Service Learning at an HSI: A Preliminary Analysis

Dr. Andrew Smith, Lecturer I, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

An area of political science education that has received renewed attention since the late 1990s is service learning – defined as “course learning outcomes…linked with community service in a way that enhances comprehension of course content while leading to transformative changes in student awareness, critical thinking, personal values, and civic responsibility, as well as empowerment of and reciprocity with community partners.”[1] Although scholars have made advances in service-learning pedagogy, scholars often approach questions of pedagogy from the standpoint of Predominantly-White Institutions (PWI’s), often without asking whether this pedagogy is applicable to Minority-Serving Institutions (MSI’s). This scholarly omission is problematic for many reasons, including the lower socioeconomic status among students at many non-PWI’s and – most germane to this post – the lack of focus on the emerging Hispanic/Latinx populations at American universities, and the growing number of colleges and universities which can be classified as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI’s). If more research into service-learning pedagogy is not conducted, we risk ascribing a set of best practices based on a “pedagogy of whiteness.”[2] This short post examines how applicable the existing service-learning pedagogy is to HSI’s and suggests ways in which pedagogy can be improved to mesh with the unique nature of HSI’s.

I implemented service learning in an Introduction to American Government course at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) during the Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 semesters. UTRGV is a PhD-granting, emerging-research institution, with main campuses in Edinburg and Brownsville. Almost 90% of the students are Hispanic/Latinx, and most come from the 4 counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Considering that these counties have some of the worst measures of socioeconomic status in the US, most of the students receive some need-based financial aid. UTRGV also has a high number of first-generation college students. Typical for 1st-generation students,[3] most students work, and most of the students receive some financial aid. Consequently, I had to design the service-learning component with these factors in mind. For example, the anecdotally typical 10 hours of service/week was not feasible for most students, so students had to volunteer 4 hours/month (Fall 2019) and 5 hours/month (Spring 2020).

If more research into service-learning pedagogy is not conducted, we risk ascribing a set of best practices based on a “pedagogy of whiteness.”

In terms of organizations, students could not volunteer with organizations operating solely on campus, and they could not volunteer with overtly partisan organizations or political campaigns. Otherwise, students could volunteer with any organization they wished, in keeping with my theory that this self-selecting would improve student agency by allowing them to do their own research on organizations and by allowing students to select organizations best matching the student’s interests. I was fortunate to have a service-learning office – Engagement Zone – that assisted me with setting up students in the online system, logged students’ hours and reflection responses, and comprising a list of organizations with which students could volunteer. In Fall 2019, students could only work with one organization over the course of the semester. I posited that this would reduce the amount of time students would have to spend finding an organization and would give students a better opportunity to focus on an organization’s impact on the community than if the students volunteered for multiple organizations. However, the student feedback indicated that this approach was not optimal, mainly due to logistical issues between the students and the organization. Consequently, in Spring 2020 I allowed students to volunteer with different organizations. Based on the student feedback, this approach gave students more agency and made it easier to complete their volunteer hours.

The main component of the students’ grade was the reflections that students had to write as they logged their hours for the month. In Fall 2019, these were free reflections: students described what they did for their service, but otherwise students were free to write what they wanted. I believed a free reflection would increase student writing agency and provide varied perspectives on service,[4] but students often neglected to explain how their service related to class concepts or even how their service impacted the organization or community. Consequently, I shifted to a structured reflection in Spring 2020: students had to provide concrete examples of how their service impacted their community (i.e. accomplishing a project), and students had to link their service to a community issue (i.e. how their work in an after-school tutoring program connected to issues of literacy). I found the structured reflections included more information on how their service was beneficial to their community and included more concrete examples of the effectiveness of their service. For example, one student described their work with domestic violence victims and how that work not only bettered the community but also affirmed that they wanted to work in domestic violence victim advocacy.

In both semesters, students took a positive view of the service-learning requirement. Most students (strongly) agreed with the course evaluation statement that their project improved their community engagement skills and that their participation benefited their community. Students did not report that the hours were a burden – in fact, they suggested more hours – and the most common suggestion was more organizations with which to volunteer, spread out to cover more of the area between the campuses and possibly in northern Mexico.

The 2 semesters in which service learning was part of my courses provided valuable insight into how the existing service-learning pedagogy meshes with, and needs to be adapted to, the experiences of HSI students. While most of the existing practices (i.e. structured reflection questions) do fit the experiences of HSI students, other practices – such as hours volunteered and organizations available – should be adjusted to account for the unique factors at work in HSI’s. This short research should also be the beginning of a greater exploration of service-learning pedagogy at HSI’s.


[1] Barnett, Leda. 2018. “Service-Learning as a Tool for Increased Political Efficacy and Civic Engagement at a Hispanic-Serving Institution.” Citizenship, Social, and Economics Education 17:151-167.

[2] Mitchell, Tania D.; Donahue, David M.; and Young-Law, Courtney. 2012. “Service Learning as a Pedagogy of Whiteness.” Equity & Excellence in Education 45:612-629.

[3] Terenzini, Patrick T.; Springer, Leonard; Yaeger, Patricia M.; Pascarella, Ernest T.; and Nora, Amaury. February 1996. “First-Generation College Students: Characteristics, Experiences, and Cognitive Development.” Research in Higher Education 37:1-22.

[4] Sturgill, Amanda and Motley, Phillip. 2014. “Methods of Reflection about Service Learning: Guided vs. Free, Dialogic vs. Expressive, and Public vs. Private.” Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal 2:81-93.

Dr. Andrew Hewitt Smith ( is a lecturer of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Dr. Smith earned his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 2018. His primary research interests are judicial politics in the federal court system; sex, race, and state court elections; and community engagement in political science education. His primary teaching interests include constitutional law, judicial politics and public law, and service learning.


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