If you are involved deeply with a Psi Chi chapter, then you are likely to be involved in serving your local community in some way. Community service is a natural extension of our discipline and is encouraged as part of our chapter responsibilities. The Psi Chi website recognizes this, stating, “People study psychology to help others! That’s why community service is such an important component in your Psi Chi experience.” (https://www.psichi.org/page/chapter_service). Many of us have spent time considering service options in our local areas, communicating with community agencies, figuring out the logistics of managing a service project, and motivating our peers to participate. In this article, we encourage chapters to take a look at this common topic from a slightly different angle by viewing service through the eyes of the served.
First, let us begin by examining community service through our usual lens, that of the server. Our initial goal in serving others is obviously to benefit the served. However, there is extensive evidence, undoubtedly supported by personal experience, that community service benefits those who serve. In fact, this is the reason that research on community service refers to such engagement as “service learning” regardless of how it is executed. Researchers have shown that college students who engage in service learning increase their critical thinking skills (Campbell & Oswald, 2018), political and civic awareness (Weiler et al., 2013), multicultural knowledge and advocacy skills (Midgett & Doumas, 2016), healthy alcohol-related behaviors (Flynn, Carter, & Craig, 2017), and learning of course con¬tent in a developmental research methods course (Fleck, Hussey, & Rutledge-Ellison, 2017). Service learning participants also show improvement in their attitudes toward individuals with disabilities (Carlson & Witschey, 2018; Lawson, Cruz, & Knollman, 2017), older adults (Augustin & Freshman, 2016), and adults with dementia (Lokon, Li, & Parajuli, 2017). In addition to the development of what could be considered life skills, college students who participate in service learning typically find it enjoyable (Fleck et al., 2017). Ramey et al. (2015) examined adolescents’ participation in a variety of activities and found that their sense of “fun” decreases with the more meaning they attribute to their activity. However, their sense of psychological engagement (e.g., enjoyment, concentration, challenge) simultaneously increased. In other words, sometimes the experienced enjoyment runs deeper than simply having fun.
Despite this significant body of research demonstrating the value of service learning for college students, other studies suggest that the benefits are not equally distributed. Much of the existing research represents White college students, and research focused on other populations reveals different outcomes. For example, Blankson, Rochester, and Watkins (2015) found that service learning did not change civic attitudes in African American students, an outcome seen in White samples, but did impact their political awareness. Seider, Huguley, and Novick (2013) specifically examined how a service learning course focused on alleviating poverty impacted White students compared to students of color. The researchers found that the White students experienced a stronger sense of community and more comfort expressing their personal perspectives during the service-focused course, but students of color were more hesitant to engage in race discussions or to confront their White classmates’ inaccurate perspectives. These findings indicate that service learning is not universally perceived.
These findings also raise the question as to whether well-meaning groups that provide service might similarly and unintentionally approach the service with a very different perspective than that held by those being served. We tend to focus on what we have to offer and how we are going to offer it, and then we go about the business of getting the work done. In the midst of these good intentions, we may inadvertently focus more on ourselves and the project than on the recipients of our actions. With this possibility in mind, we offer the following principles that might be worth keeping in mind when serving your communities.
Make Sure the Service Offered Is Needed
We heard a story once that well-illustrated this concept. The story told of a donor-supported school in a developing country. A visitor stopped by the school one day to watch the children industriously scrapping paint off sections of the school building. The visitor was surprised because the paint being removed appeared to be in good shape, and he questioned the purpose of removing it. The supervisor explained, “We do this every year before the sponsors arrive. They like to bring a group here to paint our school building, and we don’t want to deprive them of the pleasure they get from helping us.” How upsetting would it be to discover that a service you felt was useful was simply being tolerated and that those you intended to help felt burdened to help you instead?
We have, sadly, made this mistake ourselves. We can remember a specific day when we arrived to play board games at a center for children, only to realize that what the center really wanted was help cleaning the backyard. We dropped off a box of collected books to a senior facility only to learn that what one resident had really requested was a copy of the Bible, a book we had not included. We had failed to ask what was most desired, instead, focusing on what we were prepared to provide.
It is wise to seek chapter member input to identify community agencies and generate service ideas. However, it is critical not to assume that you know all there is to know. Connect directly with the agencies to clarify and verify their needs. Be open to a new direction that you might not have considered. One quick strategy may be to ask questions and listen more than you talk and explain your reason for helping.
Make Sure the Service Is Needed at the Time It Is Offered
Not only is it important to make sure the service is needed, it is important to make sure it is timely. We have personal experience with this issue as well, where we were well-intentioned but misunderstood this principle. Our department has collected toiletries for a local substance abuse center for many years. This project started when we learned that the center needed toothbrushes, and we expanded our collection to include other toiletries. Because we had made laminated signs requesting toothbrushes, our collection efforts did not change much over the years. We were excited to be helping others by doing exactly what they had indicated they needed. The problem was that those needs changed over the years, but we did not. One day, when I dropped off our toothbrush-heavy bags of toiletries, a staff member tentatively asked if we might be able to donate some books to the library, and also mentioned that oh, by the way, the clients at the center could really use deodorant. We were easily able to shift our focus to better serve them. However, we would not have done so without the staff member (very cautiously so as not to offend “the donors”) updating our awareness. It made us wonder how many months we had missed of easily providing something that was needed simply because we were operating on autopilot. The lesson learned was that we needed to maintain ongoing communication with our community. What a group needs one year may not be what they need the following year, or even the following month.
