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Why Service Learning is Important at AUPP

Lori Halverson-Wente and Mark Halveson-Wente reflect on the value of service learning and why it is an integral part of the AUPP experience. They also discuss a specific project undertaken by AUPP students in October 2013, providing assistance and support for survivors of recent devastating floods in Kampong Thom province.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

The American University of Phnom Penh is committed to academic excellence and provides a solid curriculum based upon core values reflecting rigorous American academic standards and expectations. One core value of the American University of Phnom Penh is “experiential” or “hands-on kinesthetic learning.” AUPP students are engaged in academically challenging classes, but, students are also involved in testing the theories and skills of the classroom in “real time.” For Jacoby (1996), “Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development. Reflection and reciprocity are the key components of service-learning” (5).

For several weeks in October 2013, the students of the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP) engaged in a variety of student-initiated service-learning opportunities. One goal was to together to help the victims of the tragic floods in Cambodia, while testing the skills they have been learning in their AUPP classes. The students began discussion on their own; they had been talking at lunch and after classes about the flood situation. It became clear that they had a great desire to do something to help. Some students had parents who were involved in relief efforts and one student, a professional returning to school, had independently begun helping with the relief efforts though his business. The sentiment to help others began to spread throughout the university. The students had been studying decision making in their Advanced Communication class where the topic arose. At the same time, they had discussed the flood in several of their other classes, especially during their Speaking and Listening classes.

When the professors learned about the students’ growing interest, they suggested that the students speak directly to AUPP President Rice. The students quickly assembled. They asked if it would be possible to work together “under the name of AUPP” to create a charity. At the time, the students did not know exactly how to begin their project, but were committed to the effort it would take. One student later shared, “I had never given a speech to a President before.” The students gained the support of President Rice, who immediately contacted the AUPP Founder, Dr Chea Vandeth. Within minutes, he had agreed to also support the AUPP students and offered to secure the funding through the American University of Phnom Penh. The students were elated with the positive response they had gained and quickly rallied to begin their planning.

Service-learning allows students the opportunity to put theory into practice–exactly what the students began to do.  They had learned about narrowing one’s focus in all of their preparatory classes. They also knew that before a focus could be determined, they must spend time brainstorming. Brainstorming allows one to think of all the possibilities prior to choosing one particular topic area. An individual student can generate a hundred potential topics prior to writing a paper or speech; a packed board room can generate even more. Ideas began to flow. However, as one AUPP student leader remarked in the reflection discussion:

“At first we were all meeting together. It was exciting to be in a big group, but working in a large team was hard too. The group would come up with ideas, have a discussion, make a plan, and then someone new would come in and we would start all over again! In the future, representatives from each class will be elected so that all the information is shared equally and will not be necessary to repeat information or have people miss meetings. The decision making process did work though — it is just hard and sometimes learning the hard way is the right way. We made better decisions when we organized our thoughts.”

After brainstorming, the students were encouraged to use the “Reflective Thinking Model,” learned in class, to organize their decision making. They set out to learn more about the problem and to define what part of the flooding situation they wanted to emphasize. Next, they analyzed the problem. They began to collect research and search the internet for up to the minute updates. The data on the situation was hard to access. They realized that social media could update the information quickly, but did not tell the full story. The AUPP faculty and board helped the students’ access information. An AUPP Advisory Board member provided the students with a full report from the UK which proved to be very useful. They continued to research.

As students continued their research, it became increasingly more difficult to decide upon the proper place to serve. An AUPP staff member offered an idea that became viable; her friend was well-connected in a community that had been affected by the floods. After much conversation, the students decided to work with this individual. The staff member soon was very active in the planning process.

Another area of theoretical connection was in leadership development. The students had been studying different forms of leadership. After a total of three days of open discussion, the students realized they needed elected leaders for their group. The students then held a meeting to determine leaders for the charity effort. The students had been learning how to run a meeting through their student clubs. This process helped to reinforce the skills that they had been learning. As the students continued to discuss the situation and their volunteer project, they found that working in smaller teams was much more effective. As many students have since commented upon, they found that managing a large team meant that not all students could share their voices. Smaller teams became a better solution.

