Service Learning and Civic Engagement: Pathway to Latino Immigrant Success through Servant Leadership

Ramon Dominguez, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Educational Management and Development and Rudy M. Garcia, Ed.D., Director of Experiential Learning
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces and Central New Mexico Community College, Albuquerque, New Mexico


By utilizing a service learning approach, Central New Mexico Community College embarked on an initiative to prepare Latino students, who also happen to be parents, to enhance their community service and civic responsibility. The Central New Mexico Civic Engagement Leadership Institute in collaboration with the Albuquerque ENLACE Program prepared immigrant parents to serve their nuclear and extended communities through a service learning/leadership model. The article addresses leadership perspectives, service learning, servant leadership, the Civic Engagement Institute and the integration of these elements to help increase Latino parent community service and civic responsibility.


Service learning is a contributing factor to the academic and experiential success of students attending community colleges. Through engagement in service learning activities, students contribute to their knowledge base, resume and job prospects, and also enhance their leadership skills and potential. Specifically, service learners become immersed in leadership preparation and community service/civic engagement. The growth process from service learners to servant leaders is evident in the experiential service program at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The development of students through this leadership growth process will be described by responding to the following questions: What is leadership? What is servant leadership and how does it function? What is the role of service learning and servant leadership in higher education? What is service learning? What is the role of community colleges in service learning? How did the Central New Mexico leadership program prepare Latino immigrant students to be servant leaders engaged in community service/ civic duty?


Northouse (2001), Fullan (2001), and Kouzes and Posner (2003), and Sample (2002) suggest a variety of theories, approaches and perspectives regarding the essence of leadership. Northouse (2001) provides an extensive overview of leadership approaches and theories. He discusses the Trait, Style, Situational, Psychodynamic and Transformational/Team Leadership approaches as well as the Contingency, Path-goal, and Leader-Member Exchange theories. Within this overview, he indicates:

Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. Leadership involves influence; it is concerned with how the leader affects followers. Influence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without influence, leadership does not exist (p. 3).

Fullan (2001) talks about leadership as a process by which the leader assists others in confronting problems by advancing a moral purpose, understanding change, developing relationships, knowledge building, and coherence-making. Most important in his discussion are the concepts of moral purpose and relationships. Fullan (2001) indicates that leadership involves the intention of making a positive difference in the lives of others as well as fostering genuine relationships.

Parallel to Fullan’s description of leadership, Kouzes and Posner (2003) speak about modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart. As an enabler, the leader strengthens others by fostering collaboration, building trust, promoting cooperation, and sharing power. By encouraging the heart, the leader develops a spirit of community by appreciating and recognizing the contributions of others.

Steven Sample (2002) echoes Kouzes and Posner by emphasizing the responsibility of the leader to work in bringing out the best in others. In recognizing the needs of others, the leader must ‘listen first, talk later; and when you listen, do so artfully’ (Sample, 2002, p. 189).

Through their scholastic endeavors, Northouse, Fullan, Kouzes and Posner, and Sample provide valuable insights into the definition of leadership. Their perspectives impact the concepts of servant leadership and service learning.

Servant Leadership

The aforementioned scholars’ definitions and descriptions of leadership reflect some of the important elements of Servant Leadership as proposed by Hunter (1998): treating others as important people, meeting the needs of others, seeking the greatest good for others, giving appreciation, attention, and encouragement. The concepts presented by Fullan, Kouzes and Posner, Sample, and Northouse, contribute to the definition of servant leadership outlined as by Hunter (1998).

Leadership that is going to go the distance over the long haul must be built on influence or authority. Authority is always built on serving and sacrificing for those you lead, which comes from identifying and meeting legitimate needs (p.85).

According to Hunter (1998), the servant leader is one who is honest, trustworthy, caring, committed, appreciative, positive, enthusiastic, respectful, a good role model, encouraging and a good listener. These qualities of character are supported by the behaviors of patience, kindness, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment.

Acknowledging Hunter’s emphasis on influence and authority as having its foundation in certain character qualities and behaviors, one very important element of servant leadership still remains for consideration. Robert Greenleaf (2002) asks an intriguing and essential question. Is the person first a leader then a servant or vice-versa? Greenleaf (2002) responds by stating:

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served (p.27).

He further elaborates on the difference between the servant-first/ leader-first approach:

The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader-first and who later serves out the promptings of conscience or in conformity with normative expectations (p. 28).

