What Is Service Learning in the US?

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By Selene Angier
Last updated on August 11, 2023
Student working a service job at a clothing retailer

Do you volunteer with an environmental cleanup nonprofit? Do you sign up for opportunities to give back at a local food pantry? Is service work in the community a part of who you are? Exploring service learning programs might be a great fit for you. 

So, what is service learning exactly? This teaching and learning philosophy encourages students to engage in community-based projects and become more aware and empathetic global citizens. Terminology covering service learning can vary from university to university; on some campuses, service learning may be known as community learning, civic engagement, social justice, and/or experiential learning.

Universities that offer service-learning programs work with business owners, nonprofits, and government leaders to focus on collaborative partnerships that benefit the local community. As a student, you will “learn by doing” — much like at a co-op or internship. Many students already volunteer their time, but when you enroll in a service-learning course, you can also earn credit. 

What Can You Expect from a Service-learning Course?

Service learning goes beyond volunteering your time and contributing community service hours. While specifics vary by program, you can typically expect to:

  • Earn one to four credits, depending on the time commitment outlined in the course description. Courses must be developed by a university instructor and approved by your university. (You are generally not allowed to work community service hours and then submit them for credit afterward.) Some schools allow for an add-on service-learning credit to existing classroom-based courses. Your university may even let you partner with an advisor to design a custom course. 

  • Work in an office or in the field. Some courses may have a hybrid style — some classroom instruction with a service-learning component. Other courses may not have any class meetings, and instead you will work 20–60 service hours a semester, much like an independent study or internship. You will probably also have periodic check-ins and one-on-one meetings with your teacher, too. 

  • Take weekly notes or keep an ongoing journal about your experience so you can report back to your professor. These records can be handwritten, typed on your laptop, or even kept as a note on your phone. The goal is keep projects, achievements, and daily responsibilities fresh in your mind when you have to share updates with your teacher. 

  • Submit mid-semester and end-of-term papers about what you learned and contributed. Another name for these essay assignments is reflections. Reflection papers help you look at your service learning assignment thoughtfully and critically as a whole. You want to share with your class and instructor what you learned throughout the entire service experience.

Why International Students Should Consider Service Learning

From developing valuable lifelong skills to gaining a better understanding of US culture, there are so many benefits for international students who pursue service learning. Let’s look at some in detail. 

Building Your Resume and Developing Core Skills

Service learning provides opportunities to gain experience in leadership, communication, project management, critical thinking, organization, collaboration, and research, and to build your skill set by learning specialized computer software, languages, and more. Your experience in a service-learning role will stand out on your resume and can make you more appealing as a job applicant. 

Networking and Career Opportunities 

With service learning, you will widen your network of contacts who may be able to help when you begin your job search. A classmate might be the person to get you an introduction to a hiring manager at a future job, and your supervisor on the project can become a reference. 

Making Friends and Socializing

In addition to making career connections, you will be meeting people who can become lifelong friends. When you work on service projects, you will be among a group of like-minded people, so you know you already have a few interests in common. 

Improving your Health 

Smiling more, breathing easier, even your heart rate can benefit from being of service. Studies have shown that volunteering can have a positive impact on your health, such as feeling happier, living longer, lowering your risk of high blood pressure, and improved well-being

Increasing Your Confidence and Sense of Belonging 

When contributing to service projects, there is a sense of camaraderie and connection with your group of peers. In some studies, volunteers reported higher self-esteem and a strong sense of belonging. Being a part of a group helps build your confidence, improve your English, and develop your public speaking skills.

Confirming Interests and Seeking out New Ones 

Ever wonder if accounting is the best career for you? Or if you have the project management skills to become a civil engineer? A service-learning course can reaffirm that your chosen field of study is the best fit for you, and also allow you to explore totally new areas of interest, like music, health care, or food scarcity. 

Universities with Strong Service-learning Programs

U.S. News & World Report — a leader in higher education rankings — recently introduced a new ranking category for service-learning programs and several Shorelight universities made the list. 

American University

Service Learning Ranking: #17 

National Universities: #72

Located in Washington, DC, American University is a top US university with highly ranked degrees in business, international relations, public affairs, and STEM. The university’s Center for Community Engagement and Service offers community-based learning courses, as well as guidance on local programs.

Auburn University

National Universities: #97

Public service is a key part of Auburn University’s mission. Located in the southern state of Alabama, this Top 100 university’s AUBURNSERVES program connects student organizations and academic programs with more than 175 nonprofit and community agencies for experiential learning credits. They also offer volunteer spring break vacations. (Earning college credits in the Dominican Republic? Yes, please!) 

Gonzaga University  

Service Learning Ranking: #19

National Universities: #83

Gonzaga University — a humanistic Jesuit school in Washington state — is home to a spirited community-engaged learning (CEL) community. Students are strongly encouraged to embrace leadership roles and service for the common good. Nearly every academic department offers CEL opportunities, including business, philosophy, psychology, education, and law. Students can also work with faculty advisors to create their own service-learning experience. 

Hiram College

Centrally located in Ohio, Hiram College is a small private college with a strong commitment to experiential learning programs. Through the Office of Civic Engagement and the Center for Engaged Ethics, students are given access to service-learning opportunities with urban youth, adults on the autism spectrum, animal rights, environmental preservation, people with developmental disabilities, and more. Top areas of study at Hiram include STEM, business, computer science, international studies, health sciences, and education. 

Tulane University 

Service Learning Ranking: #2 

National Universities: #44

One of the Top 50 schools in the US, Tulane University has deep service-learning connections to its New Orleans community and beyond. More than 90 courses each semester are offered across a wide range of innovative topics — Educational Game Design, Impacts in Chemical Engineering, Cultural Nutrition and Wellness, and Urban Agroecology and Sustainability were just a few offered in Spring 2023.  

Read how a Tulane alum created a small organization that made a big difference >

Which Majors Take Service-learning Courses?

In the US, most universities focus on a well-rounded liberal arts education, not just courses on a specific field of study. For instance, if you are a computer science student, you will also take English, communications, and maybe even art electives, in addition to required courses like calculus and Python programming. 

As such, nearly every field of study is suited to service-learning projects. Some majors are more likely to engage in service learning, including:

  • Business

  • Civil engineering

  • Education

  • Environmental science

  • Law/pre-law

  • Public health

What types of service-learning projects do universities offer? Here are just a few examples:

  • Public health students might work on community intervention studies or on a mobile health care unit run by a local urgent care center.

  • Finance and accounting majors can work with a legal aid nonprofit to create budget efficiencies so the organization can reduce costs and save money. 

  • Nursing students might apply to be an assistant at an underserved community hospital. 

  • Education majors can become teacher’s aides at a childcare program for working single mothers.

  • Software engineering majors can help build websites for a local environmental nonprofit, while their roommate — an environmental science major — is working for the same group to collect ground soil samples for a study. 

The possibilities are nearly infinite. Your professors and faculty advisor can also work with you to customize a service-learning project based on your interests and field of study. A top piece of advice? Choose something you are personally passionate about. (It might not even feel like work!)

Ready to Be of Service?

Service learning is a great opportunity to work with local communities and organizations while gaining hands-on experience that will stand out on your resume. 

Want to learn more about the Shorelight universities that offer community engagement opportunities? Our academic advisors are here for you every step of the way, from researching programs and completing your application to visa assistance and even help arriving on campus. 

Shorelight advisors help you find your best-fit school