Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring  2010    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  14, Issue  1

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Leveraging Service-Learning:  A Case Study

Rita R. Culross, Louisiana State University

Culross, Ph.D. is Jo Ellen Levy Yates Professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy & Practice and Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies.


This manuscript describes how an undergraduate course in Women, Gender, and Leadership partnered with another Service-Learning course to support the latter’s playground design project.  Students in the leadership course raised funds to support the playground project.  In doing so, they gained valuable skills in fund-raising in service of others.  The course blended models of feminist pedagogy with Service-Learning in emphasizing social action, collaborative learning, and reflective teaching.


During the fall 2008 semester the university offered an undergraduate elective entitled Women, Gender, and Leadership.  The course is cross-listed in the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) program and in the College of Education (ED) and focuses on the interdisciplinary study of gender and leadership with an emphasis on women as leaders in a variety of settings in education and society. 

It was both the professor’s first time to offer the course and to offer a Service-Learning course.  During the previous semester (spring 2008) a Faculty Scholars grant from the Center for Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership (CCELL) at the university supported the development of a Service-Learning component to the course.  As a faculty member in both programs (WGS and ED), the professor was interested in exploring how Service-Learning could be used to teach concrete leadership skills.  Most courses at the institution teach leadership in the abstract without any real-world experience to validate the substantial literature to which students are exposed.  Moreover, exit interviews with WGS graduates (majors and minors) had previously identified fund-raising as a neglected part of the curriculum.  Previous experience with ED graduates indicated that although fund-raising was not part of their training, they later found that fund-raising was an important aspect of their jobs. 

Concurrent with the thinking about the natural fit between Service-Learning pedagogy and feminist-based leadership skills was awareness that WGS already had a very successful Service-Learning course that lacked the financial support to carry out its mission.  Could two courses collaborate to leverage the power of Service-Learning?

The purpose of this article is to assist faculty who are considering offering Service-Learning courses in Women’s and Gender Studies by describing the course, discussing the collaborative work with another Women’s and Gender Studies course, and identifying the student and instructor learning that occurred.  Hopefully, sharing this experience will encourage other faculty to utilize Service-Learning in their courses to enhance the engagement of students with their community as well as their collaboration with other students at the university.

Feminist Pedagogy and Service-Learning

Feminist pedagogy “fosters a learning environment that is woman-centered, interdisciplinary, and largely participatory in nature.”  (Gilbert,2000, p.104)  Teacher and student are engaged in a process of learning not from positions of expert and novice but from a joint journey to develop an understanding of the nature of human experience.  Connecting knowledge with social change is a vital aspect of women’s studies courses.

Consider, then, Bringle & Hatcher’s  (1996) definition of Service-Learning:

Service-Learning is a credit-bearing, educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility (p. 2).

Key to both feminist pedagogy and Service-Learning are the elements of learning in which students engage with others in order to gain a deeper understanding of human life.  Service-Learning courses also exemplify “connected teaching” (Clinchy, 1989) or “connected knowing” (Belenky et al., 1986), helping students to connect to others’ thoughts both within the classroom and within the community partnerships in which they participate.  The ivory tower is replaced with engaged learning that bridges the gap between knowledge-based learning and experiential learning.  Indeed, Battistoni (2002) has argued that Service-Learning is a subset of feminist pedagogy.  The “ethic of care” articulated by Gilligan (1982) emphasizes the distinct lens through which women engage in their civic and professional lives.

Women, Gender, and Leadership:  The Course

Working from a combined model of feminist pedagogy and Service-Learning, the following goals were articulated for the course:


 To implement these goals the course developed a partnership with a local elementary school (and the larger school district in which it resides), the school’s network of community partners, and another Service-Learning course on campus.  The university course was an undergraduate course in Biological Engineering (BE) whose Service-Learning component was an award-winning project to design and build safe, kid-friendly playgrounds at local elementary schools.

The course requirements included two exams, a case statement, a fund-raising project, and weekly reflections on the readings.  In order to provide the students with information about women’s leadership and fund-raising, two texts were used--Eagly & Carli’s (2007) Through the Labyrinth: the Truth about How Women Become Leaders and Shaw & Taylor’s (1995) Reinventing Fundraising:  Realizing the Potential of Women’s Philanthropy.  The case statement was a one-page statement of the vision for the project.  It was designed to excite potential donors about giving to the project, describe how people could contribute, and provide “talking points” for approaching donors.  For the fund-raising project the class was divided randomly into two teams, each of which conducted a fund-raising project.  Each team wrote a fund-raising plan which was vetted through university channels and approved before execution.  Each team developed their plan with assistance from the professor, the outside partners, and the university development staff.  Teams competed against each other (a la The Apprentice) to see who could raise the most money.