Servant-Leadership and Service Learning in Higher Education

Greenleaf (2002) suggests that institutions of higher learning ‘prepare students to serve and be served by the present society’ (p. 203). He indicates that on every campus, there are a number of students who have the potential to carry responsible roles in society, are committed to the servant ethic, work hard, act responsibly, have intuitive judgment, and have a desire to grow and learn (Greenleaf, 2002).

These are the people who may make a quantum leap in their growth as responsible persons while they are in college if someone on the faculty takes an interest finding and coaching them, much as the athletic department finds and coaches athletes (p. 210).

One of the initiatives developed in community colleges to find and prepare students to become responsible citizens, civic leaders, and individuals committed to serving their nuclear as well as extended community is in service learning programs.

Service Learning: Definition and Benefits

As indicated by Robert Greenleaf, colleges can contribute to the growth of students as responsible citizens if institutional personnel take the initiative to develop these individuals. Huntsberger’s (2005) description of service learning supports Greenleaf’s assertion:

Students learn through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in collaboration with schools/faculty and community organizations. The service experience is integrated into the students’ academic curriculum, so faculty must be involved in planning and implementing service-learning programs (p. 8).

Through the assistance of faculty or service learning director, students work in organizations or projects that are tied to both the student’s interest and academic programs. Students are placed in jobs with the intention of learning new skills, performing a service, and reflecting on lessons learned (Huntsberger, 2005).

Specifically important is the fact that service learning programs provide ‘work that makes a contribution to their community. Community service addresses a vast variety of social problems. Service-learning creates and strengthens connections between people, and serves the needs of the community as a whole’ (Huntsberger, 2005, p. 8). Further, service learning is an essential element in the development of a student’s civic education. It can influence political action skills, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and tolerance (Huntsberger, 2005). The student can integrate these influences into creating a servant-leader paradigm that reflects commitment, caring, honesty, respect, selflessness, patience, humility, and service.

Community Colleges and Service Learning

‘Due to their accessibility, applied focus and flexibility, community colleges are suited uniquely to serve nontraditional students and employers who need educational programs that integrate learning into work and family life’ (AACC/ACCT, 2000, paper 11, p. 3). With a community-based perspective, community colleges are in a unique position to provide a number of learning opportunities to students: transfer/graduate school options, general education, developmental education, job training/retraining, adult and continuing education and technical/health programs. Within these learning opportunities, community colleges enhance, through service learning, student success in service/leadership contributions and civic responsibility.

Community colleges are charged to develop their learners as citizens of the world, with all of the responsibilities that such a designation entails. Global citizenship requires the understanding and practice of global ethics. In the world arena, community colleges are positioned to serve as the catalyst for linkages between local and state governments and their counterparts abroad (AACC/ACCT, 2000, paper 12, p. 7).

The community college is well prepared to assist service learning students develop as servant-leaders to confront the many challenges facing local, state, national and international communities.

They have the opportunity to advance awareness in so many areas of concern around the world: human rights issues, both domestic and international, political civil liberties ethics, issues of international peace and security and environmental concerns (AACC/ACCT, paper 12, 2000, p. 7).

One community college that has taken the opportunity, through service learning initiatives, to enhance community service and civic responsibility with a servant-leader approach is Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Service Learning Program: Central New Mexico

The Service Learning Program at Central New Mexico Community College embarked on the design and development of a leadership program that would be service learning/servant leadership based and at the same time instill a sense of civic responsibility in the program participants. The essence of the program was based on the premises of civic responsibility and service learning. According to Gottlieb and Robinson (2002), civic responsibility involves active participation in the public life of a community in an informed, committed, and constructive manner, with a focus on the common good. Service learning includes the combination of community service and classroom instruction, with a focus on critical, reflective thinking, as well as personal and civic responsibility (Gottlieb & Robinson, 2002).

In 2003, the Pew Partnership for Civic Change and AACC joined forces to participate in a pilot project with five community colleges in the United States. The Pew Partnership for Civic Change administered a leadership program called Leadership Plenty which focused on specific skill building training for everyday citizens to learn how to work with diverse groups of people to solve community issues. The Pew Partnership for Civic Change wanted to introduce its training to institutions of higher education and decided that community colleges would be a good pilot project for its introduction. Central New Mexico Community College was one of the five selected by AACC to participate in the pilot project.

