The Partner: A Survey of Student Service-Learning Trips at Redeemer University College

By Micah van Dijk

In October 2015, the Student Life department at Redeemer University College organized a weekend service-learning Trip to the city of Toronto. I worked closely alongside a graduate-student intern who was working at Redeemer at the time in the area of service-learning and had the capacity to organize and promote the trip. The dates of the trip were chosen to be during a small Reading Break that students had, following in the footsteps of similar successful trips in previous years. We decided that the minimum number of students needed for the trip was five students, meaning that we needed a commitment from 0.5% of the 700 strong student body.

As the date of the trip approached, we noticed that the initial interest in the trip was not translating into confirmed attendees. About 48 hours before the trip, we canceled the trip because, despite increased promotional efforts, no one had signed up. After dealing with the initial disappointment of having a trip fail in such dramatic fashion, we saw the opportunity for further research. The ENTIRE student body decided that this trip was not for them, and we wanted to know why.     

Using an incentive of a free chocolate bar to the first 150 respondents, we had 296 students take an online survey, giving us a response rate of about 43%. All four year levels were well represented and the male/female ratio matched closely the student ratio at the time. Below are a few of our major findings and conclusions.       

Major Findings:

1. Low attendance was not due to lack of awareness

Over 60% of the students surveyed had heard about the trip so our low conversion rate did not have to do with lack of awareness. Interestingly, 44% heard about it via email, and 30% via the poster with only 9% hearing about it through facebook and 5% by personal invitation. I think there has been an increased focus on social media as an effective advertising tool yet most students indicated more traditional methods of email and posters being their point of contact with this event.   

2. A portion of the student population is too stressed to make a decision about future commitments.

When asked why they did not attend the trip, almost 20% of the student body indicated that they were too busy with other commitments to make a decision. I am curious if this percentage will increase as students continue to struggle with time management and fear of commitment. As a positive, there was a significant portion of the student body (65%) who could identify existing commitments as the reason why they did not sign up. 

3. Volunteering during school breaks is not a high priority for Redeemer students.

When asked about their priorities during their Reading Breaks, Redeemer students consistently answered that their first priority was to completing university assignments. Other priorities with significant percentages included resting from studies and commitments (30%) and going home to see friends and family (20%). Nobody (0%) saw volunteering as a priority during the Fall reading break and only 2.5% indicated that they saw volunteering as a priority for the upcoming Spring Reading Break. This lack of interest in volunteering is a significant shift from fifteen years ago when Redeemer could run multiple service-learning trips on Reading Break involving over fifty students including sending a busload of students to Mississippi, USA.  Volunteering during Reading Breaks does not appear to be a priority of the current Redeemer university student.

Conclusions:   

I’ve been able to sift through the results and reflect on what went wrong with our failed trip and I’ve come up with three conclusions.    Some are concrete, others require a longer-term broader plan as we equip students to be citizens capable of meaningful action.

1) Use existing groups of students when planning events.  – Our Toronto trip was staff driven (the intern and myself) though we did try and recruit some senior students, with the hope that they would buy into the vision and help promote the trip. They showed initial interest and excitement but those faded and they ended up dropping out before the trip could occur. Starting with an existing student group, even if it’s only 2 -3 of them, builds in an immediate group that will attend as well as a powerful advertising tool. In a subsequent survey, students indicated that their primary motivator to attend events was whether their friends were going.      

2) Find activities that require less commitment.
It’s not all bad news for volunteering at Redeemer. There is a lot of volunteering that occurs locally including a group of students that weekly go downtown Hamilton to give out Hot Chocolate and engage in conversation, as well as an annual service-learning project to Hamilton during Reading Break. Despite only 2.5% of students saying that they were even thinking of making volunteering a priority, 15 students did attend that trip that year. I think this trip was successful because it did not require as much commitment (time, money, intentionality) as an international trip and it was organized by a few students who could advertise in their friend groups. As commitment becomes harder for students, new event models and ideas are needed in order to keep students involved.    

3) Find ways to teach commitment among students
Having the ability to commit is an important learned skill that students need, even if they do not respond to initial attempts to have them commit. Catering to their reluctance of commitment will cause further atrophy and fear. Encouraging students to practice commitment in the smaller areas of life, will allow them to have the confidence to make larger commitments buying a house, committing to a partner, or serving long-term with their church.   

Unfortunately, the consequences of the lack of commitment are real.  Because we can’t get students to commit to going on international service-learning trips, Redeemer has canceled trips to Detroit (to learn about urban sociology), Montreal (to learn about French-Canadian culture), and Nashville (to learn about American pop culture) in the past two years. Students are missing out on rich learning opportunities to travel with classmates and interact with trip leaders and professors outside of the classroom.   

I’d be interested in how you are experiencing the commitment levels of your students? What strategies have you found to be effective in engaging students?  Please email me at mvandijk@redeemer.ca

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