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Doing diversity through service learning.


As a significant part of the college course Human Relations in a Multicultural Society, pre-service teachers are engaged in service learning and reflection as two of the primary methods to develop cultural awareness and appreciation, human relations skills, and positive dispositions about diverse groups in society. Eleven oppressed groups in U.S. society are the focus of students' study, experience in the community, and reflection. Education students "do" diversity through eighteen contact hours of service learning with a group that is outside their comfort zone. Specific planned objectives are addressed throughout the service learning experience. At the conclusion of the service learning, students reflect on the experience.


It is well recognized and documented that the United States is a pluralistic society made up of diverse racial/ethnic groups and microcultures (Gollnick and Chinn, 2004). Because of this diversity, there is a need for understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of cultural differences related to language, customs, culture, religion, and values. Teachers of the twenty-first century are challenged by the heterogeneity of present classroom populations. Since teachers must promote harmony in the classroom and meet the individual needs of students to succeed in school, they must have an understanding of pluralism as well as possess good human relations skills to work with diverse groups of children, parents, and colleagues. Meaningful, research-based pre-service courses that actively engage students through constructive education assist in building this cultural competence.

Review of the Literature

Research related to the reduction of prejudice is the foundation of human relations training. Dent (1976) found that more active student participation was more effective in teaching tolerance. Ijaz (1981) noted that cultural immersion positively altered attitudes toward acceptance of differences. Stephan (1985) completed a comprehensive review of the literature related to reduction of racial prejudice through changing group attitudes and behaviors. He concluded that voluntary contact between people of differing groups could lead to prejudice reduction. Allgood (1998) reported that when multicultural content is addressed in cognitive, reflective, emotive and active domains, it is more likely to reduce prejudice. Additionally, Rice (1994) advised that in order to develop more consciousness about diversity, one must leave his/her comfort zone. "Interaction among diverse individuals can (a) decrease stereotyping and prejudice and (b) increase positive relationships. It is only through direct contact and interaction with diverse individuals that stereotypes can be reduced" (Johnson and Johnson, 2002, p. 9).

Boyte (1991), Conrad and Hedin (1991), and Pate (1992), reported that service learning is one of the methods that is more effective in reducing prejudice. Allam and Zerkin (1994) expound on the benefits of service learning when it is infused in teacher education programs. When infused in a teacher education program, the service learning experience helps to "create a learning environment which is empowering and multicultural in approach" (p. 3). A recent study by Garmon (2004) testified that intercultural experiences and self-reflectiveness were two of six factors identified as playing a critical role in positive multicultural development.

Designing a Program

A course in human relations that focuses on skills related to diverse populations has been developed. A service learning component is integral to this class because it is an avenue for placing students with people different from them. Through service learning, students experience diversity i.e. "do diversity", instead of just learning about it.

Early in the semester, students self-determine their needs related to developing knowledge, skills, and positive attitudes about people who are different from them. On the first day of class, students are given a Personal Data form to complete. Students are directed to rank eleven groups (ability, African Americans, age, Asian Americans, class, gender, Latino Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, Native Americans, religion, and sexual orientation), giving a ranking of "1" to the group that they are most comfortable with, "2" to the next most comfortable group, etc ... The #11 ranking symbolizes the group that they are least comfortable with. Comfortable is defined for the students as a sense of understanding of the members of this group, an ease in the presence of members of this group, and a familiarity due to past encounters with members of this group. Discomfort is defined as a feeling one has as a result of lack of experience, lack of knowledge, or misconceptions about this societal group.

Once the form is completed, each student is informed that s/he should focus on his/her lowest ranked groups. These are the areas of diversity that the individual student will address through service learning, a class presentation, and reflective analysis papers. In this way, each student tailors the curriculum to meet his/her personal challenges. Early in each semester, a Service Learning Fair is held in the student union. At this fair, representatives from area agencies set up tables with displays that provide information about the agency, the population that it serves, and what types of service activities are available. Each student is directed to attend this fair and to identify an agency that serves a population that the student had ranked as number nine, ten, or eleven on his/her Personal Data Form. For example, if a student is uncomfortable with people who are of a lower class, the student should attempt to work in a homeless shelter. If the student is uncomfortable with people who are handicapped, the student should elect to work in an agency that serves them.

In addition to providing service that meets the agency's needs, specific course objectives are outlined for students to work on during the service learning experience. For example, one of the course objectives relates to communication so students determine personal goals for communication. Communication goals can be intrapersonal such that the student becomes more aware of his/her own communication behaviors or interpersonal such that the student focuses on communicating better with others, in a culturally sensitive manner. Other course objectives to be addressed while engaged in service learning include: the identification of a value to act on, awareness of their self-concept when placed in an environment that challenges them plus the monitoring of changes in self-concept over the course of the experience; awareness of power relationships and observation of opportunities to empower themselves or others; observation of any oppressive behaviors, thoughts, or feelings that they have when placed with the population that challenges them and noting any changes they might make as they get to know the people at the service learning site as individuals.

