Preparing for Service-Learning
Insight for Students from AAHE-Campus Compact Consulting Corps Member Michelle Dunlap
By Edward Zlotkowski

From the September 2001 AAHE Bulletin

By linking student learning with off-campus experiences, service-learning naturally draws upon socially complex learning environments. One consistent concern among service-learning educators has been adequate student preparation. Michelle Dunlap’s book Reaching Out to Children and Families: Students Model Effective Community Service (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) provides a new resource in this area.

Dunlap, associate professor of human development at Connecticut College, utilizes service-learning in many of her courses. Several years ago she began analyzing her students’ responses to their community work. She has published numerous articles that draw on this analysis as well as on other diverse cultural experiences. Dunlap is also a member of the AAHE-Campus Compact Consulting Corps.

For more on service-learning, see AAHE’s Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines, below.

ZLOTKOWSKI: When did you first become familiar with service-learning?

DUNLAP: I really have to give my colleagues credit for that because, for decades, our department as well as our college has been well known for being involved in the community. So when I came into the department, my colleagues let me know that in most of their courses students are placed either at our children’s program, which is located right on campus, or out in the greater New London community.

ZLOTKOWSKI:Both your chair and your colleagues were very encouraging?

DUNLAP: Yes. Let me explain further. My colleagues told me that their students are placed either at our children’s program or out in the community, that they keep logs, and that this has been a long-standing practice in the department. They also let me know that our Office of Volunteers for Community Service (OVCS), headed by Tracee Reiser, would be a resource for me if I decided to follow that model. That was seven years ago, when the term “service-learning” was just beginning to impact academia. In fact, the first issue of the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning had recently come out, and Tracee shared it with me. So I started becoming familiar with the available literature.

ZLOTKOWSKI: By now you’ve published twice in the Michigan Journal, haven’t you?

DUNLAP: Yes, I have. And through resources such as that and discussions with Tracee Reiser, I recognized that what my colleagues had been doing for years was actually service-learning. And they, too, were becoming familiar with this term. So we started educating one another about it -- what it was and was not, and in this way we became a service-learning-oriented department, even though we had already been oriented this way all along.

ZLOTKOWSKI: Into what courses did you yourself first incorporate service-learning?

DUNLAP: At the time I was teaching an introduction to child development course, a course on social and personality development, and a course on children and families in a multicultural society. All of these were just perfect for incorporating service-learning.

ZLOTKOWSKI: Was it mandatory for all of the students in your courses?

DUNLAP: Yes. I made it mandatory and kept it tied closely to the curriculum. In other words, I told my students that they were going to work in the community in order to make connections between their class work and their service, and vice versa. And in the process I noted a lot of things happening.


DUNLAP: Following the model that my colleagues had already used, I had the students keep journals and regularly turn them in to me. Later I learned that’s called critical reflection. I would also incorporate reflection into my courses in other ways. For example, having the students meet in small groups to talk about their service-learning experiences.

Well, as I read the students’ journals, I was struck by two things. One was how similar the journals were, as the students tried to cope with issues. Some of those issues were heart-wrenching, and the students seemed to feel they were all alone in what they were feeling. Another thing I was struck by was how overwhelmed they felt about approaching communities different from their own.

ZLOTKOWSKI: And these recognitions, I assume, were some of the factors that eventually led to your recent book?

DUNLAP: Yes. When I started reading the journals, I realized I was really onto something. The students were talking about feeling awkward. They were talking about feeling left out, feeling like they were outsiders, feeling that people were shutting them out. And they were afraid. So I had to sit back and hear them and kind of let myself be in their shoes by taking what they were writing very seriously.

But then I also had to be aware of my own biases. Being a social psychologist, I know that I have biases. And so rather than jump to conclusions about the journals and what the students were saying, I thought that I needed to study them systematically. Thus I began to look for a way to code the journals using well-established qualitative methods. I and a team of assistants systematically coded hundreds of journals over a period of years. It was very tedious, painstaking work.

ZLOTKOWSKI: So your teaching led to your research? 

DUNLAP: Exactly. There was a wonderful synergy that began to develop between my teaching and my research, which really was a plus for me, given how hectic my life is. 

ZLOTKOWSKI: And when did you start publishing your analyses? 

DUNLAP: My first published article was in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. It was about “personal fable” attitudes in adolescents. In this piece, I looked at how frequently the theme of wanting to help, wanting to make a difference, wanting to really change things, appeared.

However, in the first article I submitted, which was later published in the Journal of Experiential Education, I looked at the initial emotions students experience when they’re at their community sites. I coded and analyzed the first thoughts they expressed when they were writing in their journals about their service-learning experiences. For example, I was able to document the fact that about 68 percent of my students articulated something during their first three visits about feeling really awkward or uncomfortable, or just asking, “What am I doing here?”

