What, So What, Now What: A Service-Learning Experience


By Joanne Choi
Joanne Choi is a student in Education in the Community, a service-learning course. The following is a reflection she wrote about a service experience while volunteering at 826 Boston. 

*= Name change for privacy purposes

What: It was October 27, and I was coming in for a volunteer shift at my Service-Learning site from 3-6 PM. I was tutoring a high school sophomore named Justin*, who is African American. During our session, he asked me to help him come up with ideas for a science fair. Assuming that it was a science fair for school, I offered suggestions such as creating an advanced electric circuit. When I asked him to tell me about the fair, he responded that he had received second place in the state science fair last year. Surprised, I congratulated him and commended him for his hard work, telling him that I hope he did a good job this year as well.

So What: If I am being honest, I did not expect such high results from Justin. I have seen him twice in previous tutoring sessions, and I have judged him purely based on his profile: a high school student attending Boston Public Schools who is African American and living in Roxbury. Therefore, I believe it is highly probable that I may have inadvertently placed labels on him—not necessarily based on the race, but rather on the fact that he lives in Roxbury and attends Boston Public Schools. However, in “Logos and Stereotypes” from Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Debby Irving writes that “for people of color, people are more likely to insert a label. People of color get labels, complete with narratives and stereotypes.” My immediate assumption that Justin had not been as accomplished as he was is not necessarily dependent on race, but it made me realize the extent that students like him of particular races and backgrounds are more susceptible to judgment and receiving labels than others. For example, many students of color are often not seen to be high academic achievers. The more that people place labels on students of color, it is probable that they will become unmotivated and even drop out of school. Internalization of such labels can be dangerous, especially if an entire majority population believe that students of color are not as inclined to perform well academically; I am forced to consider the effect that negative biases can have on students’ self –perception. In “Icebergs”, Irving writes, “Over time, I internalized what I’d been taught as right, so that it didn’t just feel right—it felt normal, like the only legitimate way to think and act.” If students of color internalize the belief that they are less likely to succeed, this inevitably can become the case, unless the belief is actively proven wrong and fought against

Now What: I have become more aware of several implicit biases and unhelpful prejudices I may hold towards the students I work with. I tend to see my Service-Learning site as a place for students who are struggling, not necessarily for overachievers who are already excelling.  My experiences have made me more aware of the labels that I could potentially be placing on students. I have a preexisting notion that many students in the Boston public school system are not high achievers academically, as many do not graduate from high school—which is not based on prejudice, but on statistics. Therefore, it is possible that I have not been holding the students at my Service-Learning site to as high of expectations as if I were working with students from a more academically renowned district. I could be projecting these subconscious beliefs onto students, which if internalized, might lead them to believe that they are not capable of accomplishing as much as they would like.  My experience with Justin made me realize that some of the students I work with are extremely driven and ambitious, as they are actively pursuing their own goals—with or without the help of a tutor. Rather than making judgments, I should thoroughly believe in students’ potential and encourage them wholeheartedly.  From now on, I will intentionally remind myself not to underestimate students, but rather challenge them beyond what I might originally perceive to be their limits.

Irving, Debby (2014) “Icebergs”, excerpt from Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of RaceCambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press.

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