Creating Meaning, Addressing Needs


Research suggests that meaningful service perhaps is the most important of the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice

It might be obvious that any valuable service-learning experience should be meaningful — yet it is far from self-evident what the term “meaningful” implies. But the substantial positive impact meaningful service can have on students’ academic, civic, and developmental outcomes (Neal, Leeper, and Root 2009) calls for an examination of the ingredients required to reach true meaning.

Though meaningful service implies service that is perceived as beneficial to its recipients and to the larger community, this article will focus on the importance of meaningfulness as defined by the service providers.


A number of factors have to be in place for a service-learning experience to be perceived as meaningful by students, i.e., the providers of the service. The first dimension relates to the way the experience allows for personal growth. Yates (1995) noted that opportunities to take on adult responsibilities and receive respect for doing work well “may lead [students] to think about who they are and who they can be.” Furco (2002) found that the students who were most strongly influenced by their service experiences were engaged in meaningful service activities that challenged them to some degree or ones in which they had responsibility and interest. The students’ sense of engagement was enhanced when they felt they were treated with respect by members of the community. To reach such outcomes, the service experience must be developmentally-appropriate — that is, it must deal with an issue that can be understood by learners, and they must be reasonably well able to perform the corresponding service activity.

A second dimension relates to how students perceive their relationship with recipients of the service they provide. Root and Billig (2008) affirmed that students found meaning in their service when they interacted with individuals faced with personal difficulties, confronting examples of injustice, or encountering inefficient policies. Direct contact “enabled [students] to connect to larger issues, both in the community and more generally in society.

Reconnecting Youth and Community

A third dimension relates to how the service experience changes the way students see themselves in the community or the wider society. While a number of studies have established that many young people feel disconnected from their community and might have an egocentric way of viewing the world, effective service activities engage students emotionally with their communities (Root and Billig 2008). Catalano and colleagues (2004) showed that participation in communities helped students develop stronger connections to the community norms and values, thereby contributing to community cohesion.

Local Action, Global Meaning

While a meaningful project can have a lasting impact on students as well as recipients, it has the potential to serve an even higher purpose if it is firmly placed in its appropriate wider context. Students should be encouraged to analyze how the need they are addressing is but one step toward a broader vision of tackling the problem on the local, national, and global levels.

Thus service-learning projects that adhere to the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice help develop civic awareness and democratic citizenship (Root and Billig 2008). Through learning and reflection, students are capable of comparing their life situations to those of the people they serve and they place any need or problem in local and global contexts. Once students start to consider the possibility of changing social problems, they realize the importance of the learning component. It takes service to meet needs, but knowledge and skills to end them.

Catalano, R. F., Haggerty, K. P., Oesterle, S., Fleming, C. B., and Hawkins, J.D. (2004). The importance of bonding to school for healthy development: Findings from the Social Development Research Group (pp. 252-261). Journal of School Health, 74(7).
Furco, A. (2002). Is service-learning really better than community service? A study of high school service program outcomes. In A. Furco & S. H. Billig (Eds.), Advances in service-learning research: Vol. 1. Service-learning: The essence of the pedagogy (pp. 23-50). Greenwich, CT: Information AGe.
Neal, M., Leeper, T., and Root, S. (2009). Attributes of quality service-learning in respondents’ past service experience: new findings from NYLC’s Transitioning to Adulthood Survey. In Growing to Greatness 2009 (in press), St. Paul, MN: NYLC.
Root, S., and Billig, S. H. (2008). Service-learning as a promising approach to high school civic engagement. In J. Bixby & J. Pace (Eds.), Educating democratic citizens in troubled times: Qualitative studies of current efforts (pp. 107-130). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Yates, M. (1995). Community service and identity development in adolescence. Dissertation. Catholic University of America. Washington, DC.

YAC Member Champions Gender Equality

NYLC is proud to recognize Youth Advisory Council Member Soua Thao as she is presented with the Sharon L. Doherty Student Leadership Award from the Women’s Center at the University of Minnesota. Nominated by peers and mentors, Soua’s work to advance education equity and stimulate youth leadership has deep connections to women’s issues, forged by large underlying factors like sexism, racism, and inequalities in socioeconomic status. Soua was honored with the award at the annual Celebrating University Women Awards Program, hosted by the Women’s Center late last month.

Shrimp Doherty Award

The Sharon L. Doherty Student Leadership Award recognizes a servant-leader from the University of Minnesota who demonstrates outstanding volunteer service and advocacy for women’s issues on campus or in the broader community. The Doherty Award was established in 1993 and honors the work of former doctoral student and University of Minnesota alumna, Sharon Doherty, whose exhaustive efforts led to the successful Commission on Women’s Students Initiative and continued University commitment to programming for women students. Soua’s work in the community has also created a sense of belonging to it, “All summer I had struggled with finding a place to call home. Now, after receiving support from my professors, friends, mentors, and family, I am happy to be a student at the University of Minnesota.”