ZLOTKOWSKI: Tell me a little about your Connecticut College students.

DUNLAP: First of all, they are extremely bright and extremely caring. I find them to be very hard working, very motivated. Many of them have had service experiences in high school, working in a variety of situations. Most of them are very, very well-intentioned: They want to make a difference. I really admire that about them. But I think that attitude also can cause some pain. At times I can feel them expressing their disappointment when people don’t just open up their arms and say “Welcome. Thank you for being here to help.” They may even feel they’re not really wanted. So I’ve had to find resources to help them understand what they encounter.

ZLOTKOWSKI: What kind of a community do your students mostly work in?

DUNLAP: The New London, Connecticut, community is like a small-town New York City, but without the same level of crime. There’s quite a bit of socioeconomic diversity, and yet social inequity, and this is very interesting for the students to witness and experience. For example, in the schools, the teachers are primarily European-American, while most of their pupils are children of color. In addition to the schools, the students work in daycare centers, women’s shelters, homeless shelters, afterschool programs, hospitals, nursing homes -- a wide variety of settings.

Drawing From the Personal

ZLOTKOWSKI: How did you develop your interest in students working in community settings?

DUNLAP: It began many years ago, even before I began my formal studies. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, in a very diverse family and community. While finishing up my graduate studies in social psychology, I worked for two years as a counselor at a mental health facility. I visited clients -- mostly families who had children in Head Start and other subsidized programs -- in their homes, and the parents came from a very broad range of experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic groups, and so forth. This meant that I had to make many, many adjustments to be able to assist the families with the crises they were experiencing.

ZLOTKOWSKI: Was this related to your Ph.D. work?

DUNLAP: No, it was a job, but one that I truly had an interest in and one that I really enjoyed. My Ph.D. work was more academically focused. But I still had to survive. I had a child of my own to support.

ZLOTKOWSKI: And what was the focus of your doctoral program?

DUNLAP: My doctoral work was in social psychology. Its focus was on inter-group relations, how people perceive and respond to one another -- not only how they misunderstand others but how they can distort information as they’re encoding it and recalling it, how cognitive processes can affect our social perception.

ZLOTKOWSKI: What was the position for which you were hired at Connecticut College?

DUNLAP: I was hired to focus on social and personality development, and, with my background in social psychology as well as my experience working with children and families, I was very well suited for that job. Also, my interest in multicultural and diversity issues represented an added bonus in that it gave me an opportunity to incorporate those kinds of issues more heavily into the curriculum.

Helping Students Understand Their Experiences

ZLOTKOWSKI: Let’s turn directly to your book. What were your objectives in writing it? What do you hope it will accomplish?

DUNLAP: The primary audience for the book is students -- students who are going out to work in the community doing service-learning, internships, field placements, or just volunteering. I believe the book will greatly assist such students because its purpose is to help them understand their affective experiences, to help them identify resources, to help them begin to process their service work ahead of time, so that when troubling things happen, they don’t unnecessarily blame themselves. If they can understand that such things are normal, they won’t be so afraid of them, they won’t over-personalize them, and they’ll give themselves time and space for building rapport.

ZLOTKOWSKI: Could you give me an example of a chapter focus?

DUNLAP: Yes. One chapter focuses on the first visit and all the different things that students experience during that visit. For some students it goes like clockwork: “I did great. The teacher welcomed me with open arms, the kids hugged me and embraced me, and I felt on top of the world.” For other students: “The agency director, she acted like she didn’t even want me there. And the kids, they seemed like they were looking at me strangely. I don’t feel like I belong.”

So what I try to do in the book is explore as many different experiences, explore the different things that students have to say.

ZLOTKOWSKI: How is the book organized?

DUNLAP: I tried to organize it basically chronologically -- from getting organized for the placement, to having the first visit, to different things that happen while actually having the placement throughout the semester or the year. And then, as one begins to bring things to an end, how to do so appropriately.

ZLOTKOWSKI: What kinds of material are in the chapters?

DUNLAP: Take, for example, the chapter on building rapport. First I try to talk about what rapport is, what it may look like in a setting as you begin developing it. Then I talk about the things that challenge healthy rapport-building. Then I talk about what students have told me from their own experience works for them. For example, that they have to be patient with themselves and not give up.

So what I try to provide in the book are the many lessons I’ve learned from students. But I also tie my psychology background, my counseling experience, my human development knowledge, and my own personal and diverse experiences in with this material.

ZLOTKOWSKI: Do the chapters also give students reflection topics?

DUNLAP: Yes. I forgot that. After I talk about what works, I give them practical tips. In other words, now that I’ve talked about student experiences and what works and what doesn’t work, I close with some very practical tips -- as well as additional resources.