Honor the Community You Serve by Giving Them a Voice and Allowing Them to Serve Alongside You
As you communicate to identify current needs, do not miss an opportunity to incorporate the service recipients into the development of your project. Hearing their voices is a way to view service through their eyes, to better understand their personal context. Instead of presenting a prepackaged idea, get their input on how they would define a successful outcome. Again, we have found ourselves failing to follow this principle. At the senior facility mentioned earlier, we were surprised to discover that the residents were much more interested in interacting with our young daughters than they were in the books that we had thought they wanted. It never occurred to us that these grandparent-aged adults might be entertained by the kids we had dragged along with us for lack of a babysitter. The residents had as much to offer us as we had to offer them, as they doted on our children, who suddenly found themselves grateful to have been included in the trip. We could have had a very different, and more fruitful, day if only we had directly asked the community members enough questions as we planned how we could best meet their needs.
If appropriate, invite the community to participate as well as plan. In this way, you become part of their team, rather than a savior. Empowering others and support¬ing their self-efficacy can provide service that has an even longer term benefit for the community and its individuals.
Do Not Accidentally Harm While Helping
This principle brings to mind versions of a story, with the original perhaps based in fact, that I recall from many years ago that we used to illustrate adolescent thinking. One version told a tale of a group of teens who organized a walk to raise money to help clean trash out of their local lake. However, in the process of marching, the teens dropped candy wrappers and discarded soda cans along the roadside. The cost of cleaning the mess the marchers had made exceeded the amount raised for the lake clean-up.
Although this example is a clear-cut case of ironic service, it reminds us to carefully consider whether we are doing any harm with the goal of helping. We recall an unfortunate service effort during our early years as teachers when a group of students went to a local children’s shelter to paint. We were responding to a request from the center, so we knew the need existed and was timely. The problem was that our group member bringing the paint was delayed, we found that we did not have all of the supplies we needed, and the walls required some last-minute preparation work. Consequently, we started painting later in the day than we expected, and many of our painters could only stay until the end time we had anticipated and advertised. At the end of the day, only some of the walls were painted, and because the room needed to be used, the available time to paint was over. The children’s shelter staff expressed their gratitude and thanks for the work that we were able to do, but we realized that we had shut down their center for a day and left them with work to do in the future. The lesson that we learned from this experience was to allow extra time for obstacles and to do extensive advance work before the actual service event. If the goal is to help, we need to make sure that help is all that we have done.
Think About the Long-Term Consequences and Impact
In 2013, Peter Greer, the CEO of Hope International, a worldwide philanthropic organization, was interviewed by Forbes.com (Bowyer, 2013). He argued that the typical service model focuses on what the giver has to offer to those who have less without regard for the sustainability of the community being served. In his interview, Peter Greer related a story about a man, struggling to rebuild his community, who bought a hen and began to sell eggs. Just as his business was growing, a local church identified the area as needing service and started providing free eggs to the community. The man abandoned his egg selling business as no longer necessary or profitable. Unfortunately, the church later changed its philanthropic focus leaving the community with no eggs and no egg sellers. The short-term service provided by the church created a longer-term issue for the community.
We are not criticizing short-term assistance. It can be incredibly useful when it meets an immediate need. However, we resonate with Peter Greer’s encouragement to think of ways to serve others that provide lasting impact. For example, instead of helping a community group file their taxes, you could also provide financial workshops. Reading to children could be accompanied by a donation of the books. A day of outdoor activities with adolescents could end with giving the associated agency the equipment used and a laminated sheet explaining the rules of the games. Your donations may need to include not only purchased items but funds or equipment for the upkeep of those items. For example, if you build a piece of playground equipment, you can also donate the tools needed to maintain it. In this way, a relatively small effort on your part becomes a gift that keeps on giving.
Avoid Approaching Others With an Attitude of Pity or Superiority
Service is typically provided because one group has superior resources to another. A problem arises when those with the superior resources assume that their advantage reflects solely their own industry and not situational and circumstantial variables. When you truly invest in the people who you serve, you see that they are walking a path that has been shaped by a multitude of factors, and because their factors are different than your own, their path is different from your own. In the previously mentioned Forbes interview (Bowyer, 2013), Peter Greer states, “You look at what people have done to survive in these places, you look at how hard people work in these places where we serve, and they have my utmost respect and my admiration. I could not do what they do, and that’s not just some platitude. I believe that at the very core of who I am. I could not do what they do. So absolutely, the people that we serve: hardworking, faithful, competent. It’s just that they were born into a very different circumstance than you or I were born into.” One of the greatest ways that we can serve others is to understand who they are, understand where they have been, and treat them with the respect that is due. This might seem obvious, but it never hurts to double-check our assumptions and biases so that our service comes from our heart and not just our hands and feet.
