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"Service Learning as a Form of Social Infrastructure for Students" by Shannon DiCristina

Service Learning as a Valuable and Sustainable Form of Social Infrastructure for Students

Shannon DiCristina, Fairleigh Dickinson University

Abstract: This paper explains the concept of social infrastructure as it relates to sustainability and social capital. After an introduction of social infrastructure, social capital, and sustainability, this paper introduces a valuable form of sustainable social infrastructure for undergraduate students called “service-learning.” The research argues that service learning is a valuable form of social infrastructure that positively impacts multiple aspects of a student's life because it builds skills and knowledge, improves social capital, and aids in profitable and productive development. Reports are cited that demonstrate how students who participate in service-learning tend to perform better academically, become stronger, more confident leaders, and have a greater number of strong support systems and relationships. Additionally, service-learning programs enhance institution and community social capital while promoting sustainability.

Key Words: Social Infrastructure, Service-Learning, Social Capital, Sustainability



Social distancing and isolation have become common experiences for everyone due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and as a result, the concepts of community and relationships have become even more important. Physical separation has not deterred people from coming together and utilizing the benefits of community. The social distancing measures implemented have proved to many that social networks and social infrastructure are vital to the human experience. For example, during the social distancing measures, neighbors and loved ones would go out of their way to buy food and essential items for those deemed at high risk (as in elders and the immunocompromised). People noticed the importance of social responsibility and prioritizing the needs of the community and demonstrated this newfound social consciousness by donating gloves and masks to hospitals, donating to food banks, and simply checking in more often on the vulnerable and elderly. Corporations have also been contributing to the wellbeing of others and the local community. For example, Starbucks gave free coffee to frontline healthcare workers, Zoom let K-12 schools use its platform free of charge to help with the challenge of education during social distancing, and major corporations such as, Walmart, Target, CVS, and Walgreens allowed for their parking lots to be used for drive-through Coronavirus testing sites. Though physically separated, people have come together as a community to help each other through the difficult times brought on by the pandemic, thus proving the value of social infrastructure.


The idea of infrastructure typically follows the prototype of buildings, highways, electrical systems, and other concrete tangible objects of that nature. While these forms of infrastructure are necessary for the optimal functioning in society, there is another vital form of infrastructure that is not commonly considered: social infrastructure. Social infrastructure is the connections, facilities, and programs that facilitate social connection and the building of relationships. For example, a community playground can serve as social infrastructure because it is a physical structure that promotes people coming together and building relationships. The same can be said for a building like a church or the Boys and Girls Club. Recreational after-school sports programs are also a form of social infrastructure as they provide opportunities for participants to build relationships with teammates, coaches, fans, and anyone involved. Any simple relationship, too, is a form of social infrastructure and connection that will be further described below.

Social Capital

Social infrastructure is critical for achievement from both an individual and societal standpoint because it builds social capital. Social capital can be described as a system where one invests in social relationships and networks that will directly benefit oneself (Rogošic & Baranovic, 2016). When someone has good social capital, they have many relationships and are involved in a variety of networks that continue to benefit them throughout their life. There are many types of relationships that one can have, including familial relationships, friendships, business partners, etc. These relationships, or forms of social capital, can put one ahead in life. For example, connections through social networks may very well lead to employment opportunities that one would not have otherwise without that contact, as the proverb, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” implies. Simply, being part of healthy and profitable social networks often leads to a better quality of life due to the various benefits these relationships offer.

Social capital is a necessary component of how humans can heal and combat current crises. For example, climate change has been a major threat to Australia as the country has experienced unprecedented wildfires, droughts, and rising sea-levels, which caused many problems for its citizens including health-related issues (Walker & Mason, 2015). Local communities in Australia have experienced extreme devastation but luckily, many communities had strong social capital that has led to “broad and positive consequences on the resilience of a community, beyond just the issue at hand" (Walker & Mason, 2015, p.11). The importance of social capital in the face of disaster was demonstrated in the Australian community of Morwell as wildfires wrecked the area to the point where essential services had to shut down. In response to this catastrophic event, the people of Morwell came together and formed a volunteer group which was able to effectively advocate for the needs of the community by adopting "a cooperative approach to addressing local problems” (Walker & Mason, 2015, p. 11). Morwell now has advocacy in the government, which is responsive to their needs thus proving that more social capital and infrastructure can and will affect lives (Walker & Mason, 2015). Now when disasters strike, this well-connected community will be well-prepared to help each other. Social capital is important for all communities and individuals alike because strong social networks act as a resource for effectively dealing with dilemmas and achieving various goals (Rogošic & Baranovic, 2016).

