Campus News Georgia Impact

Freshmen get a jump on experiential learning before their first semester

University of Georgia first-year student Paula Rios couldn’t hide a smile when she stumbled upon familiar children’s books at Books for Keeps.

The flashback to her younger days was an added benefit to Rios as she sorted books during a service-learning project at the Athens nonprofit, which provides books to children in grades pre-K through 12, who are from low-income families.

“Wow, it’s just been a great experience to see issues in the community I wouldn’t be exposed to,” Rios said. “Now, I want to find a local organization I can work with during my college career. It helps create a closer relationship between students and the community.”

The volunteer work at Books for Keeps was part of a service-learning course for participants in the UGA Freshman College Summer Experience. The class, “Strategies and Life Skills Needed to Succeed,” requires students to participate in a service project that addresses a community need and reflect on it to gain a deeper understanding of what they learn in class.

This summer was the second year students in the 17-year-old Freshman College program were enrolled in a service-learning course.

Chase Hagood, director of the Division of Academic Enhancement, which oversees Freshman College, said the class introduces the concept of service-learning to incoming students who may not have heard of it before. For many students, it also fulfills the university’s new experiential learning requirement instituted last fall.

“We deployed this course to both help students understand the university’s service mission and help them quickly become members of the broader community,” Hagood said. “Having this course builds a more holistic picture of what life should look like at UGA.”

Course instructor Megan Ward, administrative director of the New Media Institute at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, used nontraditional teaching methods, such as assigning students to a scavenger hunt around Athens to familiarize them with the city. She also asked the students to research campus organizations that benefit the local community and consider getting involved with one of them.

Getting students engaged with the community early can make a difference, said Louis Crow, Books for Keeps program director.

Crow grew up in Athens and graduated from UGA in 2015 with a degree in social work. He said he always felt a separation between the community and the university when he was in high school, but programs like those run by the Office of Service-Learning, part of UGA Public Service and Outreach, are changing that.

“It’s been great to have regular volunteers throughout the summer,” Crow said. “This exposes students to the community.”

The UGA Freshman College Summer Experience is a four-week academic residential program that allows incoming first-year students an opportunity to begin forming academic and social networks before their first full semester on campus. This year, 275 first-year students participated in the Freshman College.