Soon teams were formed, leaders were identified and the students worked together. They had learned about “emergent leaders” of groups who often develop as a leader through this organic process (as opposed to recognizing only the person who is formally voted in as a leader). For example, the students all looked toward one young woman to help organize the shopping and packing. Many students remarked that, “We are ready to do whatever she asks as she has done this before.”  The students demonstrated mature and responsible decision making as they followed her lead.

Another student, while not elected as a formal leader, emerged as the leader of the t-shirt project after the students were asked to list the tasks that were needed for the overall project to be a success utilizing Stephen Covey’s “time management matrix” (a means to separate urgent vs. important tasks). There was confusion about whether a formal AUPP t-shirt would be ready in time for the trip or if a student designed shirt should be created. The creation of the t-shirt gave a number of individuals who had not been vocally involved in the planning of the project an opportunity to serve. This demonstrates the versatility of service-learning. Students should be encouraged to use their skills and talents in a variety of ways. Creating the design of a t-shirt certainly taps into the notion of creative service-learning. The students also needed to learn about the types of decisions made in groups. The students came to a consensus about the t-shirt design. The student designer had created a “crest” out of the formal AUPP logo. They were unable to have this design approved; therefore, a “compromise” technique was used in the final design. In the end of the t-shirt design process, one thoughtful student said, “Maybe it is time for an autocratic leader. The students wrote about this process in their midterm examination for their Advanced Communication class. They discussed how groupthink had occurred in some situations (font) while open debate prevented it in other situations (logo placement).  They were able to discern group member roles and define their own role in the situation.

AUPP students have fund raised intensely, e.g., hosting a movie night and selling concessions. The students’ Events Club, in particular, created a number of special activities to help raise awareness and funds, sponsoring a “Sarong Day” where faculty, administrators, and students dressed up in colorful sarongs to show solidarity with the women affected by the flood; that is, Sarong Day’s purpose was not merely to collect as many sarongs as possible, but additionally allow students to see how versatile these garments are for provincial women. The AUPP Music Club shared their talents while traveling to The Shop Too to perform music for the guests.  The students showed initiative and creativity in their fund raising endeavors to help real people in Kampong Thom, calling upon the AUPP community, student relationships, and student awareness of area businesses, all of whom contributed generously to the students’ effort. The total raised for this project was an impressive $1,576 USD and 660,800 R. The money was used to purchase items for the flood victims. The transport and expense of the trip itself were generously donated by the American University of Phnom Penh.

Once the monies were raised, additional tasks needed to be completed. Charitable packets and shopping needed to be planned. Sorting through the supplies and packing the supplies efficiently in the bus were important and time-consuming tasks.  The learning in service-learning can take place, as this demonstrates, in all phases of the service-learning project — the trip itself is the culminating experience; yet, it is only a small part of the process.

Further, according to the Small-Group Development Model, the emergence phase happens only after orientation and conflict. Again, students have been asked to analyze the decisions made and the group process through the scope of small group communication theory (among other theories and other disciplines). Every student in the Advanced Communication class demonstrated a superior competency in naming and utilizing the four stages of group development (orientation, conflict, emergence and reinforcement). Comments were made that, when conflict is avoided, the possibility of toxic group interaction becomes more likely, characterized by hasty decisions with little prior critical thinking. The professors stressed that decision making is not easy and it can be “messy” at times as well as frustrating. The slow going of groups is sometimes necessary for a sound decision and for a solution to emerge from the group.  At times, the students felt pressured to make the decision of “where will we go.”  Further, they wanted to go to the village area to meet the recipients prior to the distribution. One student commented, “…the price of traveling to the village two times was high; at some point, we needed to trust that our connections would have the best interest of the poor in mind.” This is a sticky point for all groups–did we make the best decision?”