As part of the Doherty Award, Soua will receive a $1000 grant to be used for attendance to a national leadership conference focused on the empowerment of women. “I am honored by this award and am so thankful to have an opportunity to attend a conference and to learn what others are doing about women’s issues and what I can do, too.”

A Long Tradition of Partnership

NYLC is proud to welcome two passionate new staff members to its team. Emily and Hannah are joining NYLC as Promise Fellows through the Minnesota Alliance with Youth, in partnership with AmeriCorps. NYLC is honored to continue a long tradition of partnership with these two great organizations.

emily ueckerEmily Uecker, the Youth Initiatives Promise Fellow, will work closely with our Youth Advisory Council, a national team of young servant-leaders that help shape NYLC’s programmatic and organizational vision. In step with this work, Emily will be working with the YAC to broaden Youth4Education to reach new audiences and to inspire youth-led work to advance education equity around the country. “I’m very excited to serve with such an amazing national organization. NYLC combines my passions for youth work, service, and social justice all into one. I’m excited to act on these passions and work with the YAC to advance #Youth4Ed.”

hannahHannah Reece, the Youth Coach Promise Fellow, will focus her work on supporting our District-wide Model, focusing on the effective implementation of service-learning best practices as they relate to student experiences.  “My passion to ‘transform the education system’ has steadily grown through my direct service with youth. My work this year to solidify, define, and implement the District-wide Model allows me to put into practice my passion for educational transformation and my talents in synthesis and structure-building. I’m excited for the possibilities of new district partnerships.”

NYLC is thrilled to add Emily and Hannah to the team. Learn more about NYLC staff.

Top Ten Reasons to Present at Educate. Ignite. Transform.

Submit your proposal today at

From James Toole, Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota and President of Compass Institute.


In 1990 my wife Pamela and I joined a small classroom of people attending the very first National Service-Learning Conference®. To this day I gratefully remember how presenters like Jim Kielsmeier and Cynthia Parsons opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about education. Inspired, I’ve presented at every National Service-Learning Conference since and found new adventures, friendship, and learning on an annual basis. Here are 10 reasons why YOU should “apply to present at the 27th Annual National Service-Learning Conference, Educate. Ignite. Transform.

  1. Leadership: To reach a tipping point in American education, the service-learning field needs to be “leaderful.” We need many novas (bright stars) to thrive.
  2. Service: Presenting at the National Service-Learning Conference is an act of service. In an era of open-source innovation, we are hungry to gather everyone’s insights and experiences. What is routine for you may be the key insight to propel a peer forward!
  3. Skills: I’ve had some exhilarating presentations and some we won’t discuss! But whatever the outcome, I always walked away with new insights about how to better manage that magical space between presenters and participants where inspiration and deep change can occur.
  4. Reflection: Presenting at the conference offers an excuse to reflect upon, rethink, and update your theory and practice for not only better education, but a better world.
  5. Inspiration: It has been said that great audiences make great speakers. When you present at the National Service-Learning Conference, you are inspired by speaking to people from all over the United States and several international locations.
  6. Visibility: If you want to be a saint, your motto might be: “To do, to dare, and to be silent.” But if you want support for your work, you’ll need to be more public about what you do. Presenting at the conference can increase your credibility back home.
  7. Transformation: Think about bringing your students/ youth or a colleague to present with you. It might be life-changing for your team!
  8. Assessment: How do you figure out whether what you are doing is unique and/or worthwhile? We all need to test our ideas and practice in front of a knowledgeable and critical audience. What better place is there than the National Service-Learning Conference?
  9. Community: Research shows that today’s successful educators are invariably members of some type of formal or informal professional learning community. Hint: the National Service-Learning Conference is a 1500-person PLC!
  10. Economy: Adult presenters receive a lower registration fee for the whole conference.

Service-Learning’s Biggest Event Needs You

Are you interested in changing the world? So are we. And so are more than 1,000 friends and peers that will be attending Educate. Ignite. Transform., the 27th Annual National Service-Learning Conference. Youth and adults from around the world convene to share their passions and their ideas. Are you going to join them?

Registration is live for this incredible event, which means that now is the time to act for Champion Admission. These rates are the lowest you’ll ever see. View the Admissions page for more information and click Register Now to get started. Champion Admission deadline is October 31.

