Rural Service Learning: Turning Special Challenges Into Great Opportunities

Nicholas Holton, Service Learning Coordinator and Mathematics Instructor
Kirtland Community College, Roscommon, Michigan


Service learning is a pedagogical model that connects meaningful community service experiences with academic course learning. Large urban centers are often the leaders in community service learning opportunities. The urban population is centrally located, and urban, post-secondary institutions can point with well-deserved pride to their outstanding community partnerships. These provide great experiential learning opportunities for students and valuable services to the community. Yet urban areas do not hold a monopoly on civic needs. Rural areas have the same problems and require the same services. Consider the great distances that rural areas encompass along with the lack of civic infrastructure, and one can begin to envision the problem that rural community colleges face everyday in their struggle to increase student engagement. This article concentrates on turning these special obstacles into great opportunities for our students. The following examines problems for rural community colleges in four critical spheres of responsibility: College; Community; Faculty; and Students.

Institutional Challenges in Rural Service Learning

Rural Community College Districts are often spread over large geographical areas. Kirtland Community College is located in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. The district covers four counties, and the closest town is seven miles away. Almost entirely a commuter campus, many students drive fifty to seventy-five miles (one way) to campus. Trying to coordinate service opportunities for students in this large region is a daunting task. One suggestion that has worked with our faculty is to discover a common community need in all the localities and allow students to work in their hometowns on the projects. For example the KCC Nursing department has partnered with local health departments to have nursing students provide flu shots during the early winter months. These shots are free to the public and provide students with much needed practice while relieving the local health department personnel during this busy time of the year.

The rural community college district might have a common physical characteristic that the college can use to create service opportunities. For instance, in our district the Ausable River nationally known for its great trout fishing and scenic beauty cuts right through the college district. Currently KCC uses students in the nature study class to do etymological stream studies. Soon the physical science course will be sending students to do water testing in the river near their home communities. The class will send this information to area stream conservation groups for use in restoring and maintaining the river ecosystem.

Small Rural Community colleges are often unable to financially support and sustain a comprehensive service learning program. Yet, a small rural institution might find it easier than larger institutions to implement service learning courses. The bureaucracy of a smaller institution is usually very receptive to new and innovative teaching strategies. There are fewer people to convince of the efficacy of the proposal and less department members to persuade. At KCC there is only one full-time history instructor. Thus, if he incorporates a service learning component in all of his courses, then 100% of history students will have a service experience. With this in mind, the numbers of students at KCC might not be overwhelming when compared to large urban/suburban universities, but the proportion of students engaged in service activities at KCC will meet or exceed those of larger institutions.

Rural Communities Face Special Problems

Multiple community agencies contribute to the lack of any inter-agency infrastructure. It is this very lack of infrastructure that inhibits large-scale social service partnerships in geographically large rural areas. Smaller community institutions can aid in developing meaningful partnerships with rural community colleges. Usually one or two college officials can meet with local agencies and negotiate an agreement that is easily ratified by the administrative leadership of the two organizations. These partnerships can be easily initiated, developed and implemented. Unfortunately at small civically engaged rural community colleges there are always a small number of individuals who spearhead the service learning movement on campus. These people must work to institutionalize service learning throughout the entire campus, hoping the movement will survive the loss of key people when they leave or retire.

The rural community college can take the lead in an area that lacks any cohesive entity for coordinating community services. By sponsoring a Community Agency Summit, the college can facilitate a new spirit of cooperation in seemingly unconnected organizations. From this start, agencies can better coordinate their efforts, eliminate duplicated services and provide more valuable community service experiences for college students.

What does “neighborhood” mean in a rural area? In urban and suburban communities, the concept of neighborhood is well entrenched in the American lexicon. Yet as service learning practitioners in a rural setting, we must be willing to expand our concept of community to include a much wider geographical area. This could include the entire county, parish, reservation, Pacific Island, or any region with a common defined community need. Recently a student at Kirtland Community College has finished documenting the need for a county-wide housing code in one of our counties. She has created an awareness video depicting the problem, and she has shared it with local township officials. Additionally, she has completed an inventory of all substandard housing using the National Habitat for Humanity model that she will share with county officials to improve the housing situation in her neighborhood, namely the whole county.

