Community Service Work-Study Sparks Civic Action

Samantha Collins, Interim Director, Thayne Center for Service & Learning, Salt Lake Community College

May 20, 2019

Many students joining our institutions in the coming months are seeking opportunities to be active on campus and in community, ways to pay for school, and build skills for their future career(s). Community service work-study programming through the Office of Federal Student Aid can serve as a meaningful and defining college experience that achieves these goals through direct experience at local organizations, financial support, and exposure to civic learning and democratic engagement (CLDE) work. In this brief blog post, the value of the community service work-study program is outlined for students, institutions, and community partners through the lens of cultivating civic action as a lifelong practice.

Federal work-study is a unique program within the portfolio of federal financial aid because it is more than a monetary transaction; the program offers both tangible work experience and a pathway for student involvement on campus and in the community. The Federal Work-Study program was initially established through the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as a way to “stimulate and promote the part-time employment of students in institutions of higher education… from low-income families and are in need of the earnings from such employment to pursue courses of study at such institutions” (, 513). In 1992, a community service requirement was added to the work-study program, mandating that 5% of work-study funding must be used towards community service programs (, Part C); this was adjusted up to 7% in 2000.

The community service work-study program serves as a catalyst to build relevant skills and engagement in a range of different pathways to public service for those who are considering a career in the social change sector. Working up to 20 hours per week throughout the semester (depending on eligibility) gives students time to cultivate knowledge and skills in a more intensive way than a one-time volunteer opportunity and with more a higher level of accountability and expectations than an ongoing volunteer position; intensive experiences result in deep learning about themselves, their values around work, and their values around being civically engaged at a deeper level. The largest program in Salt Lake Community College’s community service work-study program is the America Reads tutoring program. From social work and education to math and engineering, students enter the program with a variety of majors and interests, meaning that the content of the program may range in direct applicability to their long-term career. However, the skills they build in delivering curriculum, teaching someone (in this case, elementary students) a new skill, mentoring and active listening, and effectively managing their time are skills that are widely applicable beyond an educational setting. In the process, they work towards improving the quality of lives of other people and learn more about important issues in their community.

While the structure and processes related to funding vary from institution to institution, students in the community service work-study program secure funding that can be used in the way they need it the most. Whether they choose to use it to pay for rent, food, or tuition, it is one of the unique programs within financial aid and scholarships because it can be used on a range of expenses from tuition and fees to food and rent.  Given the influx of data around food and housing insecurity on college campuses, it is essential that comprehensive funding is available to support the whole student. The funding model through financial aid is also beneficial for community partners; while there may be a cost-share for community service work-study students to be placed at a nonprofit organization or school, it is at a significantly reduced amount (25% maximum of the hourly rate). The availability of funding through civic engagement experiences is supportive of students professionally, intellectually, and financially, all while benefiting community partners and local communities.

Finally, as students participate in community service work-study, they meet a new network of people than they otherwise would in their college experience. Connections with community partners and other campus departments develop students’ network of support and mentorship, helping them navigate the challenging systems of institutions and bureaucracies. In larger programs, they also may connect with other student co-workers who share similar interests and ambitions. Through conversations with mentors and peers, they frequently discover new information or perspectives on how they can effect the change they want to see in their community in the most impactful way possible, enabling them to refine their engagement pathway at college and throughout their lives. For example, a SLCC student majoring in pre-medical and health sciences with the goal to become a nurse began community service work-study at a local health clinic assisting with volunteer management. Over the past two years, she has gained a new perspective on the operations of a clinic and has learned about the myriad opportunities outside of direct work with patients. She recently shared with our office that she has decided to change her major to health administration, a change that she stated would have never happened without her long-term engagement in community service work-study at this placement. In doing so, she will continue to use the skills she has built through the program as part of her lifelong practice to achieve a greater public good.

With the emphasis placed on internships as a high impact practice and practical work experience that future employers look for on resumes, community service work-study participation can serve as a way for students to access relevant nonprofit experience, needed funding, and embed these students within new peer, campus, and community networks. Whether community service work-study is a program that your institution is maximizing or under-utilizing, now is the time to see the potential in this resource and map out how you can best leverage it for deeper civic action in 2019-2020.

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