Learning by serving
College sophomore Sarah Hwang doesn't dream of a powerful career that will make her rich or life as a soccer mom in a pretty house in the suburbs.
The 19-year-old Regis University student wants to live in India, dig into the ugly reality of homelessness and poverty in urban America, perhaps join the Peace Corps.
Aspirations like Hwang's are more common among this generation of college students, a group experts say is demanding hands-on opportunities to change the world that are entwined with academics.
Disenchanted by organized politics, they're turning away from volunteering for political campaigns and seeking more compassionate community engagement, campus leaders say.
Universities are evolving with them, embracing "service learning" as a core part of curriculum. And a new, younger batch of professors who want their research to have relevance in the community is helping reshape the goals of higher education.
The belief that a college degree should give students "higher salaries but not teach them higher values or a philosophy of life" has faded, said Karen Partridge with Campus Compact, a nonprofit group based at Brown University in Rhode Island that supports service learning at nearly 1,000 colleges across the country.
Hwang, who is spending her summer in a Regis program that has had her Dumpster-diving for aluminum cans with a homeless man and painting with children from a north Denver community center, is trying to find out "what happiness means to me."
In 1998, about 10 percent of college students on Campus Compact-affiliated campuses were involved in service learning. That jumped to 36 percent in 2003.
In the same span, the average number of courses per campus that incorporated service more than doubled, from 16 to 37.
Research suggests "partisan rancor in Washington" has turned students away from organized politics, yet they still want to "change the world and make it a better place," said Leonard Ortolano, director of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University in California.
In the past decade, dozens of colleges have opened offices to coordinate service projects. The University of Colorado at Boulder started the Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement a year ago.
The civic engagement concept is the latest evolution of service learning - taking it beyond volunteering to initiating change in agencies that serve the public, said Theresa Cusimano, director of Colorado Campus Compact.
"It's almost to the point that you can't graduate from an undergraduate college in Colorado without being involved in service learning," she said.
Service learning is embedded in the motto - "How ought we to live?" - at Regis University in Denver, a Jesuit school that promises an ethical education.
Every student in a health program has to take part in service learning to graduate, and 90 percent of traditional undergraduates are involved in service learning even though it's not required.
Regis finds ways to ask students "how to be someone who can experience solidarity with those who are suffering and those who are living on the margins of society," said Tom Reynolds, vice president for mission.
Nursing student Carol Johnson has taught children on Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation about AIDS and is headed to Ethiopia this summer to teach basic health skills. For Johnson, it's about getting out of her "comfort zone and seeing what's out there."
Service learning isn't required at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, yet 80 percent of students have done it by the time they graduate, said Gay Victoria, director of the college's Center for Service and Learning. That's significantly higher than the national average of 53 percent, she said.
Faculty weave service into their courses, including helping low-income families make their homes more energy efficient or tracking wildlife patterns on Cheyenne Mountain for state biologists.
Part of the growth in service learning stems from students' desire to apply book knowledge to the real world, Victoria said.
But more than that, she said, it's a growing acknowledgment that an education isn't just "to prepare you for a job - it's producing a human being who is a citizen of the world.