Learning: Its Opportunity and Promise

Vol. 15, No. 2
ISSN: 1546-2676


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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 15, No. 2. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member,
Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2004. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Bridging the Gaps: A Service-Learning Project


Norma Nealeigh
Chadron State College

Dr. Norma Nealeigh is a Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences in the Department of Applied Sciences at Chadron State College, Chadron, Nebraska.


This paper discusses an intergenerational service-learning project that has built bridges between college and community, theory and experience, and college students and retired seniors. Students' stories and evaluations support the premise of symbolic interaction theory in that their self-reported behaviors were changed as a result of interactions with their senior partners.

The chasm between age 22 and age 72 now has a bridge for students enrolled in a college course on aging. Students interact with the elderly and leave college not only with an understanding of theories of aging but with an understanding of another generation. The class project "Student Partners/Senior Partners" results in seniors attending college sporting events and in students quietly talking with their senior partners as they spend a Saturday morning fishing or gardening together.

From the initial conceptualization of this project, the complementary nature of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) and service-learning has been exemplary. Service-learning provides a "real world laboratory" where authentic learning helps students fulfill the FCS mission and meet course objectives.

The Partners Project is based on symbolic interaction theory (Blumer, 1969). Symbolic interaction theory has three basic premises: (a) humans act toward things based on the meaning things have for them, (b) the meaning of things results from the social interactions we have with others, and (c) humans modify the meaning of things based on their interpretations (Claibourne, 2000). The objective of the Partners Project is "to gain an understanding of life from a different perspective." The broadness of the objective allows students and seniors to bring their own histories, experiences, and opinions to the interactions they have each week and over the course of the semester to "modify the meaning of things" in their lives. Lal (1995) stated, ". . . the process of communication, and in particular language, socialization, and education, transmits the experience of the group (or groups) into the subjective world of meaning and value that direct individual effort and activity" (p. 423).

Comments from students illustrate how interactions with their senior partners changed the students’ behaviors. "The most important thing I learned this semester is patience," volunteered a wrestler during his end-of-the semester presentation. "I used to honk my horn at older people when I got behind them in slow traffic. Now I understand, and I am more patient." A biology major commented, "My grandmother and I have never gotten along. She thought I was a young rebellious brat, and I always thought she was an old fuddy-duddy. Since getting to know my senior partner and understanding her life experiences, I have begun to see my grandmother in a new way, and we are actually talking now." Another student said, "My grandparents had all died by the time I was five years old. I was never around older people. Getting to know my senior partner has taught me so many things that are valuable to me personally and professionally. I am going to be a pharmacist, and I am beginning to understand how to interact more effectively with older people."

The project began with the writing of a service-learning grant. The grant funded the rewriting of the course syllabus to include a service-learning component. Guidelines for the grant stipulated the inclusion of three elements in the course (NCSLHE, 2001). The first element is an orientation and training for service-learning and for the specific service experience. This is accomplished by an orientation session the second week of class and on-going discussions each week regarding the project. The second element is the service experience. Students meet with their senior partners each week for a minimum of one hour. Both partners sign a form, verifying the meeting. The only objective for the visitations is to gain a greater understanding of life from a different perspective. The third element is critical reflection during or following the service experience. Students are required to keep a journal of the project, consisting of at least one page per visit. They are to focus on "what I learned about aging this week" and to relate it to class discussions or readings. At the end of the semester, students make a presentation to the class regarding what they learned from the experience. The Partners Project is worth 100 points out of a possible 400 points in the class. Other points are earned from article reviews, a philosophy paper, and exams.

The project was initiated in the fall of 1999, and the outcomes far exceeded expectations. Now in its eleventh semester, 377 students and 96 seniors have participated. The senior partners are members of the local RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, a national organization). The seniors and students are paired by the director of RSVP and the class instructor, based on an information sheet filled out by students. The project ends after one semester, but many of the partners remain friends, and students continue to visit with seniors even though they are no longer in the class. Students and seniors alike were hesitant to participate in the project at its inception. But now students eagerly choose the project and many seniors sign up every semester. Six of the seniors have volunteered to be in the program every semester since the beginning.

Students are not required to participate in the service-learning project. Each is given a choice between two major projects. One is the service experience, the other is a research project. Each is set up to require equal amounts of time and each has a presentation requirement. Over the eleven semesters, only twelve students elected to do the alternate research assignment.

Three "gaps" were bridged as a result of this project. The first was the "classroom theory/real-life experience gap." Classroom discussions involving social and biological theories of aging, reminiscence theory, and social exchange theory took on greater significance when students actually interacted with seniors who were experiencing the reality of these theories. One student told of a visit when his senior partner seemed depressed. The student remembered the class discussion about the value of reminiscing and began to ask his partner about significant life events. As they talked, the senior began to smile and laugh as he thought back on cherished memories and happier times. The student concluded that reminiscing helped his senior partner attribute value to his life. Other students benefited from asking their senior partners about topics discussed in class such as financial retirement planning and maintaining healthy lifestyles. Brown and Roodin (2001) found similar results in their study of a service-learning project. They found that students had a better understanding of concepts of gerontology when they were able to apply them in real-world, personal situations. Dunlap (1998) stated that service-learning assisted students in converting abstract thoughts and theories into concrete experiences and learning. Other authors reported the same results (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Hegeman & Pillemer, 1999).