The Leadership Plenty program consists of nine experiential modules designed to train participants to work within in a small group format. The training modules consist of (a) Finding Leaders Within, (b) Identifying Community Assets, (c) Managing Groups, (d) Making Meetings Work Better, (e) Managing Conflict, (f) Building Strategic Partnerships, (g) From Talk to Action, (h) Valuing Evaluation, and (i) Communication. A tenth and optional module emphasizing diversity is also available.

The Department of Experiential Learning, responsible for administering the Service Learning Program at Central New Mexico, had attempted to develop a leadership program that would provide students with the opportunity to build upon leadership skills (such as team building, strategic planning, communication, asset mapping, and more) while performing their service and civic responsibility at their selected community agency sites. The Leadership Plenty program was ideal for developing civic and servant leadership qualities.

Modeling its program after Leadership Plenty and incorporating the shorter version of the Leadership Plenty curriculum, Central New Mexico implemented its program under the title of the Central New Mexico Civic Engagement Leadership Institute. The short version consisted of fewer hours per module than the longer version, four and six respectively. Central New Mexico developed a program that was rigorous and required participants to commit to attending all the training sessions while at the same time serving in their communities.

The Central New Mexico model established that each training session would be held once a week on Fridays from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm. Based on the surveys conducted by the Department of Experiential Learning, Friday mornings was the day and time that students, faculty, staff, and community representatives listed as ideal for having the training. Friday was also a day where Central New Mexico Community College held fewer classes, so there was ample classroom space and parking.

Acceptance into the institute required participants to complete an application for review and scoring by a committee. Criteria included a person’s ability to commit to attending all 10 training sessions (Central New Mexico incorporated the Diversity module into its Leadership Plenty training), and answering four questions. The responses required addressing their reasons for wanting to attend the institute and discussing how they would use the knowledge and skills gained from participation to serve their community. Applicants were also judged on how well they followed instructions regarding the completion of their application packet.

Central New Mexico students wishing to participate in the institute were also required to be registered for a minimum of six credit hours and maintain a grade-point average of 2.0 or greater. They also had to be a Central New Mexico student for the entire period they were participating in the institute. If a student was accepted into the institute and dropped below six credit hours or a grade-point average of 2.0, they would be released from the program.

All participants were given a choice of three options (A, B, and C) regarding participation and completion of the program. Option A required participants to complete all the training modules, and serve a minimum of 25 hours in their community. If the participant was a Central New Mexico student, the hours of service would be service learning hours as long as the student was in a course which was offering service learning. If the participant was not a Central New Mexico student, the hours of service would be volunteer hours that would be counted towards a nomination for the President’s Volunteer and Service Award.

Option A differed from Option B only on the number of hours required to serve the community. Option B requested a minimum of 50 hours of community service. Option C placed a 100-hour commitment. Additionally, Central New Mexico Service Learning students selecting Option C could meet their course objectives through the required 25 hours of service learning required by the Central New Mexico Service Learning Program. By choosing this option not only could they meet their service learning hour requirement, but they could also be nominated for the President’s Volunteer and Service Award. The combination of service learning and leadership training provided Central New Mexico students with a unique opportunity to complete their academic coursework and become civically engaged in their communities.

Community Service as a Servant Leader

The Central New Mexico Leadership Program is ideal for students to understand how servant leadership functions. Students not only gain academic understanding of their coursework through the experience, but have the potential to become actively engaged in serving their communities. The 2004 Central New Mexico Civic Engagement Institute provides a good example in the preparation of leaders to actively engage in community service.

The institute accepted twenty immigrant parents who were parent volunteers in the Albuquerque ENLACE (Engaging Latinos for Community Education ) Program. The ENLACE Program places parent volunteers in family centers at local middle and high schools to assist Latino students in staying in school. The parents typically receive training before volunteering at the family centers. The ENLACE Program administration believe it is important to include the parents in the institute because of the leadership skills taught in working with diverse populations to solve community issues. Because the parents were primarily Spanish-speaking, the coordinators of the Central New Mexico program decided to teach in Spanish with English translations. Regarding this approach in training diverse populations, Greenleaf (2002) writes:

The signs of the times suggest that, to future historians, the next thirty years will be marked as the period when the person of color and the deprived and the alienated of the world effectively asserted their claims to stature, and that they were not led by a privileged elite but by exceptional people from their own kind (p. 48).