Social infrastructure, as previously mentioned, aids in the building of social capital and is vital for establishing the wellbeing of people and groups. However, social infrastructure is not only the concrete structures and programs as previously discussed. As referred to by A. M. Simone, social infrastructure can simply be interactions between people (2004). This infrastructure is not an object per se, but consists of the "people’s activities in the city" (Simone, 2004, p. 407). When further describing social infrastructure, Simone argues that people themselves are infrastructure and that their interactions—i.e. collaborating and doing business with one another are social infrastructure (Simone, 2004).


When it comes to productive and valuable infrastructure, sustainability is key. According to the United States National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, sustainability can be measured by its ability "to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations” (National Environment Policy Act [NEPA], 2000). The policy cites that for social infrastructure to be sustainable and effective, it should promote the wellbeing of the present and future generations.

In the last decade, social sustainability has been increasingly emphasized by global powers. The United Nations heavily focused on the idea social sustainability in the Rio +20 Earth Summit conference by creating a list of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in working towards "achieving social inclusion for all" (Wang, 2015, p. 2). This means that the United Nations deems the ability for an individual to be connected to a larger social network as important for the happiness and wellbeing of the person and society (Wang, 2015). The more relationships an individual or group has, the more resources that can be readily available to them. It is not only the resources that social networks may offer that help an individual, but it can also solely be the mere act of connecting too. As social beings, people are more likely to perceive self-happiness if they are integrated and included in the greater society (Wang, 2015). Social inclusion promotes a sense of belonging that provides an individual the opportunity to contribute to society. It also enables others to build relationships and social capital— which is important for self-improvement as well as improvement within the overall community (Walker & Mason, 2015). Strong social capital is important for the community as well, as it "enables coordinated community action" to solve the issues at hand, as previously exemplified by the Morwell community (Walker & Mason, 2015, p. 167).

Examples of Social Infrastructure

Social infrastructure can be created in many forms, examples include community-based groups, such as clubs or social groups, that allow people to interact and form relationships in their community (Walker & Mason, 2015). For example, a library may create a book club so the members of the area can discuss books and build relationships. A setting where people come together, build bonds, and interact serves as a form of social infrastructure. Essentially, there are many ways social infrastructure can form.

A significant form of sustainable social infrastructure applicable to students is referred to as "service-learning." Service-learning is a form of learning that connects course content with real life situations: "The basic idea behind service learning is to use a community or public service experience to enhance the meaning and impact of traditional course content"(Astin & Sax, 1997, p. 25). This method of teaching and learning involves students applying their "theoretical knowledge" to real life applicable situations--in addition, students will connect what they learn when serving others to their class through a variety of activities and assignments (Astin & Sax, 1997, pp. 25-26). The process of learning the educational content and applying it when servicing others, while also learning from service, "enables students to 'gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility'"(Strage, 2004, par. 4). To summarize, service-learning is a program where students apply what they are learning to service in the community, which allows them to learn valuable lessons from their real-world experience.

So far, the background of social sustainability, social capital, social infrastructure, and service-learning have been discussed. Now, this paper will discuss how service-learning is a constructive and sustainable form of social infrastructure that positively impacts multiple aspects of a student’s life. Service-learning builds one’s skills, knowledge, and social capital, while aiding in beneficial and productive development. In addition, service-learning programs also improve the social capital of the institution and community.


Service-learning is an effective form of sustainable social infrastructure for college students in several aspects. Through a service-learning program, students interact with the academic and social life on campus. Service-learning "provides multiple opportunities to develop meaningful relationships" with professors, fellow students, and the surrounding community which builds social capital (Simonet, 2008, p. 2). It promotes sustainability because it "enhances content-driven scholarship by focusing upon the application of knowledge to solve complex community problems." Essentially, students are working with the community to solve a problem or need that helps the present and future generations. In short, service-learning "creates and refines the social and learning connections" which all institutions should strive to accomplish (Simonet, 2008, p. 2).

Building Relationships and Connecting with Others

Students typically gain social networks and capital through their school, which is why it is essential that schools have strong and sustainable social infrastructure for students to interact. When students feel disconnected from their school it makes it "difficult for the institution to develop traditions, bonds with students, and a sense of belonging"(Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p. 231). In fact, when receiving academic credit for service, commuter students who originally felt disconnected from the school community reported that they were better able to engage with the campus and student-community. Researchers note that service-learning builds a greater sense of community on campus and that rates of peer and faculty-peer interaction positively correlate with service-learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). Service-learning programs combat the problem of social disconnection by creating an entry point for students to group together because they are sharing a common goal, which yields conversation and interaction. It provides students with a structured method to increase their social networks while they learn. In fact, students who participated in service-learning programs reported that they had more “meaningful conversations with peers outside of class and engagement in campus activism” (Finely & Staub, 2009, par. 9). The student participants also had diminished feelings of isolation and promoted prosocial behaviors (Simonet, 2008). Schools and universities are, oftentimes, the primary way that young adults build their social networks and skills and thus play a monumental role in helping them build their social capital which will continue to influence their lives henceforth (McPherson et al, 2014).

