The Value of Service Learning at The City University of New York


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Experiential Learning

The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index report “Great Jobs, Great Lives” talks about the importance of students interacting with mentors, and the value of feeling connected. Dr. James Stellar, former Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Queens College City University of New York (CUNY), an arts and sciences institution, says one of the best ways to help students be more connected and more successful in their university studies, and their lives, is to make higher education more practical and more meaningful. He believes this can be done without undermining, the classical academic critical thinking, the knowledge building and writing, and the development and honing of other necessary skills a graduate needs to succeed. He thinks the missing advantage colleges and universities can give their students is experiential education, including service learning, or other forms of learning from direct experience. This conversation focuses on service-learning.

“There are hundreds of these kinds of community-based learning experiences across higher education,” said Stellar. “But they are generally not big, at-scale, organized and systemic to the ethos of a university or college,” though he cites Drexel, Georgia Tech, MIT and Northeastern as exceptional leaders in experiential education focusing on internships. He believes combining academic learning with learning from direct experience offers a triple bottom line of fundamental wins. The student wins by gaining experience, expertise and direction. The university wins because committed engaged students are more likely to persist and succeed. And, business and industry benefit by attracting and training more mature talent that later join their workforce. Additionally, internships and co-ops are the ultimate interview for ascertaining ability and fit.

CUNY Service Corps

An example of successful service learning can be found at the City University of New York – CUNY Service Corps, which operates at a number of CUNY colleges, including Queens College. The Service Corps is a CUNY-wide initiative providing students with meaningful, paid service experiences of 24 weeks during the academic year, while building their resumes and networks, and improving the community in which they live. The Service Corps represent a peer cohort of more than 750 students, eight CUNY campuses and more than 90 community partners.

“The previous CUNY chancellor had started the notion of a service corps that provides our often financially-challenged students with paid part-time internships in service over two semesters,” he said. CUNY is committed to supporting its students and the Service Corps provides the chance to learn and earn, critical to the persistence of many low-income students.

“When I was at Northeastern we offered deep experiential education opportunities in the College of Arts and Sciences, which was unusual compared to most schools at the time who offered smaller programs predominantly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or in Business programs. As the Northeastern experiential education program grew and Northeastern University rose in the US News rankings, the quantity and quality of students we had applying to the college increased and the effect on the institution was transformative. Our SAT scores rose 250 points, our number of qualified applicants tripled. Students wanted to be part of this process,” said Stellar.

Neuroeconomics & Reward Factors

So why do experiential educational and service-learning projects help us learn and engage with what we’re studying? A neuroscientist, Stellar explains. “The theory stems from modern brain research often using activity-based brain scanners, and is gaining tremendous attention,” he said, pointing to discussions at a recent Society for Neuroscience conference, which drew than 30,000 attendees. “About 20 years ago neuroscience came up with brain scanning machines that could measure what we couldn’t see deep in the living human brain, and it created a few new fields such as neuroeconomics.” Stellar says, “In neuroeconomics we can watch on the scanning machine various brain structures go active or inactive when people make purchasing decisions in a laboratory as part of what are sometimes called economic games. For example, certain brain areas that light up when the reward factor is engaged. I think it must be active when students are exploring careers they want and the college majors that support them. Here is where a little direct experience in the field such as with an internship or in the CUNY Service Corps can provide a powerful complement to the student’s decision about choice of major or even how much work to put into that major.”

When we have certain experiences, certain parts of the brain come into play that we are not consciously aware of and not using during standard lecture-based learning opportunities, explained Stellar. “It’s what we have in common with the animals. It feels good, and it makes us feel like we know what we’re doing. Higher education wasn’t using this thinking as part of its paradigm. Everything was based in the rational side of the brain and didn’t recognize this powerful more intuitive process.” This process involves the non-rational, but predictable, parts of the brain, inspiring Stellar’s informative blog on this topic titled “The Other Lobe of the Brain.”

