The Amazing Gift of Service Learning


Leopoldstadt is Vienna’s 2nd District. During the early part of the 20th century this area was home to many Viennese of Jewish heritage. The unthinkable occurred as the Nazis took control of Austria in 1938 ushering in a period of incredible horror.

We were in this district to visit one of the volunteer service opportunities for students enrolled in our study abroad program in Vienna. As we walked down the street to meet Dr. Elisabeth Ben David-Hindler, I had no idea what to expect. She is a woman small in stature, with a warm smile, yet powerful in determination. We were given a brief explanation regarding the project called The Path of Remembrance, but I was not prepared for the importance of this work and the model for service it represents.

We met Dr. Ben David-Hindler, along with her daughter Zahava, near the site of the former Leopoldstadt Temple, at one time Vienna’s largest synagogue. Nothing remains of this structure following its destruction during the Nazi period, though four enormous white pillars mark the scale of the original structure. They were almost ghost-like figures of the past emerging in the present. Renderings I have seen of the original temple display it as a magnificent building with great architectural detail. People now rush by the pillars seemingly without awareness of how this community was robbed of a sacred space.

The brochure she gave us regarding the project offers the following context:

The Path of Remembrance, the first section of which was completed in November of 2006, leads to many sites that were once of importance to Jewish life in Leopoldstadt, thereby revealing the history of expulsion and murder of the Jewish population. It relates to daily Jewish life and commemorates – by way of examples – the many people who once lived here.

Dr. Ben David-Hindler noted for us the tragic loss of life on such an enormous scale (over 30,000 from this district alone) could never be adequately memorialized. Yet the stories of these individuals could be remembered through markers in the public spaces in the district. The original plan was to place plaques on the buildings, but the complexity of gaining approvals for this approach resulted in the idea to create these as Stones of Remembrance, echoing the Hebrew Scriptures. The “stones” are placed into the sidewalk (pictured in the image accompanying this essay) noting the names and dates of those who were deported and killed. Together, these stones form the Path of Remembrance.

The history itself was powerful enough as a learning experience, but the devotion to service I was about to witness reminded me of the impact learning has when it’s combined with service. We arrived at one of the Stones of Remembrance and Dr. Ben David-Hindler pulled from her bag a small spray bottle and a towel. She knelt down on the sidewalk, spayed the surface of the stone with a cleaning solution, and scrubbed the marker clean. I now understood the role for our students in this volunteer service opportunity. They would join others from this community to continually clean the stones and together learn about the history of a people – an amazing gift of service learning.

It’s easy to be cynical these days. But I continue to find a refreshing hope in students. According to the 2010 annual Freshman Survey administered by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) in the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, 88.6 percent of entering first-year college students performed voluntary work “frequently” or “occasionally” during the past year, while 61.2 percent performed community service as part of a class during the same period. All the data clearly demonstrate that college students are devoted to service in great numbers. This is encouraging to educators who understand the power of service in the learning context.

The challenge ahead is to encourage and enable students to move beyond the programs and structures of schools and colleges as they graduate, and make service a lifetime commitment.

I was privileged last year to participate in a roundtable discussion for a special project sponsored by the United States Department of Education and developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, along with the support of the Global Perspective Institute. A National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement was formed and its report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” is a national call to action. It’s worth reading. The report outlines the many opportunities we have to educate students for citizenship. The concluding section offers the following thoughts:

“…we dare not be passive about increasing our nation’s civic capacity any more than we are passive about revitalizing its economy. Colleges and universities need to expand education for democracy so it reaches all students in ever more challenging ways. Campuses can be critical sites for honing students’ civic knowledge, skills, values, and actions, and for preparing them for lives of public purpose as well as employment. Advancing reciprocal partnerships with communities both locally and globally promises to invigorate the research, teaching, and learning agendas for higher education while strengthening communities. Creative alliances with public-minded nonprofit agencies, governmental agencies, and businesses can replenish civic capital.”