Improving Education

Not only do colleges and universities play a major role in developing a student’s social capital, but they also have the responsibility of educating students, and service-learning has a positive influence on student education. Studies show that participation in service-learning “substantially enhance[s] the students’ academic development...and…academic performance” (Bonsall et al, 2002, p. 86). Service-learning is also said to help students find “deeper connections to academic material” (Finely & Staub, 2009, par. 9). Additionally, these studies cite that students who were enrolled in service-learning programs reported higher course satisfaction and demonstrated “higher academic performance and critical thinking skills” compared to students who did not participate in these programs (Peters, 2011, p. S182). Another study found that students who participated in service-learning earned better final grades than the students who did not participate (Peters, 2011). Multiple studies show the positive benefits that service-learning has on academics.

Research indicates that attainment of educational goals is related to the forms and amount of capital a person has, especially social capital. Higher social capital positively affects graduation rates and test scores while lowering drop-out rates (Rogošic & Baranovic, 2016). It is estimated that on average, students who participate in service-learning earn about “4.8 % higher” grades than the non-service-learning students (Strage, 2004, par. 11). A national longitudinal study found that service-learning students tend to have higher grade point averages than their counterparts (Clearly & Simons, 2006). Those who participate in service-learning, on average, spend more time studying and doing homework, which may explain the positive academic outcomes these students tend to attain (Sax & Astin, 1997). Quite clearly, service-learning is directly linked to high academic achievement and performance.

Finding a Career Path

The importance of academic achievement is emphasized to students because it makes one more attractive to future employers. However, many students do not have a clear idea about what career they want to pursue. In fact, about twenty to fifty percent of students enter college as “undecided” and an astounding seventy-five percent of students end up changing their major at least once before graduation (Freedman, 2013). Fortunately, service-learning helps students find their identity and helps them to figure out which career they want to pursue. On one hand, participating in service-learning can provide opportunities for students to affirm their career choice — for example, a student studying to become a teacher may do their service in a school and confirm that it is the right path for them. Additionally, service-learning also leads to identity development and can help students realize their true nature and values. Studies suggest that service-learning courses help students to achieve greater self-knowledge (Clearly & Simons, 2006). While students are interacting with the real-world, they notice their strengths and passions, while enhancing their skills. Through this experience students have the opportunity to see what type of work and what environment suits them best. In essence, service-learning helps students gain understanding of a field or discipline through hands-on experience while also achieving a better understanding of themselves and their potential as an active member of society.

Building Life Skills

Regardless of career path, all students need to acquire certain skills to be successful in life—and service-learning can help. An especially important skill that service-learning develops is “the ability to identify complex, ill-structured problems and come up with strategies to pursue solutions, or the transfer of learning in the application of knowledge to new problems” (Strage, 2004, par. 9). The world faces problems that do not have easy solutions—and having the ability to take a complex issue and apply different forms of knowledge to figure out a solution is a key skill. Along with the increased skill in solving complex problems, service-learning also increases a student’s critical thinking, interpersonal skills, ability to cooperatively work with others, and even tends to improve writing skills when paired with reflection activities (Clearly & Simons, 2006). Through the program, students take the content of their lessons and apply it to help the community around them. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that service-learning students have a greater skill in applying what they know to real-world situations in order to solve real-life problems (Peters, 2011).

Action and leadership are crucial for positive change, and society seems to agree that educational institutions have the responsibility to educate citizens in order to develop leaders equipped to handle the current issues in the world. Many scholars, including the National Commission on Civic Renewal, are concerned with the lack of leadership in this world as it arises with a variety of problems such as racial tension, poverty, abuse, prejudice (Bonsall et al, 2002). Astin and Astin report that “a major problem with contemporary civic life in America is that too few of our citizens are actually engaged in efforts to affect positive social change.” Society is looking to educational institutions to cultivate "effective change agents" that are well prepared to tackle the world's greatest challenges (Bonsall et al, 2002, p. 87). In return, educational institutions are choosing to partner with communities to help resolve these challenges, and they do so through service-learning. Service-learning is shown to promote and improve civic engagement, which is very important, as the Cooperative Institutional Research Programs reveals “record low levels of student interest” with the current politics and political situation (Finely & Staub, 2009; Sax & Astin, 1997, p. 25). By interacting and assisting the community, students gain understanding of the problems at hand, which is why students who complete service-learning programs feel “a greater sense of empowerment” and feel that they have “the ability to change society” for the better (Sax & Astin, 1997, p. 30).

