Xiang Rong, Yunnan University

Service-Learning: Integrating Academics and Practice

xiang rong“If there is no United Board, I would have no idea of service-learning,” reflected Xiang Rong, an associate professor of social work at Yunnan University. But since she was first introduced to the concept by Birgit Linder, then serving as the United Board’s China/Hong Kong program director, Dr. Xiang and her colleagues have made service-learning a key part of their social work curriculum.

“Service-learning can help raise the field of social work in China,” she said in a recent interview. The field is new and the education system to support it is still developing. When she met Birgit Linder, Dr. Xiang was thinking of ways that she and her colleagues could uplift their social work department and improve its teaching and research. She was not familiar with service-learning, but it fit well with what she was trying to accomplish. “Social work is like service-learning – it’s practice and theory at the same time.”

Most Chinese university programs in social work are less than 10 years old; started in 1993, Yunnan University’s Department of Social Work is more established than most of the 200-plus programs in the country. That gives it some advantage in developing the structure and placements needed to support service-learning, Dr. Xiang finds. While the major focus is on the service component, service-learning also requires structure and reflection to be effective. “We need to ensure that this is more than volunteer work,” she said. “We need to keep the focus on developing knowledge and skills.”

When Yunnan University students work in a community, they first do a quick assessment in order to match the services they can provide with local needs. The work they ultimately undertake may be complicated or simple, depending on the student and the community. Students might work with the elderly in Kunming, or in rural areas, or with migrant workers at Heart to Heart, a community organization that Dr. Xiang chairs. As they gain the community’s trust and learn more about the issue at hand, students work with faculty to reflect on why their service works or not and then redesign it to better fit needs. “It’s a rigorous, circular process that builds on reflection.”

Reflection is an integral part of Dr. Xiang’s own professional development. She continues to reflect upon the practices and ideas she encountered during her United Board Fellow placements at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Inspired by those placements, she wants to better integrate academics and practice into the social work pedagogy in China, and she hopes to remove some of the barriers that separate academics from the community and each other, so that all those who share concerns about social development are able to draw on each other’s ideas.

Her reflection has persuaded her that service-learning can help address broader issues in China’s development. “Service-learning is exactly what higher education in China needs – it’s the right thing to do at this time,” Dr. Xiang said. With so many students entering the higher education system, “teaching has become mechanical, and education has become a commodity to be purchased,” she observed. Through service-learning, students are trained to see how knowledge can have an impact on the community. “This touches upon the essence of humanity in every way.”

(First published in Horizons in April 2012)