If you’ve got something to share, the Call for Proposals for conference workshops and showcases is open until October 2. Don’t just attend the conference. Add value by being a part of the conference experience. Share your knowledge and techniques while gaining even more to add to your tool belt.

Lastly, your audience is waiting. Meet face to face with youth and adult attendees at the Opportunity and Resource Fair and let them discover your latest products, services, and technologies that are transforming schools and benefiting students, educators, and communities. Reserve your spot today!

Service-learning’s biggest event needs you. Will you be there?

Youth at the Helm

Late last month, NYLC was in Chicago, Ill., at Ada S. McKinley Lakeside Academy – Youth Connection Charter Schools, to lead the 2015 YCCS Summer Immersion Training. As part of an ongoing partnership with YCCS to support the infusion of high-quality, standards-based service-learning into curriculum at all levels, this training focused on the fundamentals of quality and authentic service-learning, as well as implementation strategies to support educators in their classrooms on a daily basis.

yccs summer immersion 1

Participating in the Summer Immersion were two integral groups in our District-wide Model: Teacher Leaders and Youth Ambassadors. Teacher Leaders serve as examples to their peers and introduce high-quality service-learning, based on the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice, in their classrooms. One Teacher Leader intimated that “[with] service-learning there is a level of freedom for teachers to shape and to mold and to guide.” In tandem with Teacher Leaders, Youth Ambassadors drive Youth Voice in their service-learning projects and serve as leaders for peers in their classrooms and throughout the district. Learn more about our District-wide Model.

yccs summer immersion 2

Exercises included a Leadership Compass Self-Assessment designed to inform innate leadership styles and how one’s traits operate in group-work settings. A brief history of service-learning, and how it differentiates from service and from learning, highlighted the training content. In response to an exercise in which participants were to choose a photo that represents their feelings and thoughts about the power of service-learning, one Youth Ambassador chose an image of a tug-of-war rope and shared that “I chose this picture because I believed that there may be challenges, but if we all pull together we can get things done.” With youth at the helm at Ada S. McKinley and with supportive teachers standing by their side, academic achievement will thrive.

McCain Institute 2014 Next Generation Leaders Graduate, 2015 Class Begins Program

WASHINGTON (September 4, 2015) – On Thursday, September 3, The McCain Institute’s 2014 Next Generation Leaders (NGL) participated in a graduation ceremony marking their completion of the U.S. development portion of the program.

This year’s participants represent 12 countries and a variety of professional backgrounds, and have demonstrated a personal commitment to character-driven leadership already in their careers.


Mohammad Tarawneh, of Jordan, spent the last year as a 2014 NGL serving with the National Youth Leadership Council.

The key component of the NGL program is each individual’s Leadership Action Plan aimed at defining the tangible steps each will take to create positive change in his or her home communities. The 2014 NGLs focused on a variety of issues in their LAPs, such as human rights, youth leadership and freedom of speech.

Upon graduation, our 2014 participants will take their Leadership Action Plans home for implementation and stay connected to each other and The McCain Institute via the NGL Global Network, an online communications platform that serves NGLs and the Institute in communicating and advancing implementation of the Leadership Action Plans.

Mr. Tarawneh has specific plans to remain partnered with NYLC, promoting service-learning in his home country of Jordan and engaging that country’s large refugee population, particularly youth.

Sahana Mishra, a 2014 NGL, focuses on reducing economic and gender-based poverty in India. Ms. Mishra works in New Delhi at Pradan — an organization that enables poor rural families to live a life of dignity. Through her work at Pradan, Ms. Mishra will provide micro-finance opportunities to disadvantaged women and create a support network for the women that empowers them to provide for their own livelihood and gain control over their lives.

On September 12, The McCain Institute welcomes the 2015 class of Next Generation Leaders.

Following their first leadership training session in Washington, the group will disperse across the United States, taking up year-long professional development assignments at a variety of business, government and non-governmental organizations promoting causes such as education, gender-based violence prevention and sustainable development – from Cure Violence to the International Rescue Committee.

About the Next Generation Leaders (NGL) Program

The McCain Institute’s flagship program is the Next Generation Leaders (NGL) program, designed to identify, train, network and empower a diverse group of emerging, character-driven leaders from the United States and around the world. The NGL program offers up to 20 emerging global leaders one year of targeted professional and personal development—with a core focus on values, ethics and leadership—in order to create a capable and lasting global network of character-driven leaders who shape the world we will inhabit in the future. As the Institute links successive classes of leaders together, it creates a global network of advocates for common core values of security, economic opportunity, freedom and human dignity.

Learn more about the program here:

Tools for School

The first day, week, and even month of school can be overwhelming. New faces, new classes, new challenges abound. For service-learners, the new landscape can be even more uncertain.