Designing Successful Service Learning Programs

CUNY colleagues Alice L. Halsted and Joan C. Shine caution that to be successful, service-learning programs must have the complete commitment of the university and must be well-designed. (Haltsted and Shine. Service Learning: the Promise and the Risk. New England Journal of Public Policy. Vol.10, Issue 1, Article 22. 1994)

The authors cite three key facets of well-designed programs centered on guided reflection:

– The opportunity to prepare for the service experience

–  The opportunity to learn the skills and competencies that give meaning to the work

–  The opportunity to review and reflect on the service experience

“John Gardner Institute speaks to the importance of getting the first-year experience right, but we also need to think about what we can do after that,” said Stellar. “It’s a good time to start asking students what they want to be, what they want to do, and then provide them with opportunities to check their reasoning through experience.”


The CUNY Service Corps mobilizes CUNY students, faculty and staff to work on projects that improve the short and long-term civic, economic and environmental sustainability of New York City and of its residents and communities. The program’s goals are three-fold: for students to make a meaningful difference through service while gaining valuable real-world work experience, earning a wage, and where appropriate, receiving college credit; for faculty members and staff, through their work with students in the program, to have additional opportunities to apply their expertise to addressing many of the city’s key challenges; and for residents, communities, and project sponsors to realize concrete benefits as a result of CUNY Service Corps projects. (From the City University of New York. Visit the CUNY Service Corps YouTube Channel.)

Experience Leads to Transformational Change

Stellar says experiential education activities can transform students. “You can see the change,” he said. “They can come back with a certain maturity that can help improve their chances of graduation,” said Stellar. In addition to helping students see the value of the finish line, Stellar points to the importance of these experiential activities in helping students ‘buy in’ to their own degree program.

He recalls a recent student who spent a summer working for a human rights coalition. “That student came back on fire, telling me the reason there is human trafficking is because there is sovereignty between countries, allowing the traffickers to escape the kind of scrutiny that suppresses any such trafficking between states in the USA. She came back telling everyone she’s going to become a human rights attorney and work at the United Nations to help control this global problem. That student was on fire and she is going to graduate,” he said. Other times, he sees students return to confess they truly are not passionate about their chosen field, and need to change majors. “How much better is it knowing that in their sophomore year than finding out after earning a bachelor’s or even master’s degree?” He also cites changes in how students present themselves and their research, exhibiting a professionalism and purpose beyond what the rational mind and rhetorical lectures can supply, though these have their place and meaning as well.

Predictive Analytics in Non-cognitive Research

“I’m excited about the work in predictive analytics because it will allow us to see where, exactly, this non-cognitive intuitive lift — these personal transformations — are occurring and at what places the degree program,” said Stellar. “The first step is to commit to having such experiential programs. The second step is to take it apart analytically and figure out how it works, then improve it.”

The Service Corps project is being administered under the leadership of Allan Dobrin, Executive Vice Chancellor & Chief Operating Officer; John Mogulescu, Senior University Dean for Academic Affairs and the Dean of the CUNY School of Professional Studies; Suri Duitch, University Dean for Continuing Education and Deputy to the Senior University Dean for Academic Affairs; and Rachel Stephenson, University Director of the CUNY Service Corps.

To learn more, please see:

The CUNY Service Corps

The Other Lobe of the Brain blog

Service Learning: The Promise and the Risk


Dr. James R. Stellar

As a professor of behavioral neuroscience for 30 years at Harvard and Northeastern universities, Dr. Stellar promoted serious undergraduate experiential education (ExEd) in his research laboratory. As a senior administrator of 14 years, first as Dean Northeastern and then as Provost at Queens College CUNY, and as co-director of the WACE Planning Institute on ExEd, he promoted programs of all forms of ExEd in higher education to complement a classical academic education. He writes a blog on ExEd and the brain ( and a book on this topic is forthcoming.

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