This year for spring break, some Valparaiso University students took a different kind of trip. Instead of heading south to Florida or Texas, they ended up in locales with cooler climates, like Detroit, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and Harvey, Illinois. Instead of playing with Frisbees on the beach, they volunteered to take part in service projects. In fact, thousands of students who attend colleges and universities across the United States now spend their school breaks on service trips; they work in poverty-stricken inner-city neighborhoods, or in rural communities hit by disasters, or even in underdeveloped nations around the world.
On these trips, students can serve in many ways. They can clean up urban brownfields, paint rooms in new housing, or even dig ditches if that is what is most needed. Some students have acquired skills in their studies that they can use while they serve. On recent trips, Valpo nursing students have provided basic health care to communities in Costa Rica. Valpo Engineering students have helped build irrigation systems for rural villagers in Kenya.
But the truth is that most students return from these trips knowing that they have received more than they have given. They go to learn as much as they go to help. They learn about the challenges facing communities that they might otherwise never have visited. And they often learn something much more troubling; they learn that no matter how hard they worked during their trip, the service they performed in a few-days’ visit is not likely to change much. They might fix up one rundown home or provide companionship to a few lonely people, but then the students go back to their schools and these communities are left facing exactly the same problems as before.
Clearly, these trips, along with many other kinds of service-learning programs, are important parts of students’ educations. Nearly every institution of higher learning in the country offers some kind of service-oriented programming, but when they offer these programs, schools are forced to answer a number of difficult questions. What exactly is the relationship between these service programs and traditional classroom-based education? How can service programs reflect and enhance a university’s commitments to its overall mission? Do these programs result in genuine benefits for the people they are meant to serve, and do they help students become aware of larger structural issues of economic justice behind the obvious problems.
These questions and others like them were discussed at the National Conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, held October 19–21, 2012 on the campus of the University of Indianapolis under the theme of “Incorporating Service: The Body at Work.” Faculty and administrators from Lilly Network institutions gathered to discuss the role of service in higher education. The conference’s three plenary lectures are included in this issue. In “Re-Thinking Service,” Samuel Wells asks a basic theological question about service: what is the fundamental human problem that it is attempting to address? In “Faithfully Present,” Jeffrey P. Bouman surveys the approaches to service taken by different schools throughout American higher education. And in “Minding the Common Good,” Regina Wentzel Wolfe considers how thoughtful attention to the task of creating an ethical institutional culture can help infuse an ethos of service throughout the entire university community.
Different schools will take different approaches to service programming. Different students will have different motivations for participating in these programs. But those of us who teach and who help our students find ways to serve share a common hope. We hope that when our students complete their studies and leave our schools they will understand that they are called to live lives of service to God and the world and that something they have learned in their time with us will be of service to them as they answer that call.