Team One chose a silent art auction as their fund-raising project.  They solicited donations of art from local artists, conducted an art class at the school to collect student art and to solicit ideas about the playground from the students, arranged for donations of food and drink for the event, publicized the auction through emails and flyers, conducted sales, and thanked donors.

Team Two held t-shirt sales.  They created a t-shirt design, incorporating a drawing of a children’s playground; solicited funds to underwrite the printing of the t-shirts; sold t-shirts on campus and through email solicitations; and thanked the donors.

Following the conclusion of the fund-raising projects each team made a presentation to the class and to a panel of judges composed of  the campus Service-Learning Director, a community partner, the instructor of the course, and the instructor of the BE course.  Grades were based on the combination of the evaluation of the panel, self-evaluations, and peer evaluations.  The students were not judged on the amount of money they raised, but the winning team did receive gift certificates at the campus bookstore.

Student Outcomes 

Together the two teams raised over $3,000 in the course of the semester.  The difference between the totals for the two teams was less than $15.  Beyond the monetary gains the students learned valuable lessons in fund-raising and leadership.  In reflecting on the comments made by the students in their evaluation of the course, several themes emerged.  These themes are best expressed in the students’ own words.

Fund-raising is hard work.  At the beginning of the course students were asked to introduce themselves to others in the class and describe any previous fund-raising experience that they had.  Except for two students who had jobs at the foundation on campus, most of the students recalled raising money in high school through candy or magazine sales or through door-to-door solicitations for charities in the medical field.  They had little or no experience with events fund-raising and little knowledge of the behind the scenes work required in fund-raising.  Team Two thought selling t-shirts would be relatively simple; just get them printed and collect money.  They had to figure out how to pay for the printing upfront and went through multiple designs before they found one they could afford that did not infringe on existing licensed trademarks. 

In all my other classes I was doing projects for the grade.  In this class I was doing a project to benefit others.  True to the nature of Service-Learning the students saw how what they did impacted others.  In the case of this particular course there was an obvious benefit to the children at the school who would now through the efforts of the class have a new, safe playground.  But, the students also realized that they had helped another Service-Learning course achieve its mission by providing them with the funds to complete the playground they had designed.

…I had been feeling discouraged on what could be accomplished for the greater good and this proved that anything can be done.  I realized that when smart, talented resourceful individuals get together with one goal in mind it can happen, and it can happen in a big way.  Because the course met during the Presidential election of 2008, class discussion often revolved around models of leadership exhibited by various candidates.  Many of the students expressed discouragement that partisan politics seemed to block the accomplishment of major policy initiatives.  They also experienced episodes of conflict with their friends outside class who supported candidates they did not.  The course experience restored some idealism in students that progress could be achieved without rancor.

My team taught me how to be and stay positive.  I was not like that before.  As the semester progressed, students began to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses with respect to leadership.  The class discussed at length how transformative leaders exude optimism and positive-thinking.  The teams attributed their successes to their ability to recognize individual strengths and to harness the talents of every individual to achieve their goal.  One of the male students remarked on the collaborative style of his female team members.  He indicated that his male friends were less likely to approach tasks that way and that he could see the benefits of such a style.  He saw not a “woman-centered” approach but an approach that emphasized collaboration over competition.  The many steps required for approval tested all the students’ ability to remain positive. Some members within each group played the key role of inspiring others to remain focused on the task at hand and to not get discouraged by delays beyond their control.  Similarly, although there was a competitive element to the course, in reality each team pulled for the other to have a successful fund-raising event. Team One bought Team Two’s t-shirts, and Team One was present for the art auction.  Perhaps that’s why there was so little difference in the total raised by each team.

I had such a good experience with this that I have volunteered to be my unit’s leader in the United Way campaign this year.  It made me rededicate myself to being a community volunteer.  The course experience reinvigorated students’ desires to be engaged in community affairs.  This particular quote comes from a student who worked on campus and, as a result of the class, asked her supervisor if she could be in charge of her unit’s United Way campaign.  A second student returned to volunteering at an agency with which he had been previously associated, and a third enrolled for other Service-Learning courses the following semester.

I grew as a leader and got to experience a unique project with a diverse group of people that otherwise would never have been available to me.  Since the primary focus of the course was on leadership and on developing concrete leadership skills, it is gratifying to see that students recognized their own growth as leaders.  The course readings stressed the need for leaders to be able to work with diverse groups of people, and the course provided many opportunities to do so.  Beyond the involvement within the teams, students worked with the community partners, with the school staff and students, and with the other Service-Learning course in engineering.  They learned to adjust their modes of operation to the pace of other partners.  They learned that a printer may require a longer period of time to produce a t-shirt than was projected or that the approval process for a seemingly innocuous project requires multiple levels of approval.  Moreover, their experience with others extended beyond the professional world of the university and into a community where the backgrounds of many of the elementary school students were vastly different from their own.  The students achieved the course goals of describing leadership in all its forms and settings, exploring fund-raising as a process and a tool, and developing skills in service of others.