After the student has been paired with an agency, the student meets with an agency representative to complete a contract as well as to be oriented to the agency. The contract requires that the student informs the agency representative of the course expectations and that the agency representative informs the student of agency expectations. Specifically, the contract includes contact information for both the student (name, phone number) and the service learning supervisor (i.e. name, phone number, agency name, e-mail address, fax number, mailing address). The supervisor's copy of the contract also contains contact information for the university instructor should the student not fulfill his/her obligations or other concerns arise. The student specifies what his/her challenge area is (i.e. group not in the student's comfort zone) and the ranking of that challenge area from the self-assessment. The service learning supervisor agrees to explain the mission of the agency, and the student checks off that s/he understands this mission. The student explains the course expectations related to practicing communication skills, identifying and acting on a full value, improving self-concept, using personal power to meet a challenge, identifying oppression in selected areas: race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, class, age, ability. The student also agrees to be open to unexpected outcomes. The supervisor agrees to support the student with attaining these objectives. The student agrees to tell the supervisor about any talents, skills and interests and agrees to use them if given an opportunity to do so. The supervisor agrees to utilize any talents appropriate to the agency's mission. Both parties to the contract negotiate how they will communicate with one another and the frequency of those communications. Both parties agree that if a problem should arise, the student will consult with the supervisor in order to solve the problem. The student agrees that s/he will spend a minimum of eighteen hours in the service learning experience and the supervisor agrees to provide supervision, complete an evaluation form, and complete a clinical diversity form (a form which documents student contacts with diversity for program accreditation purposes). Both the student and the supervisor sign and date the forms; the student keeps one copy to submit to the course instructor and the supervisor keeps one copy.

Prior to actually doing service, the student completes a background check so that the agency can be assured that the student does not have a criminal record. The student then spends eighteen hours in service learning. During the service learning, students must be actively engaged with people while addressing human relations skills. Students cannot perform secretarial tasks like filing or other tasks like stocking shelves to fulfill their service learning requirements. Some examples of what a student might do include: engaging in recreational activities with handicapped adults, playing cards with senior citizens in a senior citizen center, or assisting at a homeless shelter. "Only through knowing, working with, and personally interacting with members of diverse groups can individuals really learn to value diversity, utilize diversity for creative problem solving, and work effectively with diverse peers" (Johnson and Johnson, 2002, p. 106-107).

Following completion of the eighteen hours, each student writes a reflective analysis paper (RAP) about his/her experiences. The student is guided through a course assignment to describe the service learning experience, describing the population s/he worked with and the activities s/he engaged in. The student also addresses the human relations skills that were course objectives. The supervisor at the cooperating agency is also asked to evaluate the student's performance. On the final day of class, students present a brief report on what they learned as a result of this course and how they are integrating this new knowledge, skill, or attitude into their lives. This is referred to as the "final comment".

Evaluating the Program

The reflective analysis paper plus the final comment offer rich commentary on how the students have developed new knowledge, skills, and attitudes in relation to the areas of diversity addressed in this class. The following stories and statements testify to the achievement of the course goal to build tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

Story #1--related to Service Learning

A white pre-service teacher completed her comfort list, but did not correctly rank "race" on her comfort list, specifically, African-Americans. One week after the introduction to Service-Learning, the student reported to the class that she had lied to herself, knowing that race was an issue for her, but not wanting to confront it. Later that day, she went to health services to see her doctor; the doctor wasn't in, and she agreed to see whomever was available. She reported that a "black female doctor" came in and that "I wanted to run out." Later that day, she reported that she went to Target to purchase a Barbie Doll for her niece. She found herself leafing through the dolls, looking for a white one, because all the remaining dolls were black. She reported that she realized that if she wanted to become a professional educator, she would have to confront her discomfort now, not later. She placed herself in a community agency serving people of color, specifically, African Americans.

Story #2--related to Service Learning

A male pre-service teacher rated "ability" at the bottom of his ranking. He placed himself with LEEP (Leisure Education for Exceptional People). He was assigned to work with two adult mentally-challenged males. He took them shopping, went to movies, and played games such as basketball. Near the end of the eighteen hours, the two males began to realize that this would be the last time this MSU student would be spending time with them. "Jimmy" came up to the MSU student and hugged him. In his RAP, the student wrote:
 I didn't know what to do. So, I quickly decided to hug Jimmy back.
 Now, I realize that I learned to hug my mother, father, and
 girlfriend more. I began to realize that Jimmy was my teacher. This
 was unexpected.