In the end, the students decided to go with the librarian’s suggestions. They traveled to Trapaeng Svay Kindergarten in Phum Trapaeng Svay, Khum Balaingk, and Srok Baray and dropped off 75 student educational packets for the Kindergarten children. Additionally, 40 families met the students at the school and the AUPP team distributed 40 family packages. While more families could have been helped, the AUPP students felt strongly that the contents of such a packet would be so small it would be better to help the 40 most needy of the victims in the area. An attachment of the persons who received the help is included in Appendix A.  The items each family received included:

  • 25kg of rice (purchased from local farmers)
  • 3 cases of “Navy” bottled water
  • 1 case of instant noodle
  • 3kg of “chai pov” (fermented white radish)
  • A Package containing
  • 1 Kroma
  • 1 Sarong
  •  Some second-hand clothes
  • 3 small packages of shampoo
  • 1 lighter
  • An envelope having 5000 R
  • 2 cans of sardines
  • 2 bottles of fish sauce
  • 2 bottles of soya sauce
  • 10 kg of salt
  • 1  tiger balm container
  • 1 packet of fever-reduction pills
  • 1 packet of diarrhea pills

Just days prior to the trip, a news report came out discussing the presence of Avian Flu in an area 35 km (approximately) from the villages. After an executive administration meeting, it was determined that the students would still be allowed to travel to the Trapaeng Svay Kindergarten, but only to drop off supplies. This decision was a hard one and many students were disappointed that they would not be visiting the villages nor playing with the children. They had hoped to interview the recipients, visit their villages, and spend time getting to know them. However, everyone knew that safety and security were the primary concerns. Therefore, the visit was much more brief than anticipated. A visit to a nearby resort allowed assurance of a sanitary meal preparation and time to rest prior to traveling the 3 hours back to Phnom Penh.

To produce a thriving service-learning program reflection is necessary for both the students and the faculty/institution. Therefore, to assess the educational experience of the students, a 15-minute pre-trip writing exercise was given. Prior to the service trip, students were asked to write about their thoughts concerning service-learning. One student wrote a representative comment:

Service-learning should be included into college education because it benefits students in multiple ways. First, I believe that by volunteering students can gain a lot of experience. It is the matter of “theory vs. practice”. When students volunteer and go on a field trip together, they have the opportunity put the knowledge they learnt from school to use. Students are able to test out the theories they were taught and even experiment other methods or solution they had in mind. Secondly, service-learning is one of the most effective ways to create leaders. By being exposed into a new environment outside their comfortable classrooms, students are taught how to be independent and most importantly they are taught the arts of leadership. Students will be shown how to manage in complex situations and also how to interact with other people (especially how to address the public). Thirdly, service-learning can help students see the real world in a whole new perspective. The stories, articles and the theories we learnt every day in class might not be true in some situations and service learning can help students enhance their problem solving skills.

Another student commented upon the need to help students tie the service-learning to their academic focus. He mentioned a desire for future service-learning in business related fields. During a focus group discussion, this same student did mention, however, that fund raising and creating budgets are related to business and economics. He also discussed the desire to work on sustainable projects, “What if we were to go back to the same location and create a more impacting project?”

After the experience, the students were once again asked to write about their experience for 15 minutes. One student summarized his experience as follows:

Looking back to our trip to Kampong Thom, I see that the trip really taught me many things. First, the organization of the trip showed me the values of teamwork. During the process of planning out the trip, everyone worked really hard to plan it. I would say everyone played their critical roles for the charity trip For instance, everyone shared ideas and carefully assessed each step that we were about to make; the music club even went to perform at a coffee shop to raise funds. Well-being of the passengers to the flooded area and the success of the event was testimony of our hard-work and cooperation. Second, the trip was a great opportunity for us to put the lesson we learnt in class to practice. We learnt so much about decision making and even had a midterm exam based on it, so we can see we made the best decisions and the trip went well.

The students probed into the motives of service:

The trip from Sunday was both fun, and educational. I enjoyed my time every much. Throughout the service learning, I have learnt a lot from both the preparation and the actual day of the trip itself. Before going to Kampong Thom, I and many other of my peers worked together to plan the trip, buy supplies, and made T-shirts. This taught me that before doing something we need to have careful planning and our motive straight. Our motive was to help those affected by flood. We were not going there as tourist or explorers. Thus we need to think carefully how we appear to them. For example, when we went there, we took off our sunglasses because it shows respect and that we’re not tourists.

