will never become an alligator.' You have this sense that no matter how much you try as an outsider to become someone who belongs, you're not. You are always going to be an outsider. However, there is a corollary to that proverb: 'Some logs can really scare the hell outta ya.' So there is this dynamic-I am here to help…I'm an outsider and I want to belong… maybe I can belong, but maybe I can never belong…' What do you do with that?"
Through service learning courses, Seth and other faculty members work through these opposing concepts with students. "The semester is really helping the students come to terms with that irony of service and not freeze themselves in any one position. To really be thoughtful about this work. Because the truth is, if we just stay home, nothing will ever change."
Here is where the keeping in touch part comes in. As students do the work and think critically about the implications of service, they are also forging important relationships-developing their skills as "multicultural community builders," a phrase coined by the leaders of the Service Learning Institute. "That's how change is going to happen. It's those networks that are really powerful."
Twenty years after leaving Mali, Seth remains in contact with the women there. "For me, the hope for the future in the globalized world is not that everyone becomes more like us [Americans], but that we learn from each other. That to me is a powerful definition of globalization-that we can be in each other's lives and recognize the potential for domination and be sensitive to that."
Knowing that one doesn't have to join the Peace Corps and travel halfway around the globe to have a transformative cross-cultural experience, Seth and the Service Learning Institute help students navigate these encounters in local communities like Seaside and Salinas.
Despite consistently positive post-service survey data, not everyone on campus has readily embraced the service learning requirement. Some students resist initially, saying required volunteerism is an oxymoron. Others aren't sure their politics will jive with what is being taught in class. In acknowledging these challenges, Seth counters "Everyone, no matter what your politics, should have a deep understanding of your social responsibility. It's not to say we will all have the same definition and same strategies and same solutions to problems, but we should all have deep understandings of what our social responsibility is. That is the potential of this program."
CSUMB President Dianne Harrison and Seth Pollack
These challenges aren't surprising. Service learning is a new field and CSUMB is on the forefront in combining community service with academic exploration of identity, diversity, and social justice. "No other program in that nation, in higher education, has as sophisticated and as deep an understanding of this work as we've developed here." But, just like an outsider who will never completely belong, the Service Learning Institute hasn't absolutely mastered the delivery of these lessons. "It's challenging doing teaching around issues of diversity and power in a required course. We are still figuring out how to do it really, really well. We are getting better at it every semester, but I still feel like we are just learning," says Seth.
Developing the openness and patience to continue listening, thinking, and learning about these complex topics is the basis of service learning at CSUMB. It's a continuum, with no concrete end, no easy answers, and no final pinnacle of success. But along the way it is possible to make friends and do good work. For Seth, that is the ultimate gift. "For me, having spent a decade of my life thinking hard about making a difference, and seeing that there is a university that is committed to having students grapple with that, and making that a core part of what the academic program is about, I thought wow, this is for me. There is no other job in higher education that I'd rather have."
~ Liz MacDonald, Senior Writer/Web Editor