Story #3--related to Service Learning/Final Comment

A male pre-service teacher ranked ability at the bottom of his list. Early in the semester, he reported that he had placed himself with a group home that serves adults. In his Final Comment, this student said:
 I know I told you that I was doing my Service-Learning in a group
 home. What I didn't tell you was that the person I was working with
 is my brother. I am now no longer ashamed of him.

Statements excerpted from Service Learning Reflective Analysis Papers: A female student wrote the following after completing service learning in a family literacy center serving Somalians.
 My service learning experience applies to my life by the way I view
 the people that I encounter each day. I am not quick to judge before
 I know someone and I am confident that this is a life changing
 outlook of the world around me.

Another female student wrote the following after doing service learning with the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Center on campus.
 I never believed or thought that I would be able to attend a queer
 activity. However, I did attend and I went by myself! It took me a
 tremendous amount of courage to walk in all alone, knowing I would
 be the only "straight" girl there. For one night in my life, I was
 the minority.

A student who worked with clients who were learning English as a second language wrote the following about her service learning experience.
 The question now is, what is the proof that I have changed? Change
 must occur on the inside before it can be seen on the outside.
 Privately, I am more uncomfortable when I listen to certain jokes
 and I now refuse to laugh out of politeness. Because of my personal
 experience getting to know people of certain groups, I can speak
 boldly to refute negative generalizations that are made about these
 groups. These are admittedly small steps but they are public steps
 which not only affect me but those around me.

Statements excerpted from Final Comments: A male student wrote and orally expressed the following on the final day of class.
 These experiences these last couple months have really empowered me
 to become who I am. This course really put things into perspective.
 I have changed the way I see things and think of people.

A more mature, non-traditional student offered this as part of her final statement.
 My attitude has changed a lot toward other groups and I feel more
 comfortable with them. This class has given me a chance to challenge
 myself and my feelings, beliefs, and opinions about others. I hope
 to continue to build on the foundation that has been laid.

Another student wrote:
 I am willing to open my 'friendship door' and allowing people
 different than me in.

A female student shared her transformation:
 This class has affected my life. As a result of my service learning,
 I am going to major in Special Education. I am trying to teach my
 friends and family to be more open to people with differences. They
 all need to realize that people can't change who they are. The world
 would be boring if everyone was the same!


The powerful statements of the students who "do diversity" attest to the positive changes that students experience as a result of service learning. By self-identifying areas of discomfort and then placing themselves in situations with an identified societal subgroup, the students experience intrapersonal growth that enhances their tolerance, appreciation, and acceptance of people different from them. Course goals are achieved and pre-service teachers leave this class with a better understanding of differences. These experiences represent an important step as students begin the journey of self-reflection and the opening of their eyes, minds, and hearts to embracing diversity.


Allam, Caroline and Zerkin, Becca. (June 26, 1994). Making the Case for Integrating Service Learning into Teacher Preparation Programs. Retrieved December 3, 2004, from

Allgood, I. (1998). The development, implementation, and evaluation of a strategic prejudice reduction framework and its effect on dogmatism levels of college students. Doctoral Dissertation, Florida Atlantic University.

Boyte, H./C. (June, 1991) Community service and civic education. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(10), 765-767.

Conrad, D. and Hedin, D. (June, 1991). School-based community service: What we know from research and theory. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(10), 743-749.

Dent, P.L. (1976). Curriculum as a prejudice reduction technique. California Journal of Educational Research, 7(10), 84-92.

Garmon, M. Arthur. (May/June, 2004). Changing Preservice Teachers' Attitudes/Beliefs About Diversity. What are the Critical Factors? Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 55, No. 3, 201-213.

Gollnick, Donna M. and Philip C. Chinn. (2004). Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.

Ijaz, M.A. (1981). Study of ethnic attitude of elementary school children toward Blacks and East Indians. Eric Document. ED 204448.

Johnson, David W. and Johnson, Roger T. (2002). Multicultural Education and Human Relations Valuing Diversity. Boston, Ma: Allyn and Bacon.

Pate, G.S. (1992) Reducing prejudice in society: The role of schools. In C.F. Diaz (Ed.) Multicultural education for the 21st. century (p. 137-149). Washington DC: National Education Association.

Rice, Fay. (1994). How to Make Diversity Pay. Fortune, 82.

Stephan, W.G. (1985). Intergroup Relations. In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson (Eds.) The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2 (3rd. ed.), 599-658.

Linda Good, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Good, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Educational Studies: Elementary and Early Childhood in the College of Education
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Author:Good, Linda
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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