Small population densities mean a lack of service opportunities. This is actually a myth based on the small scale of community services that are often found in small rural communities. Many people think that living in the “country” eliminates all social problems. Sometimes parents in urban and suburban areas will send their troubled youth to the “country” schools to get their kids away from trouble. Unfortunately these children find the same temptations and trials that exist in the city. The sad reality is that rural areas experience the same problems that urban and suburban communities face. Thus the need for social services is just as important and the opportunities to engage in service are proportionally just as plentiful. It is important for the rural community college to find innovative ways to harvest these service ideas and maximize the impact on the local communities.

Creating community partnerships is especially difficult in rural areas. Since college personnel live all over the large geographical distances of rural colleges, it is hard for them to be familiar with all the community agencies in all localities. It therefore becomes increasingly important for the college to become creative in cultivating contacts and potential partners. Kirtland Community College has addressed this problem by having students in a humanities course take the lead in the recruitment of community partners. Students in the “Individual and the Society” class have interviewed district community service agencies to see which ones are the most receptive to having college students perform volunteer service at their organizations. The agencies are then contacted by a Kirtland service learning professional and encouraged to become KCC Community Partners, which includes participation in college-sponsored events, student referrals for community service and a listing in a searchable database through our web page. These partners will be contacted each year to gain feedback and criticism of the service learning placements and potential for new initiatives.

Challenges Faced by Rural Service Learning Faculty

Rural service learning faculty members have little support for their programs.Large colleges have budgets that can support well-established institutionalized offices for service learning. These college offices coordinate activities, place students, develop and nurture community partnerships, and conduct program assessment. To do all of this at a small rural community college is virtually impossible. Small colleges need to take advantage of the support of state and national organizations. The Community College National Center for Community Engagement, Campus Compact, and the American Association of Community Colleges are just three organizations that have devoted considerable resources to the problems of rural community colleges.

Faculty members are unable to network with other service learning practitioners. This is true in small colleges everywhere. The service learning professionals on campus need to work diligently to create an atmosphere of collegiality on campus for all current and prospective service learning practitioners. Last year, Kirtland Community College hosted a regional service learning workshop, and had several smaller social events designed to promote the services opportunities in individual courses and allow for service learning instructors to meet and discuss their projects, successes and challenges. It is important for the smaller rural college to ensure networking opportunities for faculty especially when professional development budgets are often the first to be reduced in times of fiscal restraint.

Rural service learning faculty get little recognition or rewards for service learning. Fortunately, few professors expect that community service would or should be an avenue to recognition. The very notion of getting rewards for performing service to our community seems almost heretical. Yet, without some way to reward the additional work involved in incorporating service learning into a curriculum, many faculty will eventually tire or lose interest. So service learning professionals should initiate ways to encourage increased participation and reward years of dedicated service. To this end I suggest that rural community colleges participate in state-level award programs. If the state does not have an award program, then initiate one. The first place to start is with your state Campus Compact office. Michigan Campus Compact sponsors the Outstanding Faculty Award given each year at the annual faculty institute. Member campuses are encouraged to nominate an award winner from each campus. Although there is no monetary award, the winners receive a certificate and other tokens of appreciation. Their names are then forwarded to the local news media for publication. This is a small gesture, and one that invariably provides a positive boost for faculty.

The rural community college can sponsor team-building events on campus for service learning participants. At Kirtland Community College the service learning faculty cadre has started a tradition called the ‘Service Learning Spring Fling.’ Service learning students, faculty, and administrators are invited to a luncheon and are asked to share their successes and challenges from the past year. Prospective service learning faculty members are encouraged to attend, and a representative from the state Campus Compact is there to provide resources and technical advice. The KCC service learning faculty cadre started with approximately a dozen faculty members in 1999. This has now grown to include approximately half of the full-time faculty, all of the instructional administration, and many part-time faculty.