ZLOTKOWSKI: In addition to the work that you’ve done in service-learning, you’ve also published extensively on diversity. What do you see as the relationship between these two areas?

DUNLAP: Again, I see my life, my work, my interests, as all very interrelated. My dissertation had everything to do with tolerance and what kinds of cognitive styles, what kinds of ways of thinking, are associated with the acceptance of other people. Had I not done that work and had the experiences I’ve had, when I began to hear my service-learning students say they were afraid and didn’t know what to do, I wouldn’t have known how to help them.

And at first I wasn’t sure what to do. So I went back to my roots, my social psychological roots and my dissertation work, consulted with colleagues, and tried to figure out what to do to support my students. Had I not had the background that I have, I think I would have just closed the door and not dealt with the problem at all. Probably, I would still be getting the same journals, the same comments. But because I studied race and class, studied multicultural issues and diversity, I became interested. I wanted to get into the heads of my students and figure out what they were going through and how I could help them. I thought, “I’m going to study what they have to say until I understand it, and I’m going to find resources that will help them.”

And so that was the approach I took. Because of my past work on diversity and multicultural issues, I felt confident about trying to understand what was going on. I do think some people say, “I don’t understand this inter-group cultural stuff and I’m not qualified to deal with it. Besides, it’s not the focus of my course.” This is something I hear from people around the country.

ZLOTKOWSKI: Do you think service-learning is an important resource for institutions that are concerned about diversity?

DUNLAP: I’d say yes, not because I happen to use service-learning, but because of the research that I’ve seen on it. The data shows that students who participate in service-learning and other curriculum-based forms of community work tend to score higher on measures of tolerance and other measures of diversity appreciation, and lower on measures of prejudice. So, for this reason, I think curriculum-based service can only help. However, it must be implemented properly. It is important that students have resources in place so that they have energy for learning -- for learning about diversity as well as about their own strengths and personalities.

Training the Teachers

ZLOTKOWSKI: Last year you became a member of the new service-learning Consulting Corps AAHE formed with Campus Compact. What interests you about the Corps?

DUNLAP: I see the Corps as important in a lot of ways. It consists of people who are well-established in the field, people with years of experience and familiar with the service-learning literature. This is what gives it credibility. Furthermore, all members of the Corps have done research on one aspect of service-learning or another, and/or we’ve all had very intense experiences through our teaching of service-learning courses. We’ve all been successful within academia and in working with the community, so we have a very good understanding of the playing field where service-learning takes place. All this we can bring to our consulting work.

ZLOTKOWSKI: How would you characterize what you yourself bring to the Corps? 

DUNLAP: I bring, of course, a focus on inter-group relations and diversity. But I don’t just want to be the “diversity person,” since I have several areas of expertise. I hope that over time the whole Corps will become even more diverse and that the whole Corps will be distinguished by its expertise on diversity issues.

Also, I’m always looking at our work from a community as well as an academic standpoint. I am an African-American parent bringing my own child to an afterschool program in the community. I am a single parent trying to get my child’s needs met. I am a parent who enrolls my child in a public school, goes to meetings, and talks to the school board on issues. All this I bring to the Corps, and everywhere else I go.

ZLOTKOWSKI: Thank you, Michelle. I wish you the best of luck with your book and your other projects.

DUNLAP: Thank you for your interest in my work.

Reaching Out to Families: Students Model Effective Community Service, by Michelle Dunlap, is available from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 800/462-6420,

Michelle Dunlap is an associate professor of human development at Connecticut College. Contact her at

Edward Zlotkowski is AAHE’s senior associate for service-learning and general editor of AAHE’s Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines. Contact him at

AAHE’s Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines

AAHE’s Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines promotes understanding about service-learning as an engaged pedagogy, exploring areas of intellectual and civic engagement by linking the work students do in and out of the classroom to real-world problems and community needs. More than a simple list of prescriptive measures, the volumes illuminate the why and how of implementing service-learning within specific disciplines as well as what each discipline can contribute to the pedagogy of service-learning.

Each volume in the series is a collection of essays by active scholars in a specific discipline. Essays are theoretical and pedagogical, highlighting issues of general import to the discipline; advancing theories on design, implementation, and conceptual content; and offering practical advice and case studies on a variety of approaches and best practices. Volumes also may contain annotated bibliographies of additional works in the field, program descriptions with contact information, and sample course materials including assignments, syllabi, and student work.

Series editor Edward Zlotkowski is a professor of English at Bentley College and was founding director of the Bentley College Service-Learning Project. He is also the Senior Associate for Service-Learning Projects at AAHE and the Senior Faculty Fellow at Campus Compact.

The monograph series costs $405; individual volumes are available for $24.50 each ($28.50 for non-members). Shipping additional. Bulk rates are available. Purchase online at or call AAHE’s ServiceCenter at 202/293-6440 (x780).

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