Be Respectful in Your Planning, Recruitment, and Advertising
Related to the point above, you want to treat others with respect from the beginning of service until the end. This thought struck us as we watched our daughter’s school group brainstorm service ideas. The group was comprised of motivated and compassionate tweens who had every desire to love others through action. Unfortunately, the conversation sounded condescending and naïve from the outset. The discussion started with comments such as “these poor people” and “I’m sure they would be grateful for food” and “oh, I bet they need light bulbs.” The tweens even talked about how they could approach houses, offer their donations, and tell the residents, “We just thought you could use some help.” We are guessing that you might be cringing just as we did.
It is not enough to avoid approaching others with an attitude of pity, as we suggested above. You must also approach the very concept of service from a stance of respect. This means that even as you communicate about the service project within your own group, and then with the community, potential participants, and external supporters, you need to operate with sensitivity and appropriate discretion. Focus on how you can strengthen a community, not on their helplessness or dependence. Use the most appropriate wording such as “clients” over “patients” or “individuals with disabilities” rather than “disabled individuals.” Consider whether it is necessary to use words such as “underprivileged,” “high risk,” or “old.” For example, people may be willing to serve children without them being labeled as “impoverished.” You can collect food for “local families” rather than “needy” ones. In psychology, we know how impactful labels can be. Apply them with wisdom, caution, and respect.
We hope that we have offered you a slightly new way of thinking about an important aspect of your Psi Chi chapter’s engagement with your community. However you do it, stay aware and involved. Check out the Psi Chi website for ideas and additional encouragement (www.psichi.org/page/chapter_service). The power of psychological principles comes when we apply them to the world around us, to better all of our lives, whether we are serving or being served.
Augustin, F., & Freshman, B. (2016). The effects of service-learning on college students’ attitudes toward older adults. Gerontology and Geriatrics Education, 37, 123–144. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701960.2015.1079705
Blankson, A. N., Rochester, S. E., & Watkins, A. F. (2015). Service-learning and civic responsibilities in a sample of African American college students. Journal of College Student Development, 56, 723–734. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2015.0078
Campbell, C. G., & Oswald, B. R. (2018). Promoting critical thinking through service learning: A home-visiting case study. Teaching of Psychology, 45, 193–199. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628318762933
Carlson, W., & Witschey, H. (2018). Undergraduate students’ attitudes toward individuals with disabilities: Integrating psychology disability curriculum and service-learning. Teaching of Psychology, 45, 189–192. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628318762929
Fleck, B., Hussey, H. D., & Rutledge-Ellison, L. (2017). Linking class and community: An investigation of service learning. Teaching of Psychology, 44, 232–239. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628317711317
Flynn, M. A., Carter, E., & Craig, C. (2017). Let’s get involved! The impact of service learning on drinking perceptions, alcohol use, and protective behaviors in college students. Journal of Drug Education, 47, 21–35. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047237917744328
Lawson, J. E., Cruz, R. A., & Knollman, G. A. (2017). Increasing positive attitudes toward individuals with disabilities through community service learning. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 69, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2017.07.013
Lokon, E., Li, Y., & Parajuli, J. (2017). Using art in an intergenerational program to improve students’ attitudes toward people with dementia. Gerontology and Geriatrics Education, 38, 407–424. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701960.2017.1281804
Midgett, A., & Doumas, D. M. (2016). Evaluation of service-learning-infused courses with refugee families. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 44, 118–134. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmcd.12041
Seider, S., Huguley, J. P., & Novick, S. (2013, March). College students, diversity, and community service learning. Teachers College Record, 115(3), 1–44.
Ramey, H. L., Rose-Krasnor, L., Busseri, M. A., Gadbois, S., Bowker, A., & Findlay, L. (2015). Measuring psychological engagement in youth activity involvement. Journal of Adolescence, 45, 237–249. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.09.006
Weiler, L., Haddock, S., Zimmerman, T. S., Krafchick, J., Henry, K., & Rudisill, S. (2013). Benefits derived by college students from mentoring at-risk youth in a service-learning course. American Journal of Community Psychology, 53, 236–248. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-013-9589-z
|Darren R. Ritzer, PhD, is currently an associate professor of Winthrop University (SC). He earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from Lafayette College (PA), and he earned his PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from Virginia Tech. Before arriving at Winthrop University, he was a major in the U.S. Army. Dr. Ritzer teaches a range of undergraduate courses, including an introductory course that helps incoming students develop skills and strategies to succeed in college.
Merry J. Sleigh, PhD, is a professor at Winthrop University (SC) who has been actively engaged with Psi Chi for almost three decades. She earned her undergraduate degree from James Madison University (VA) and her doctorate from Virginia Tech. Dr. Sleigh has won numerous awards for her mentoring, teaching, and advising. She is particularly passionate about helping students develop skills for future success through participation in undergraduate research.
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