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Service Learning in PR Programs: A Trifecta for Positive Outcomes

Posted At: September 26, 2013 1:15 p.m.
by Courtney Cox

Several studies have shown that 90 percent of the information taught in a classroom is retained when students are given the opportunity to teach it to someone else or to immediately use the information themselves. For students studying public relations, their future depends on how much information from class is retained and their ability to implement it throughout their careers.

The main objective for college educators is to ensure that students are gaining the knowledge and experience needed to succeed in their future careers. According to Teri Henley, advertising and public relations instructor at The University of Alabama, service-learning is an excellent method for achieving this objective.

“Service-learning is the greatest way to prepare students professionally,” said Henley. “It also prepares them to be model citizens and encourages them to keep giving back to their community.”service learning

Service-learning, as defined by the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” In other words, students have the opportunity to take what they learn in the classroom and immediately apply it to help a partnering group or organization address a community need.

Before she began teaching at The University of Alabama, Henley spent 15 years as an associate professor and chair of the communications department at Loyola University in New Orleans. In addition, she was the director of the Shawn M. Donnelly Center for Nonprofit Communications where she supervised more than 300 projects for nonprofit clients. Henley has also used service-learning in each advertising and PR class she has taught at The University of Alabama since her arrival in 2007.

“Service-learning is an opportunity for students to get out into real situations and provide resources for community partners,” she said. “While meeting the learning objective, students get hands-on experience and assist with providing a community need.”

Students aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits from service-learning. Community partners who participate in service-learning projects benefit from the resources, ideas and perspectives, and volunteer time that students provide.

For three years now, the Autism Society of Alabama has partnered with students in public relations classes at The University of Alabama for service-learning projects.

“ASA is a small organization that serves the state of Alabama, so we have many initiatives taking place simultaneously. Having the extra hands and ideas is always helpful and needed,” said ASA Executive Director Melanie Jones.

UA students have worked with ASA on events and projects such as Legislative Day at the State House, The Gridiron Gala, Car Tag Commitments, Light It Up Blue and the annual Tuscaloosa Walk for Autism.

“The Autism Awareness Car Tag was probably our largest and most important project the students have helped with thus far,” Jones said. The Autism Awareness license plate costs $50 above regular tag fees. ASA receives $41 back from each car tag that is purchased.

“The Autism Society of Alabama had one year to reach 1,000 pre-commitments to purchase a tag before the state would manufacture it,” Jones said. “With the help of the PR students writing press releases, designing logos and brochures, we were able to reach our goal.”

Another successful service-learning project for ASA was its annual Tuscaloosa Walk for Autism. In the spring of 2013, PR students wrote press releases, designed fliers and composed media kits to promote the event and its new addition, a Crossfit competition. The students helped ASA exceed its goals, and the event raised about $9,000 more than it had in the previous year.

According to Jones, service-learning is great for both students and organizations.

“Students are given a ‘hands-on’ opportunity, and the organization receives new ideas and materials from which to choose,” she said. “It also introduces students to the nonprofit sector and the importance of community service.”

According to Stephen Black, Director of the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, the University of Alabama had 130 faculty members offering service-learning courses in collaboration with more than 150 community partners last year.

“In terms of service-learning at UA, I think we have it kind of figured out,” Teri Henley said. “All of the advertising and PR teachers use it, and we have plenty of great resources.”

However, Henley thinks service-learning could grow and improve if there were a better way of sharing ideas among different public relations programs around the country.

Service-learning is an excellent teaching and learning strategy that yields positive outcomes for communities, client organizations and students. Through service-learning, public relations students can better retain the information taught in classrooms and gain valuable experience to help them become successful professionals and socially conscious citizens.

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