Learning by serving

Hawkeye Community College construction trades students get hands-on experience rehabbing houses in the community. (Photo: HCC)

From free and low-cost dental clinics provided by dental hygienist students, to home building by students in construction programs, to more individualized service-learning across a wide array of courses, two-year schools are putting the “community” in community college by mixing academics and service in a panoply of creative ways.

These arrangements benefit students, nonprofit organizations they serve and the community at large, providing a mix of technical and customer-service skills for the students along with added motivation and direction, services to nonprofits and their clientele, and new partnerships among nonprofits and colleges themselves.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the current issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

At Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa, students in the Introduction to Construction Trades Pre-Apprenticeship take part in the WE Build Waterloo community-based program, which provides career training and counseling, as well as team-building and personal skills development.

From the standpoint of employers and the community, WE Build Waterloo churns out students with high-demand construction skills, industry-recognized certifications and experience in building or rehabbing residences to be sold to local, lower-income families through Habitat for Humanity. The program also connects students and potential employers. Donors provide financial help, mentoring, and building materials, tools and equipment.

“Every place with skilled trades is hiring,” says Chris Hannan, director of workforce training and community development at Hawkeye. “We’ve started building competency-based education, teaching people skills so they can go into the workforce and then come back to get additional upskilling and credentialing. They become lifelong learners.”

An estate-sale acquisition

The 12-week program first ran in June 2020 after two pandemic-related delays.

WE Build Waterloo’s first project was with a local nonprofit called One City United that had acquired a house through an estate sale at a relatively low cost that “needed everything done to it, and we needed a place for our students to learn,” says Valerie Peterson, workforce development coordinator at Hawkeye.

Starting in May 2021, the program forged a partnership with Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity and “we’re now building on their job sites, which is great for us,” she says. “We’re able to focus more on the student experience vs. all the logistics of getting building materials and subcontractors. Plus, Habitat has families assigned to the house. It’s great for students to interact with those families and give them more of a sense of purpose.”

Serving students, communities

Students come from a variety of backgrounds — some with little to no family support, some with prior criminal justice involvement — and seem to gain confidence in a broader sense while participating, Peterson says.

“It’s been cool to see the changes in the students,” she says. “Some are coming from pretty rough places. One student heard about illegal activities in his neighborhood and reached out to us to help get the people involved and make the community safer. I’m not sure that’s something he would have done on his own.”

Other programs featured in this article:
The dental hygiene program at Community College of Rhode Island provides free services to community members during the academic year.
— Seattle Central College has taken an open-ended approach to service learning, providing individualized opportunities for students to connect their coursework with sustainable partnerships that impact their communities and plant the seeds of civic responsibility.

The rehabs have been taking place in neighborhoods that haven’t had residential construction or rehabilitation activity in decades, Hannan says.

“A lot of the students live in the communities we’re drawing from,” he says. “They get to have a hand in rehabbing or building their community, while also getting job training for their next step in life.”

“We’re helping connect students to family-sustaining employment opportunities,” Peterson adds. “It’s a career pathway with strong wages and career advancement as they grow in their industry. For the community, it’s providing more affordable housing, which is needed in Waterloo, Iowa. We have employers who like to hire our students reaching out pretty consistently. They know our students have gotten their hands dirty and know what they’re getting themselves into, so they’re more likely to stay in the area [of employment], vs., ‘Let me try this out.’ We’re providing needed employees to keep communities running.”

Making connections

Beyond the employment skills and training, WE Build Waterloo helps get students ready to transition to the workforce in other ways, Hannan says.

“We help get our students who are unbanked,” he says. “They don’t have other things to get them through that process, like Social Security cards or a driver’s license. We’ll drive them to the DMV to help them get their driver’s license back. We have a relationship with local credit unions to get themselves a bank account, which can be a challenge for individuals transitioning to the workforce.”

Pershonda Bruce, who received her certificate from the program in May, says she learned a lot about how to use tools properly and how to work as a team to get a job done — everything from how to take measurements, to how to listen to others in a small group. “It was a lot of hands-on stuff,” she says.

Bruce has ambitions of opening a nonprofit organization that will serve those who have become homeless with a series of facilities aimed at returning them to self-sufficiency. “We would learn why they are homeless or going through a rough patch,” she says. “Most of the programs I hear about help with women, or you have to be in an abusive relationship, or have children. There are not many programs for people that just fell on hard times.”

WE Build Waterloo stays in contact with students for at least a year after they finish the program, but instructors and staff are happy to continue the relationship beyond that, Peterson says. Some of the first cohort from two years ago remain in touch. One former student touched base recently to say he was working full-time and taking registered apprenticeship classes in the evening—and having difficulty managing both.

“He was about to give up the extra schooling,” she says. “He wasn’t sure what to do. We said, ‘Let’s reach out to your teachers and see where you stand.’ He was able to get back on track.”

Read the full CC Journal article.

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.