Reflections of the Professor

The professor was very impressed with the level of achievement of the students in the course.  Initially doubting the ability of undergraduates to do fund-raising in the context of a course, what the professor had to relearn was that when one sets the bar high, students will reach for it.  One of the community partners remarked at one point during the semester that she had considered doing an art auction to raise money for the school but figured she would need about six months to prepare for it.  The students had but two months to do so.  Yet, they pulled together as a team to sponsor a successful event.

All this is not to say that there were not “bumps in the road.”  There are many obstacles to doing fund-raising within a large university bureaucracy.  Five separate levels of approval were needed just to begin the project, and specialized accounts had to be established to handle all the funds collected and disbursed.  Foundation and accounting staff were key in facilitating the project.  Student learning occurred simultaneously with the adult learning by the professional staff assisting with the project.  Likewise, having a Plan B (or C or D) is a necessity.  Although a t-shirt vendor quickly volunteered to assist with the project, they were not on the list of licensed vendors for the university, requiring a last-minute search for a new vendor.  The class metaphor of a “labyrinth” for women’s leadership proved very apt.  Two steps forward might lead to one step back, two steps to the side, four steps forward…  Throughout all the planning and execution the professor also maintained a delicate balance between  guiding the students and rescuing them.  At a point the professor thought they might throw in the towel, the students dug in their heels and persevered.  Howard’s (1998) idea of “counternormative pedagogy” fits with what the professor experienced in teaching the course, from doubting her own abilities (read: insanity) to fending off the skepticism of administrators who reviewed the projects.


As stated earlier, the purpose of this article was to describe the implementation of a Service-Learning course in Women’s and Gender Studies whose primary focus was leadership and fund-raising, to discuss the collaborative nature of the work within the class and with another Service-Learning course, and to summarize the learning outcomes for both faculty and students.

From a feminist perspective the course was truly a joint journey, highly participative and woman-centered.  The students readily connected their knowledge gleaned from the literature about leadership and fund-raising with an applied project emphasizing social change.  The results of their fund-raising provided key support to changing the social milieu at the local elementary school.

Similarly, with respect to Service-Learning the students participated in a credit-bearing educational experience that met community needs and allowed them to reflect on their learning within the context of civic responsibility.  The course incorporated Heffernan & Cone’s (2001) four basic elements of a Service-Learning course:  1) engagement, 2) reflection, 3) reciprocity, and 4) public dissemination.  The students also participated in leveraging the work of another WGS Service-Learning course in the accomplishment of its mission, learning in the end how much more can be accomplished when all work together.

A quotation by Jeffrey Glanz (2000) is particularly appropriate:

The ultimate purpose of education is not the accumulation of knowledge, but rather the development of character.  Its purpose is to encourage people to become caring, ethical, and sensitive.  That is indeed the highest ideal of schooling and education (p. 527). 



Battistoni, R.M.  (2002). What is good citizenship?  Conceptual contributions from other disciplines.  In R.M.                                                                         Battistoni (Ed.), Engagement across the curriculum:  A resource book for Service-Learning faculty in all disciplines.  Providence, RI:  Campus Compact.

Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.M. (1986).  Women’s ways of knowing:  The development of self, voice, and mind. New York, NY:  Basic Books.

Clinchy, B.M. (1989).  On critical thinking and connected knowing.  Liberal Education, 75, 14-19,

Bringle, R.G  & Hatcher, J.A. (1996).  Implementing Service-Learning in higher education.  Journal of Higher                   Education, 67,2.

Eagly, A.H. & Carli, L.L. (2007).  Through the labyrinth.  Boston, MA:  Harvard Business School Press.

Gilbert, M.K. (2000).  Educated in agency:  Student reflections on the feminist Service-Learning classroom.  In B.J. Baillet & Kerrissa Heffernan (Eds.), The practice of change:  Concepts and models for Service-Learning in women’s studies(pp. 117-138).  Washington, DC:  American Association for Higher Education.

Gilligan, C. (1982).  In a different voice:  Psychological theory and women’s development.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Glanz, J. (2000).  My holocaust journey.  Phi Delta Kappan, 81, 527.

Heffernan , K. & Cone, R. (2001).  Course organization.  In  K. Heffernan (Ed.), Fundamentals of Service-Learning course construction.  Providence, RI:  Campus Compact.

Howard , J.P.F. (1998).  Academic Service-Learning:  A counternormative pedagogy.  New directions for teaching and learning, No. 73. In R.A Rhoads and J.P.Howard.(Eds.), Academic Service-Learning:  A pedagogy of action and reflection (pp. 21-30).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Shaw, S.S. & Taylor, M.A. (1995).  Reinventing fundraising:  Realizing the potential of women’s philanthropy.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.