Feature Stories

Tasha 2.0: An Inside Look at an Award-Winning Service-Learning Instructor

"For me, it is such an important part of the class—going out into the community and creating community in the classroom," reflected Tasha Rennels, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication, on her Communication, Culture, and Community class. "Community is both in the service and the learning," she continued.

Late this summer, Rennels completed the second iteration of her service-learning course (click to read Life is Better Together for Service Learning Students, about the spring 2014 version of the course).


  Tasha Rennels 

Rennels was new to the service-learning pedagogy when she embarked on teaching her course earlier this year; and she is now a true believer in its benefits. As a tribute to her efforts, she was recently honored with the 2013-2014 Provost Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Graduate Teaching Assistant for her engaging teaching style, her creativity in developing service-learning opportunities for her students, and her ability to help her students reflect on that service in unique ways.

When she taught the CCC course over the summer, she looked at what worked and what could be refined, and she scaled some parts of the course back to fit the curriculum into the tighter six-week summer schedule proving that service-learning is a flexible and adaptable educational model.

During the first week, Rennels begins by asking her students to reflect on what they are passionate about, and then pairs them in groups based on similar interests. She feels the opportunity to work in small groups is important. "It was my own experience serving in groups and feeling a lot more comfortable going into a new environment," she said.

The students often complete assignments together, and Rennels believes that discussing the experiences in groups helps students see how the course concepts about building community apply in the places where they serve. "I like the groups for that. I think it deepens their reflection," she said.

During one class, Rennels asked her students to think about concepts of inclusion and exclusion during their service, motivating them to look more critically at the social service organizations and think about how welcoming the organizations are or whether the students face any barriers when they try to serve.

"You don't discover who you are until you come into that space of service. Your role is not defined until you interact with others. If you are willing to humble yourself to fit in," said Rennels describing some of the important themes of her CCC class.

Communication, Culture and Community students in summer 2014.

                          Communication, Culture and Community students in summer 2014.

"This summer, I made more of a space for the students to really reflect on the service," she noted. She reduced the required service hours, and the class did not meet on Fridays so that the students could fit their community projects into their weekly schedule more readily.

"Everyone got his or her ten hours in," she said, "the ones who were proactive had [identified] service projects within the first week." For others, she said, "I had to be on them" constantly stressing "this is a core component of the class."

The students served in organizations ranging from Trinity Café and Metropolitan Ministries, which serve low-income populations, to Support Our Troops and Dress for Success Tampa Bay. A student who served at Dress for Success remarked, "I genuinely enjoyed being there. I'm just happy to be doing it."

One group of students worked with an animal rescue organization. A representative from the organization came to class to watch the final presentations and brought with her a kitten available for adoption. A student in the class adopted the kitten on the spot – yet another ripple effect of the emphasis on community engagement as part of the classroom experience.

USF students volunteer with Rebels Rescue

                                                   USF students volunteer with Rebels Rescue

A student who wanted to work with children ended up donating 35 hours to a children's camp. He said, "You walk into a room, and you know they love you, and you don't have to work for it," proving a pleasant change from the pressures of school and owning his own business.

"Nine times out of ten, I see a shift occurring. The students see the fruits of service," Rennels said. Others have said they were looking for "an excuse to volunteer," and the service-learning course gave them the little shove they needed to give back to their community.

Rennels devises creative techniques for students to reflect on their service, a key component that sets service-learning apart from other experiential learning opportunities. Students write poems, draw, and create videos and websites to delve more deeply into their community service experiences.

In class, Rennels' students developed a group poem by brainstorming metaphors to describe the experience of providing community service. Their responses ranged from a pressure cooker, a blanket, a steamy pot of tea, and perhaps the most apt, a clean shower after a long day. The students said, "even if you have to push yourself to do it, you leave feeling refreshed."

Up next, Rennels will be presenting at the National Communication Association conference about the creative projects her students have produced for their reflection assignments. She will also serve for a second year, as the faculty advisor on a Bull Service Break trip, this year in New Orleans to work with Project Lazarus, an organization that helps heal and empower people living with HIV/AIDS.

To hear more about Rennels work and the other talented faculty members who are implementing service-learning in their courses, don't miss Service-Learning Day on November 13th.