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Office of Enrichment Programs / Division of Service Learning

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Most service learning activities at HMS take place under the umbrella of the Division of Service Learning (DSL). Established as a Division in 1998, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine hired the first faculty director and associate director in 2003. The Division works closely with the HMS/HSDM Office of Enrichment Programs (OEP) to assist students in developing quality service programs locally and internationally.

The DSL, in conjunction with the OEP, offers a wide variety of services to students, including faculty mentoring, linkage to a plethora of information that assists students with identifying local and international projects, for-credit courses and structured projects, special events, and more.

The vision for service learning at HMS is threefold:
(1) to insure that community service projects that are initiated and organized by students fit a service learning paradigm;
(2) to increase the number of service learning courses at HMS; and
(3) to increase the number of faculty involved in service learning projects and service learning coursework by recruiting and training faculty to serve as mentors, advisors, and reviewers of student proposed projects.

What is Service Learning?

Service learning (1) unites academic study and volunteer community service in mutually reinforcing ways. The service makes the study immediate, applicable and relevant; the study, through knowledge, analysis and reflection, informs the service. The service may involve teaching, health care, community development, environmental projects and a host of other activities that contribute to the well being of individuals, communities, nations, or the world as a whole. The academic study may be related to one or more of many disciplines and to professional fields, including medicine, law, social work, engineering, education, etc.

In service learning classes, students and teachers use the experience of service as one source of information. Students are asked to analyze critically what they learn from the service, just as they are asked to analyze the information and ideas garnered from the sources of traditional academic study. When academic credit is awarded, it is not for the service performed, but for the learning, which the student demonstrates through written papers, classroom discussion, exams and other forms of evaluation. In service learning programs that are not for credit, the learning should be intentional, structured and evaluated.

Service learning demands that students understand the service agency – its mission, philosophy, assumptions, activities and governance – and the conditions of the lives of those who are served. Above all, service learning is characterized by a relationship of partnership: the student learns from the service agency and from the community and, in return, gives energy, intelligence, commitment, time and skills to address human and community needs. In addition, the agency learns from the students. University faculty and service agency personnel both teach and learn from one another.

Service learning is different from field study, internships and practica, since the student is not just an observer but also an active participant. The success of a program is measured not only by what the student learns but also by the usefulness of the students’ work to those served.

Why is Service Learning Valuable and Necessary?

Service learning addresses two important needs: the education and development of students and the provision of increased resources to serve individuals and communities, primarily in underserved areas. Service learning can
  • Enrich the learning of academic subjects
  • Develop leadership skills
  • Promote intercultural and international understanding
  • Foster the examination of values and beliefs, and civic responsibility, all within the context of a community and its needs
  • Provide help to service agencies and communities
  • Set academic institutions in a reciprocal relationship with the community
  • Advance our understanding of societies, cultures and world issues by testing scholarship against immediate practical experience and theory within a cultural context.

    (1) The International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership, summer, 2004.

    Example of an Ongoing Student Service Learning Project at HMS

    Bridging the Gap is a six-year-old service learning project that pairs students with refugee and immigrant families in partnership with MGH/Chelsea Community Health Center. Students meet regularly with their family to provide social, cultural and health/medical assistance. Volunteers meet regularly with community and HMS faculty, reflect on their interactions with families and discuss successes and challenges. They also meet for a seminar series throughout the year that highlights refugee and immigrant health issues, provides skills-building in the areas of case management and advocacy and learn how to better understand local resources and make appropriate referrals.


  • Copyright 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College