The second gap was the "twenty-somethings/seventy-somethings" age gap. The generation gap has long been acknowledged within our society. Other than family, students know very few people who are not of their age group. What students think about being old is often defined by encounters with their own grandparents. At the end of the semester, many students commented that the stereotypes they had of aging were totally dispelled by getting to know their senior partners as people. Students also learned about coping with illnesses. Some students' partners had chronic conditions, while others had encounters with serious illness during the semester. Students found themselves deeply concerned about the health and well-being of their new-found friends, many years their senior. The most common comment was "my partner is just like me, only older."  The results were consistent with intergenerational service-learning studies that consistently found that students have higher regard and appreciation for older individuals after the service-learning experience (Bringle & Kremer, 1993; Hannon & Koch, 1993; Newman, Lyons & Onawola, 1985).

The third gap was the "community/college gap."  McDaniel (1994) recognized the traditionally distinct domains of college and community and noted that service-learning redefined them as a complex learning environment. Service-learning projects bring the college to the community and the community to the college by giving each a face. The college was no longer "over there" to senior partners; it was a student the senior visited with every week. The community was no longer "the place the college is located" to students; it was the person the student talked with every week. A senior who was paired with a basketball player began attending college basketball games to see his partner play. They were partners only one semester, but he continued to attend basketball games. He was welcomed by the other members of the basketball team and enjoyed using the weight-lifting room when team members were working out. Having had a stroke a year prior to getting involved in this program, he knew the value of exercise and keeping fit. He commented that seeing the students work hard gave him the motivation to work hard also. The senior's health was much improved and he credited his student partners for this. After his involvement for two semesters, his wife also asked to be a senior partner in the project. Another senior partner was retired but continued to sit on several boards of directors and was quite active in the community. His student partner met many influential business contacts as they attended Rotary meetings and community functions. The connection between education and action blurred the boundaries between college and community (Jarosz and Johnson, 1996).

The "Student Partners/Senior Partners Project" culminates each semester with a "Gathering" of all student partners, senior partners, and spouses or guests. The evening is a celebration of the project. There is musical entertainment (student or community guitarists or singers and a seniors' kitchen band) accompanied by group games and lots of good wishes. Students plan and carry out the event at the student center on campus. In more recent semesters, the Gathering has expanded to include a pot-luck supper.

Students are given the opportunity for verbal feedback regarding the Partners Project each week during class. In addition, written evaluations are given at least twice during the semester (no names were required on the evaluations). Students are asked for suggestions to improve the project, how they would change the project, what they would keep the same, and whether they would recommend the project be continued. The Gathering was started the first semester as the result of a student's suggestion. All students who have participated in the project have recommended that it be continued. In addition, the course, as a whole, is evaluated each semester; the Partners Project invariably receives the highest marks.

Students respond enthusiastically to this opportunity to be involved in the community. Yet results of the project are difficult to quantify. The number of students participating and the number of hours spent in visitation do not adequately reflect outcomes of the project. The real measure of learning has been observed in students' attitudes and their appreciation of human worth. In his early writings, Blumer (1933) stated that real life experiences provide the stimulation for people to draw upon for their patterns of behavior and conduct. Later, in explaining the theory of symbolic interaction, he wrote that social interaction is a process that forms human conduct rather than merely being an expression of conduct (1969). And therein lies the significance of service-learning. It is in the interaction between generations where students form their patterns of behavior related to seniors. Through this project, service-learning enriches the lives of two very different generations by providing a way for unlikely partners to build bridges across communities.


Blumer, H. (1933). Movies and conduct. New York: Macmillan.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bringle, R. G., & Kremer, J. F. (1993). Evaluation of an intergenerational service-learning project for undergraduates. Educational Gerontology, 19, 407-416.

Brown, L. H., & Roodin, P. A. (2001). Service-learning in gerontology: An out-of-classroom experience. Educational Gerontology, 27, 89-103.

Claibourne, C. (2000). The changing patient is changing nursing. Creative Nursing, 6 (2), 9-11.

Dunlap, M. R. (1998). Methods of supporting students' critical reflection in courses incorporating service-learning. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 208-210.

Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E. (1999). Where's the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hannon, R., & Koch, D. (1993). The elder mentor relationship: An experiential learning tool. Educational Gerontology, 19, 147-159.

Hegeman, C., & Pillemer, C. (1999, November) Impact of service-learning in elder care. Paper presented at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, San Francisco, CA.

Jarosz, L., & Johnson-Bogart, K. (1996). New concepts of the relationship between college and community. College Teaching, 44 (3), 83-88.

Lal, B. B. (1995). Symbolic interaction theories. American Behavioral Scientist, 38, 421-441.

McDaniel, T. R. (1994). College classrooms of the future: Megatrends to paradigm shifts. College Teaching, 42 (1), 27-31.

NCSLHE (Nebraska Consortium for Service Learning in Higher Education) (2001). [On-line]

Newman, S., Lyons, C., & Onawana, R. (1985). The development of an intergenerational service-learning program at a nursing home. The Gerontologist, 25, 130-133.

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