The Kirtland Community College budget has little room to sponsor expensive service learning projects, but with the help of small startup grants from the state Campus Compact and from the American Association of Community Colleges our faculty have been able to start service programs in many new and innovative areas. We have used grant money to produce a video that is available at These small grants have given faculty the needed boost to start programs that would have withered for lack of support. Positive public recognition, coupled with local team-building activities supported with a dedicated mini-grant program go a long way to support and nurture fledging programs.

Students Face Unique Challenges in Rural Areas

Student engagement is often sporadic on the rural campus. This is due to three seemingly insurmountable obstacles. First, the rural community college is often a commuter campus. As described earlier, Kirtland students often drive fifty to seventy-five miles one way to campus. This creates two or three hours of ‘road time’ per day. Students often balk at having to do anything that adds to their commute. The college can help students ease their commuting woes and still require service by developing service opportunities in all local communities. Although not an easy task, the college needs to recognize the special obstacles that rural students face and endeavor not to add to the problem.

Another serious problem for the rural student is the basic demographics of the student population. With a median age of 28-30 and a majority being female (and mothers) the rural student is often focused solely on academic and personal survival. Trying to explain the great opportunity to provide services to the community is dismissed by many of our students as something that has little to do with training for a career and therefore is circumspect from the beginning. Again, the rural community college has an obligation to provide ways to encourage civic engagement while understanding the unique circumstances faced by a large contingent of the student body. KCC has started to overcome this obstacle by initiating an online student senate. Still in the pilot stages, the online student senate allows topics of general interest to be discussed in an asynchronous environment so formal meetings are convened less often and are more productive. It is not perfect and has not eliminated the need for regular meetings, but more students are given a voice, and the result has been better representation for all.

Community college programs are designed to be a two-year experience. Many rural students then need to move to larger urban or suburban areas to complete their education. So the college develops the leadership potential of its students just in time for them to transfer to a university, which then gets the benefit of their prior service learning and civic engagement training. The college in general, and the faculty in particular need to constantly recruit and develop replacements for the steady talent drain inherent in the two-year college. Students who get their first taste of civic engagement and service learning at the community college with be more likely to return to the area (or at least another rural area) to live, work, and contribute to their community.


The rural community college faces obstacles that other colleges can avoid. Fortunately, many of the very things that are viewed as obstacles can be opportunities and some are even advantages – although they may be well-disguised. It is easy to see small rural colleges as the backwater of the service learning movement. Yet upon closer examination, many of the most innovative and unique programs are happening in these colleges. Collegiate service learning programs should not be judged solely by the number of students involved. If this were the only measurement, the rural community college would always seem to be a weak participant. Rather, I contend that service learning programs should be measured against a standard of the proportion of the student body involved in service, the value of the service to the community, and the example the college, faculty and student body set in the local community. If a low number (but high percentage) of the student body are actively engaged in meaningful community service that provides quality experiential educational opportunities, then the college can point with pride to their students, faculty, and community partners.

About the Author

Nicholas Holton is a Mathematics Instructor and Service Learning Coordinator at Kirtland Community College in Roscommon, Michigan. He is a charter member of the Michigan Alliance for Rural Service Learning, and a peer mentor with the National Service-Learning Exchange. Campus Compact has recognized Kirtland’s Service Learning Program as a best practice for creating partnerships, and Kirtland has been selected as a model of exemplary practices of engagement. Nicholas has conducted workshops at both the state and national level. Professional awards have included the Northwood University Award for Outstanding Professionalism, the Michigan Campus Compact Outstanding Faculty award, and the Above and Beyond Award. Nicholas designed and implemented Kirtland Community College’s mathematics assessment program. Contact Nicholas at; Web URL: ; Telephone: 989-275-5000 ext. 412; Fax: 989-275-8745; or 10775 North St. Helen Road, Roscommon, Michigan 48653

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.