For rookies, it’s hard to know exactly how to get started. That’s when you need Getting Started in Service-Learning. This elementary through high school handbook answers the biggest questions for those new to service-learning:

What is service-learning?
What does successful service-learning include?
Is service-learning right for me?

Email with inquiries and to order your copy of Getting Started in Service-Learning today.

In the meantime you can watch this free webinar, an Introduction to Service-Learning. Hosted by Professional Development and Training Manager Elizabeth Koenig, the webinar draws on NYLC’s more than thirty years of service-learning experience.


Collaboration and Teamwork WalkAbout Guide Creating SMART Goals

For the intermediate crowd, you know service-learning looks different every year. Quality service-learning projects are student-led – which is how we know projects are meaningful to participants and the community. As such, each new crop of students brings with them a new set of skills and passions. How do you maintain quality given this yearly upheaval? The K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice. Dive into the standards at lift.nylc.orgLift: Raising the Bar for Service-Learning Practice.

Experts: it’s time to pay it forward. You’ve mastered service-learning; you’ve made positive change in your community with vibrant, engaged students. Tell us how you did it. If you have developed resources, research, toolkits – you name it – feature it in the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse to share with the broader service-learning community. If you simply have a story to tell, share it on our blog at!

For information on either option, email Have a great school year.

2015 Shinnyo-En Foundation Annual Retreat

From Elizabeth Koenig, Professional Development and Training Manager.

Last week I had the privilege to attend the Shinnyo-­en Foundation Annual Retreat. The retreat is designed as a meaningful opportunity to connect with people in the fields of service­-learning and youth development, and to think deeply about our own personal, cultural, and spiritual paths to service.

Throughout the weekend, Shinnyo-­en shared their Infinite Paths to Peace program, which encourages participants to explore how their talents and passions can be used to serve others.

shinnyo-en 1

Leaders from the Destiny Arts Center led us through an energizing dance to get our bodies moving!

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We explored the theory of Human-­Centered Design as a way to solve complex issues by using the knowledge, passion, and creativity of the people in the room.  We looked at the drought in California and how every household in America can be engaged in conserving water.

shinnyo-en 3

My group came up with the idea to develop “Water You Using?” — a reality show where households compete to decrease their water usage.

shinnyo-en 4

Our home groups, comprised of 8 individuals from diverse backgrounds, worked together throughout the weekend on different activities and reflections during which we were able to share what we’re passionate about, our values, and our backgrounds.

shinnyo-en 5

The entire Shinnyo­-en Retreat was a great opportunity to learn more about the work that the Shinnyo-­en Foundation, their partners, and the Shinnyo-en Fellows are conducting, as well as reflect on my own work and passion for service and youth leadership.

Thanks to the whole group for an awesome retreat!

shinnyo-en 6

Onwards Down the #Youth4Ed Path

At the 2015 National Youth Leadership Training last month, the Youth4Education campaign found its Lead Activists in twenty-two young leaders ready to change their communities with service-learning. Launching with the inspiration and knowledge gathered from the experience, the #Youth4Ed Lead Activists are prepared to take action with projects geared toward advancing education equity and mitigating the factors that impede it.

“My greatest takeaway from the 2015 NYLT is that everyone has the ability to inspire change. You don’t have to just talk about doing it; you have the power to make change happen. I plan to be one of them.” — Merrit Jones (pictured center)

Youth4Education is a youth-driven solution to inequity in education. Fueled by the power of service-learning, which provides youth an active role in their own education, attending school becomes meaningful and relevant; youth apply academic skills to real problems, creating schools that become community centers of learning, where residents become resources. As our Lead Activists launch their service-learning projects, now, more than ever, #Youth4Ed needs your voice — isn’t it time you shared it?

“By the end of the 2015 NYLT, I felt as if I had been pushed out of my boundaries as a leader and out of my comfort zone. I feel like a leader who not only has big ideas, but the bravery to advocate for what I believe is right.” — Nadya Okamoto (pictured above)

You do not need to be a Lead Activist to get involved with Youth4Education. Take the #Youth4Ed Pledge — for young leaders or for their adult allies — to commit yourself, your ideas, and your passion to support initiatives in your community working to advance education equity. Like Youth4Education on Facebook and follow NYLC on Twitter to launch conversations about education equity and to share your passion with friends, family, and everyone in between. Use the #Youth4Ed hashtag on social media to demonstrate your support.

Do you know a young leader already making change in your community? Nominate them for a National Service-Learning Award to be given at Educate. Ignite. Transform., the 27th Annual National Service-Learning Conference®.