College Students, Diversity, and Community Service Learning

Mar. 01, 2013

Source: Teachers College Record, Vol. 115, No. 3, p. 1-44, March 2013.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study considered the question of how students of color participating in Social Action Program (SAP) perceived their experiences in the program as compared with their White classmates.
This study paid special attention to racial differences in how participants perceived the climate of this program.

The Social Action Program
The Social Action Program is a community service learning program sponsored by Beacon University’s philosophy department that seeks to educate participating students about social injustice.
The academic component of SAP is a yearlong course that includes readings in philosophy, theology, sociology, and education.
Students meet three times a week for lecture and participate in a weekly discussion section.
Participating students also spend 10 hours each week for the entire academic year at one of approximately 50 different service placements focused on anti-poverty efforts.

The participants were 386 students in Beacon University who participated in the Social Action Program during the 2008–2009 academic year.
The group consisted of 244 White students and 118 students of color.
Data were collected through a mixed-methods research design involving quantitative analyses of pre-post surveys and qualitative analyses of hour-long semi-structured interviews.


The findings revealed that the students of color participating in SAP described a weaker sense of community in the SAP classroom than did their White classmates and were often silent during the very discussions in which diverse perspectives would catalyze student learning and growth.
In addition, many students of color expressed a reluctance to engage in race discussions with their classmates or to respond to perspectives they perceived as naïve, inaccurate, or offensive.
As a result, students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds in SAP missed out on a valuable learning opportunity involving authentic discussions of these important issues across a diverse set of students.

Furthermore, it was found that many of the White students participating in SAP invoked language in their discussion sections that erected sharp social boundaries between themselves and the individuals they encountered at their service placements.
This language posited fundamental differences between individuals who were from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and resulted in broad and pernicious generalizations about entire identity groups.
The language with which many White students in SAP discussed the individuals they encountered at their service placements revealed the extent to which they perceived these individuals to be a different “type” of person from themselves and their peers.

Ultimately, students of color in SAP faced the unique challenge of serving marginalized people while being marginalized themselves.
The discussions in the SAP sections lent themselves to silencing many of these students, and the language used by White classmates often served as a reminder to the students of color that the identity groups to which they belonged were not considered a natural part of the Beacon University community.
In the end, these students felt less connected to their classmates, as exhibited by an attenuated sense of community in the program.

These findings suggest that the overarching lens through which SAP sought to educate participating students about issues of social justice had been normed against the interests, experiences, and learning goals of White students.
Such reification of White privilege comes with a significant cost; the learning of all students is diminished when diverse perspectives are not fully represented or heard.

Finally, the results of this study offer that university faculty teaching community service learning courses might benefit from opportunities to reflect on how to foster a learning environment in which all students feel comfortable expressing their beliefs and perceptions of important social issues.

Updated: Sep. 03, 2014