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Service Learning Could Strengthen Long-Term Student Outcomes

Angelica Sanchez, a reporter for Fox6 News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says she’s grateful for the opportunity to tell the stories of her Midwest television and online news market audience.

As she puts it succinctly, “I love what I do.”

Indeed, by the measurement of any alumni office, Sanchez is a success.

A few months after graduating from Columbia College Chicago, Sanchez landed her first job as a reporter for the Fox station in Champaign, Illinois. At that station, she covered high profile visits of former Vice President Joe Biden in 2015 and President Barack Obama in 2016 to Springfield, Illinois. In Milwaukee, she continues to report on breaking news and other key issues.

But as a teacher and researcher, I was interested in a different measurement – the long-term impact of a Columbia College service-learning course upon Sanchez. Specifically, I wanted to learn in what ways, if any, my 2014 service-learning course had affected her career.

To determine the impact of that course, I developed a questionnaire for Sanchez to complete as part of a pilot case study. I believe it’s important to study this issue because service-learning courses have the potential to strengthen learning outcomes across academic disciplines. Also, there is a dearth of research about the long-term impact of service learning on journalism students.

In service-learning courses, students work on projects in local communities that apply their classroom learning. Students produce critical reflection papers or engage in other reflection activities to analyze their experiences.

In my January 2014 course, students studied a variety of health issues confronting Chicago neighborhoods and interacted with community leaders and others concerning those issues. Students produced videos to heighten awareness about the issues. Sanchez examined the issue of breast cancer disparities and the high rate of deaths due to breast cancer among Black women on Chicago’s far South Side. She produced a video that can be seen on YouTube.

I’d like to share how Sanchez says that course has influenced her career. Earlier this month, I shared these findings at the annual convention of the Broadcast Education Association in Las Vegas, Nevada.

First, Sanchez reported that she gained self-confidence. She came away from the course believing that she could tackle a tough reporting assignment, such as the report on health disparities, and follow it through to completion. Here’s how she described that outcome: ““What I learned about myself is that when I have a clear vision of what I want to accomplish, I can achieve it. Not many people discover that so soon in their careers.”

Second, Sanchez said she realized that a wealth of great stories about local communities are waiting to be told. “I really fell in love with telling the stories of people in those neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago,” she said. “Many of my school projects afterwards took place there. My internship at The Chicago Reporter that summer also allowed me to keep reporting on the people making a change in their community. We hear of such tragedies in those neighborhoods, I became obsessed with learning of the triumphs.”

Third, Sanchez said the course, and the video she produced on health disparities, helped her to land her first job at the Champaign TV station. “My boss at the time, I remember, brought it up during our interview and asked me questions about how I put something like this together. I think my response impressed him,” she said.

Finally, this pilot case study points to the need for additional research to study the relationship between service learning and journalism curricula. Could immersive service-learning experiences in local communities assist aspiring journalists in development of their journalistic values and competencies?

In early April, a Knight Foundation report urged the TV news industry to try a different approach to content. The report said, “In order to continue to engage audiences, TV news needs to move away from the crashes and crime stories that dominate their coverage to offer more value for viewers, by producing more enterprise and investigative pieces that are critical to people’s everyday lives.” Could service learning introduce budding student journalists to a wider array of story topics?

Once again, this pilot case study raises questions worthy of exploration because it appears that service learning holds potential for strengthening long-term outcomes in the journalism discipline.

Dr. Lillian Williams is an associate professor in the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago. She formerly worked as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and WKYC-TV in Cleveland, Ohio.

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