Our task now is to take up this challenge in practical ways.

If you’re on our campus, participate in Service Day, and pay a visit to the Center for Community Based Learning.

If you’re in Iowa, check out Volunteer Iowa for ways you can be involved.

Those in other parts of the country and around the world can be creative in reaching out for the opportunities that surround you.

Let’s get busy! Go experience the amazing gift of service learning.

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5 responses to “The Amazing Gift of Service Learning”

  1. harley Riak "69" says:

    Dr Putnum,
    I want to commend you on this article.
    I was one of the very few Jewish alumni in the history of CUI back in the 60’s. I came to Pella as a “green freshman” in 1965 from The Bronx NY. I had no idea what to expect in a college setting. It was the first time I ventured outside the “walls” of my comfort zone; a neighborhood of 35 thousand Jews. Many who were survivors or just emigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s as my family did.
    Central, as a proclaimed religious institution (in those days) did little or nothing to assist my assimilation into the community. I was suprised to find so many uninformed students and professors on anything to do with Judaism (with the exception of Rev DeJong).There were also many instances of antisemitism on campus that I endured but promised my parents I would complete my education in Pella.
    With that said, I do have some great memories of Central and remain very close to my “old roommate” Robin Hand.
    To my point, Your mention of service in this context pleases me greatly. We can never forget the horrors and atrocities an entire race of people suffered at the hands of a Madman. Shalom!

    • Harley, I appreciate your sharing and can only imagine how difficult assimilating to the culture of Pella and Central in the 60’s must have been. You must have had a great deal of courage and fortitude. In the 70’s when I was at Central, movements of Civil Rights and Feminism were afoot and there was perhaps more opening to the “other” than before. Or at least the “other” had more power in voicing differences (and similarities.)

      Mark, I appreciate your experience and support of service. How to base our experience on a new paradigm (Bohrs theory moved us beyond the Newtonian paradigm of separation and cause-effect) that we are all interconnected and that cooperation and serving others enriches us all?!

  2. Don Huffman says:

    Harley and Lois, I am always pleased to see information from two students I think of rather often. Harley, I knew of your sometimes stress situations here in Pella, and witnessed your increased maturity of thinking during those years. And, as you can guess, I’ve been pleased to see many of you back in Pella on occasion -I’m including Shawn Miller, Robin Hand, Ed Nirdlinger, Rich Lucarelli and many others. In a sense, while Lois came from a nearly polar opposite family background, the two of you apparently did your share of positive “service learning” personal growth, and sharing at Central.
    I am also proud of Central’s service learning programs, but I think there will have to be better scheduling of the institutional program to avoid competion with many other events that occur about the same time of the year, not the least of which is the approach of the end of the semester when many students feel obligated to study, write those term papers, participate in the many co-curricular activities, etc. and generally complete their academic priories; and many faculty and staff are equally loaded with “must do” projects. With better scheduling I think the number of participants would be greater, and the program more
    At heart, the service learning programs are a legitimate extension of the personal sharing of generosity and with those we do not usually encounter on a day to day basis. It seems significant to me that service learning has been such an important part of our off-campus international and metropolitan programs. Those who have been involved have a right to feel proud of these serice learning experiences.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Don. You exemplify the kind of interest in students that was so important to me when I was at Central (even though I never took a class with you!)

  3. Stan Durey '71 says:

    I look forward to these monthly opportunities to pause and reflect. We have heard much recent discussion on the cost of higher ecucation and the peoper role of federal funding in the student loan equation. Would that I had an answer rather than a question. Surely, in our working out of the student loan question, cannot we find a solution that might combine service with loan forgiveness? Two years service in exchange for two years tuition? I look forward to suggestions others might offer. Having said that, I applaud the current efforts of the Central community in fostering the essential role service contributes to the lives of both those who recieve and those who give of themselves in the service of others.