Some students were not able to attend the event; one reflected

I did not go to Kampong Thom with the school last time. I felt frustrating because most of my classmates were participate in that event. They gained experiences and had so much fun by doing charity work altogether. I wish I could go with them too next time. I hope I can gain more experiences, build up confident [sic] by doing service-learning. Moreover, I hope I can learn how to solve any problems that suddenly come up. Most important thing is to learn leadership skills.

The final phase a service-learning project involves analysis, assessment and recommendations for future projects. Currently, the students are fully engaged in this process. Students will be writing journals in some classes. Other students are involved in a related research project in another class. Students will create a script to accompany photographs and video clips and will practice the articulation/pronunciation of their words in their Speaking and Listening and/or Public Speaking classes. Numerous references to the experience will happen as they write in class essays and take examinations. Most importantly, the final product of this service-learning project will not be fully known until the students themselves realize that, the next time they approach a tough decision, they are reflecting upon these very same skills used. Additionally, as one student said, “…service-learning can result in gaining empathy, interpersonal relationships and better decision making.”

In the future, the service-learning approach utilized by an institution or individual faculty member need not be a semester long process; indeed, it can be a one day quick event. However, research indicates a “best practice” approach.  Specifically, Jacoby’s definition features three areas of service-learning, all applicable to AUPP: first, the needs addressed through service-learning are defined by the community itself; second, “reciprocity” is emphasized, i.e., a reciprocal service-learning relationship with mutual respect in a context in which participants are simultaneously teachers and learners with everyone benefitting in the process (Friere, 1993; Cone and Payne, 2002); and lastly, reflection, which makes clear the crucial connection between the service relationship to the courses and programs studied (Jacoby, 1996; Kozeraki, 2000; Hutchinson, 2001; Eyler & Giles, 1999).

For its service-learning component, AUPP faculty aim to develop what Porter & Monard (2001) term a “philosophy of reciprocity.” This philosophy is an “expression of values—service to others, community development and empowerment, and reciprocal learning” (Stanton, 1990, p. 67).  This philosophy determines the nature and process of social and educational exchange between the service learning program (with its individual student experiential learning) and its host-village(s) and additional partners—taking into due account the articulated needs of the partners and villages. In emergency situations, like a tragic flood, charitable donations are needed for all affected by the flood. A natural disaster does not discriminate. It is one mission to provide emergency aid; it is another distinct mission to implement a project to help the poor, though projects can combine the two. To promote a long-term service project, just as the AUPP student mentioned, is a long-term sustainable project and goes beyond the project’s parameters.

Reflection is crucial—though it is difficult to set aside adequate time with the demands of classroom time, coursework, and the fast-pace of student volunteer efforts. Self-reflection with reference to personal experience and learning is a way in which humans understand, connect to, and interpret the world. The AUPP students have been asked to “examine the thoughts and feelings their experience elicits so they might develop the capacity to better recognize their own perceptions of people in poverty. Students may undergo a shift of consciousness in the way they view the world as they become more fully aware of the nature of their world, their own nature as human beings, individually and collectively, their own station in the world and its attendant opportunities and responsibilities, the ties to other co-cultures, and an understanding of the social structures that prevent and promote social justice and an individual’s pursuit of happiness” (Halverson-Wente).

Experiential learning is central to a well-rounded education and a keystone of the AUPP curriculum. As AUPP develops its service-learning approach, the students will have a rich and diversified theoretical and practical skill approach to organizing the tasks, ideas and practices involved. The faculty, staff, and especially students, applaud the AUPP Administration and Board of Directors for not only allowing such a process to begin, but for all the support and assistance in seeing that the project was a student-driven and student-learning endeavor. The American University of Phnom Penh Student Flood Relief Project has been a success.


Appendix A: List of Flood Relief Packet Recipients

Appendix B: AUPP Operations Director’s Report

Appendix C: Skills Demonstrated in the AUPP Service Learning Project

TaskSkills Practiced/Theory Learned
Idea Generation
Presentation to the President
Large Group Meetings
Subcommittee Groups
Election of Officers
Email/Facebook Announcements
Poster Creation
T Shirt Creation
Proposal to the Board
Fundraising/Music Club
Group Discussion
Follow Up
Planning for the Next Event
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