The parents participating in the leadership institute were also enrolled in service learning through ESL courses. They completed their service learning hours while serving at the Family Learning Centers at various middle and high schools throughout the Albuquerque area. The parents’ primary goal was to keep Latino students in school and away from gangs. The leadership institute provided them with the perfect training necessary to prepare them to become responsible citizens and individuals committed to serving their local communities.

All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movement, but by each servant leader demonstrating his or her own unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group (Greenleaf, 2002, p.53).

All twenty parents graduated from the program and completed their service learning requirements. Of the twenty parent participants, sixteen were nominated for and received the Presidents Volunteer and Service Award.

Evaluations were provided before and after the institute. The evaluations prior to the institute indicated that no parent had ever received leadership training, volunteered in their communities either in Mexico or the United States or participated in service learning. Important was the fact that the average age of the parents participating in the institute was 37. The post evaluations and parent interviews were surprising and exciting to read.

After the institute, the parents were full of hope and excitement to begin using their new knowledge and skills in the Family Learning Centers. All twenty parents have continued to serve at their Family Learning Centers with two of the parents receiving paid positions in ENLACE. One of the ENLACE directors commented on how all of the parents had made many positive changes in their lives and in those of the students they served. She explained that prior to the leadership training and service learning, many of the parents were not very responsible, nor committed to service, but after the training, a new group of more civically engaged parents emerged.

The parents themselves expressed how the leadership training combined with the service learning experience taught them how to become responsible citizens. Many of them indicated they often felt inadequate at their centers because they did not speak English and did not have a formal education. They felt their voice was not as strong as that of US citizens serving in the same capacity. The service learning and leadership combination made them realize that service to the community is a universal language and activity no matter your ethnicity or level of education.


The success of the Central New Mexico Service Learning and Leadership Programs indicates how students, if given an opportunity to learn and grow, can become responsible citizens in society. They can complete their academic coursework while at the same time understand which social problems exist in communities, and become engaged in helping to address a variety of societal issues. Through the programs Central New Mexico has initiated, many of the concepts of servant leadership have been incorporated in assisting students to become responsible citizens, civic leaders, and individuals committed to serving their nuclear and extended communities.


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About the Authors:

Ramon Dominguez has dedicated the majority of his professional career to working in higher education. He spent twenty-nine years at El Paso Community College (EPCC) in El Paso, Texas. Dr. Dominguez served as an Instructor, Counselor, Lead Counselor, Title III Coordinator, Associate Vice-President of Student Services, Executive Vice-President, and President at El Paso Community College. Presently, he is an Associate Professor in the Educational Management and Development Department at New Mexico State University. As a graduate faculty, he coordinates the Community College and Educational Leadership Doctoral Programs. Dr. Dominguez holds a Doctorate in Educational Administration from New Mexico State University as well as an Educational Specialist Degree. His Masters in Counseling and Bachelors in Secondary Education are both from the University of Texas at El Paso. He is also a licensed Professional Counselor. Dr. Dominguez is married and is the proud father of three daughters. You can reach Dr. Dominguez at: Ramon Dominguez, Ph.D., Department of Educational Management and Development, New Mexico State University, P.O. Box 30001, MSC 3N, Las Cruces, New Mexico, 88003-8001; phone: 505/646-3481;

Rudy M. Garcia is the Director of Experiential Learning at Central New Mexico Community College and a Service Learning/Civic Engagement Consultant for the American Association of Community Colleges. He also serves as a Service Learning/Civic Engagement Trainer for the Community College National Center for Community Engagement. Dr. Garcia started Central New Mexico’s Service Learning Program in 1995 and has won numerous national awards for its impact on community and students. He has taught leadership and management courses at Central New Mexico, Wayland University, and the University of New Mexico. He is the founder and CAO of UNUM, a nonprofit dedicated towards providing educational training opportunities for government, schools and private business. He spent 7 years hosting his own television show on Channel 27 in Albuquerque which highlighted service learning and civic engagement events in the community. Dr. Garcia holds a Doctoratal degree in Educational Administration with an emphasis in Community College Leadership. His Masters in Management is from Webster University and his Bachelors of University Studies is from the University of New Mexico. You can reach Dr. Garcia at: Rudy M. Garcia, Ed.D., Director of Experiential Learning, Central New Mexico Community College, 525 Buena Vista SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106/ Albuquerque; phone: 505-224-3068; email:

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.