We have to keep striving, not only towards fulfilling the hope that all students will become active citizens, but the intention that they will be active citizens, that they will be committed to changing their own lives and the lives of those around them, both now and in the future.     –Erin Possiel, 2005

You can wait until you graduate and use this time to prepare and prepare and prepare; or you can begin living now, accept this university as ‘real’ and find your own best way to influence this community so that it  becomes a better institution to serve those who come after you.     –Robert Greenleaf, 1967

Surely one of the most important steps we can take to bring to life SLCE’s commitments to co-creation among all partners—with the focus here on students—is to stop talking about the “real world” as something students enter after turning the tassels on their graduation caps. As if what students do in the course of higher education is merely preparation or practice for some other time and some other place, which is what really matters. As if students were not often in the front lines of non-violent movements and an impetus for social change in the 1960s and 70s. Closer to home, as if they had not played key leadership roles in the development of campus cultures around community engagement going back to the early days of SLCE.

Then-undergraduate Erin Possiel offered a compelling alternative to the “real world” mindset during a campus event in 2005. Responding to the Chancellor’s vision of engagement cultivating young people who would “hopefully” become active citizens as a result of their undergraduate experience, Erin insisted on and modeled the reframing of students as agents of learning and change who are engaged with the world around them now. She was one of many students in our experience who have and do co-create SLCE in part because they do not buy into the dominant narrative about the “real world” but instead challenge it through carving out and building their own, their partners’, and their institutions’ identities around and capacities for co-creation.

Arguably the most comprehensive treatment of what it means for students to be co-creators of SLCE was and remains the 2006 book Students as Colleagues: Expanding the Circle of Service-Learning Leadership (available through Campus Compact). Edited by Edward Zlotkowski, Nicholas Longo, and then-undergraduate James Williams, the volume compiles in-depth examples of undergraduates providing significant leadership in the implementation and growth of SLCE on their campuses and within the movement more generally. Each chapter was authored or co-authored by undergraduates. A look at their bios reveals an extraordinary range of roles as SLCE co-creators, illustrated with these 10 examples:

  • Serving on SLCE and curriculum committees
  • Co-leading alternative break SLCE trips
  • Coordinating SLCE programs and projects
  • Managing SLCE staff
  • Co-developing and co-teaching SLCE-enhanced courses
  • Serving as ambassadors and advocates for SLCE
  • Organizing SLCE events
  • Training, supervising, and mentoring SLCE students
  • Facilitating reflection
  • Collaborating on research teams

This was 10 years ago, before the book came out and shined light on student leadership in SLCE and provided both an impetus for and resources to support the ongoing development of such co- roles. What would we find as examples today?

Co-editor James Williams produced the following diagram to accompany Students as Colleagues, organizing the various ways of conceptualizing and enacting student leadership in SLCE examined in the book. Alexa’s experience provides an example of two of these levels.

I (Alexa) have worked at levels 3 and 4, collaborating on courses and scholarship in a long-term partnership with one of my previous instructors, Beth. As an undergraduate, I became fascinated with the transformative power of SLCE. I was consumed with questions regarding the connections between campuses and communities that make such experience so valuable.

Fortunately Beth had these same questions, leading to our collaboration. We set off to co-create a Global Health course with an embedded short-term international SLCE project. The framework of our “co-” took shape as we kept open communication regarding what we each hoped to contribute to and get out of working together. We collaborated on course design, content, objectives, and assessment; I served as a teaching assistant and a peer mentor. I then launched a research project investigating student learning in the course; this involved developing rubrics and leading a team of investigators in applying them to student reflection products. Out of this collaboration we are co-authoring a thought piece as part of the SLCE Future Directions Project and sharing our work at conferences.

We have discovered from these and many other such experiences that “co” …

  • can take many shapes — it is what you and your partners make it, which also means it’s important to talk about it and determine together how you want to approach it
  • does not mean “same” — it means that everyone brings their own particular gifts and goals and together we figure out how best to integrate them
  • neither denies nor ignores differences in power — it assumes that everyone involved in SLCE has their own forms of and sources of power (some personal, some organizational, some cultural, etc.) and is committed to power being shared by all
  • requires conscious effort and attention — it is a way of being together we have to learn and work at (or perhaps we have to unlearn the ingrained patterns of either taking charge or passively waiting for guidance that are so easy to fall back into), which also means it requires patience with ourselves and others when we fall short
  • comes and goes, sometimes by choice and other times despite our best intentions — it can flourish at one time and flounder at another, influenced by many factors (e.g., time constraints we or others have imposed can mean co- requires significant trade-offs that we may or may not judge it appropriate to make; some cultural norms can make it seem more or less appropriate depending on context)

The challenges of being co- as students and with students are many (see sidebar), but they also help explain why this way of being in relationship has such transformative potential for everyone involved. Relationships can deepen considerably as partners engage in the mutual learning about one another that co-creation in SLCE requires. We can learn more about ourselves and have opportunities to take risks and to reflect critically on the gifts we bring to collaboration. We can contribute, including through the power of our example, to the reform of the technocratic systems (within the academy and beyond) that maintain deficit-based and hierarchical thinking and practice. We can grow and nurture one another as leaders, as democratic actors, and as agents of learning and change.

For concrete examples and discussion of these and other potential processes and outcomes associated with students as co-creators of SLCE, we encourage you to take a look at a book chapter Patti co-authored years ago with then-recent alums Brandon Whitney and Julie McClure and then-undergraduate Alissa Respet. Entitled “Service learning as a shared developmental journey: Tapping the potential of the pedagogy,” the essay provides three extensive examples of students as co-creators of SLCE and examines the influence of this identity and role on the growth of the students, their faculty/staff colleagues, and their SLCE program.

We leave you with some advice for embarking on or enhancing students as co-creators in your SLCE work. Click here. Please share your own experiences and suggestions in the comment section below.


Patti H. Clayton (patti.clayton@curricularengagement.com) is an SLCE consultant (PHC Ventures, www.curricularengagement.com), a Senior Scholar with IUPUI and UNCG, and a Visiting Senior Scholar with Kansas State University. She facilitates professional and organizational development, co-produces practice-oriented scholarly resources, and is currently co-facilitating the international Service-Learning and Community Engagement Future Directions Project (SLCE-FDP; www.slce-fdp.org).

Alexa Y. Stout (aystout@gmail.com) is a recent graduate from North Carolina State University with a degree in Biological Sciences: Human Biology.  As an undergraduate, her interests in pre-health education led her to conduct research regarding an international medical service learning course and collaborate with faculty on course redesign.  She served as a Research Assistant at UNC School of Medicine’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases working on the CFAR HIV Clinical Cohort and is currently enrolled in a Master of Physical Assistant Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Note: This is the seventh in a series of blog posts. Check in regularly to learn more about and contribute to discussion of foundational knowledge, promising practices, helpful resources, and future directions of SLCE.

How to cite this post:

Clayton, Patti H. and Alexa Y. Stout. 2017, May 2. Students as Co-Creators of SLCE. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/students-as-co-creators-of-slce/