Giving Back: One Student’s Experience with Service Learning

When Danielle Fowler, an undergraduate psychology student undertook her service learning project at JFK University, she had no idea what to expect. Service learning is a requirement needed to graduate; a requirement she expected to fulfill so she could walk, which she is set to do this June. After a long career in the mortgage industry, Danielle wanted to diversify herself professionally with a bachelor’s degree and possibly pivot into a new career field. The service-learning project was one of the few hurdles left in her way, and she was determined to make the best of it. Little did she know however, that this project was going to have a profound affect on her life, leaving her forever changed.

“It was quite the experience,” Danielle admits. “It was not at all what I expected going in to the project and quite honestly, I’m so thankful it wasn’t.”

The JFKU Engaged Service Learning program calls for students to give back to their community in a self-driven project at a local non-profit organization. Danielle chose to work with Girls Inc., an organization dedicated to inspiring socioeconomically disadvantaged girls to be strong, smart and bold through direct service and advocacy. This particular organization resonated with her because as a woman, she could relate to the hardships faced by young girls in today’s society.

Her work was in conjunction with the Volunteer Opportunity Immersion Corps (VOIC) project, a National University Innovation Grant Funded Project that matches JFKU student volunteers with non-profit organizations that have a need they can address. After discussing her skills and interests with co-project investigators Dr. Sheila Bliss Duffy, JFKU Engaged Service Learning Coordinator and Solomon Belette, Director of the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy, Danielle negotiated her scope of work with the Executive Director of Girls, Inc. Tiffany Harris and got busy. Her assignment was to evaluate a new initiative being rolled out by Girls Inc. that encourages girls to go to college by providing them with professional women mentors. To achieve this task, Danielle designed an exercise to collect data from Girls Inc. program participants, analyzed the data, wrote a report summarizing her findings and made recommendations based on them.

“It was a perfect opportunity because Girls Inc. needed data to support their assertion that this new initiative was worth pursuing,” says Dr. Sheila Bliss Duffy. “Danielle’s fishbowl exercise was able to gather that data.”

Not only was Danielle able to gather data essential to move the initiative forward, she also established a positive and productive rapport with the group of girls she interviewed, encouraging them to open up and engage in the exercise. No mean feat for a group of teenagers.

One girl in particular stood out for Danielle. Shawnee took the bus all the way from Sacramento to Richmond to participate in Girls Inc. because nothing like it existed in her city. She was used to dealing with obstacles though; as a child she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and had to be homeschooled as a result. It was a measure of Shawnee’s resolve that she took the bus over three and a half hours just to take part in the College-Bound Girls program. At Girls Inc.

“Her tenacity was amazing,” Danielle remembers. “Overcoming type 1 diabetes as a young girl and having to take the bus everywhere because her mom didn’t have a car. She had been moved around a lot; and was home schooled. It was amazing to see her reach for the stars and what she wanted out of life and how well spoken she was. I was above and beyond impressed by this little girl.”

Also impressive was the support Danielle received from JFK University and Girls, Inc. The VOIC project investigators and the Executive Director of Girls Inc. collaborated with her every step of the way so that she was able to produce a report that was vital in proving the mentoring initiative’s value to the Girls Inc. board of directors and funders.

The two-fold objective of the VOIC project is to:

  1. Equip NPOs in Contra Costa County to acquire technical assistance in the form of students who are backed by the resources of the University and
  2. Ensuring that JFKU students have service learning experiences that are substantive and useful to them professionally.

“We want to make sure that we’re providing our students with the most meaningful service learning opportunities possible,” says Dr. Sheila Bliss Duffy.

Danielle’s experience was certainly meaningful.

“I really feel like I connected with the girls,” she says. “At the end of the day I think we were all really happy with the experience and the product.”