Through service-learning, students take responsibility for the community’s problems, which helps them to develop more self-efficacy. In addition, students are more motivated to help solve the problems due to the deeper ties to their community. Researchers have found that after completing a semester of community service, students score higher on “civic action, social justice attitudes, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills than non-service learners” (Clearly & Simons, 2006, p. 308). Even after completing the program, students still choose to be active in their community and tend to have life-long commitments to community service (Clearly & Simons, 2006). These opportunities for students to take charge, help others, and initiate change in the community lead to increases in self-rated leadership abilities—and in contrast, those who do not participate in service-learning report that their leadership skills decreased (Sax & Astin, 1998). The world at large faces many problems and there is a dire need for leaders to help solve these issues, and service-learning can help turn students into engaged leaders.

Building Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Relationships and connections with others are extremely important from the perspective of social capital. However, another consideration to make when evaluating the benefits of social capital is the relationship to oneself. Service-learning promotes and enhances an “increase[d] self-esteem, social competency, and self-confidence” (Simonet, 2008, p. 7). All these qualities are essential for the future success of students as they take on life's challenges inside and outside of the classroom. After experiencing service-learning, students report that they see themselves as more socially skilled, having better leadership abilities, and a stronger sense of self (Simonet, 2008). Several studies show that service-learning has positive effects on self-efficacy and self-respect, which is important for not only students but for all (Bonsall & Harris & Marczak, 2002).

Achieving and Maintaining Mental Health

Figure 1: Mental Health Issues Students Face During Their College Years (Note. From Mental Health Guide For College Students, By CollegeStats, n.d ( Copyright 2021 by CollegeStats)

Not only does service-learning provide a wide range of academic and developmental benefits for students, but there are also many mental health benefits as well. As shown in Figure 1, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that for students in their college years, eighty percent feel overwhelmed, fifty percent struggle greatly from anxiety, and at least half of students rate their mental health as “below average or poor” (CollegeStats, n.d.). Overwhelmingly, students tend to struggle with their mental health. Fortunately, service and volunteering have beneficial mental health impacts.

As a form of social infrastructure used to build social capital, service-learning acts as an important “asset for the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents, including for their mental health” (McPherson et al, 2014, p. 3). The more social capital one has, the better off they are in life because when they are in need, they have more people they can turn to. The increase of social capital and networks from service-learning provides a student with a stronger social support system which helps the student alleviate negative mental health issues (Segal & Robinson, 2019). From a different perspective, the mere act of volunteering is associated with a multitude of health benefits. For example, due to the meaningful interaction service-learning provides, the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety are counteracted (Segal & Robinson, 2019). Interestingly, through the measuring of hormones and brain activity, researchers now know that helping others brings pleasure by releasing “feel good” hormones and neurotransmitters, and it also brings a sense of accomplishment (Segal & Robinson, 2019). In fact, service-learning students report that they find it rewarding to help others (Clearly & Simons, 2006). Service-learning can help reduce the number of students with mental health issues through helping them to build a supportive social network and through the natural bodily responses that occur when an individual volunteers and helps the lives of others.

Strengthening Communities

Service-learning is not only a useful form of social infrastructure for students, but this service greatly supports the community as well. Simply, even the smallest task can make a difference to the lives of the people in need (Segal & Robinson, 2019). When service-learning occurs, it prompts students to take an active hand in solving community problems and increases the likelihood that these students will continue to be involved and help the area (Clearly & Simons, 2006). In other words, once a student starts volunteering, they become “more strongly committed to helping others” which benefits the community greatly (Sax & Astin, 1998, p. 256). Additionally, when service is attached through learning, the quality of service is much higher, meaning there is a greater benefit received by the community (Astin & Sax, 1997). When more citizens come together and build relationships, the community’s social capital builds as well. This helps current citizens, as well as creates a better community for future citizens, due to the increased social capital resources and the social sustainability it promotes (Rogošic & Baranovic, 2016).

Service-learning has the power to build up communities, and this is no different on a college campus. Such programs build a “greater sense of community on campus” due to the strong rates of peer interaction, and faculty-peer interaction that these programs facilitate (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, p. 232). Faculty are included in this social network and in response to service-learning, they report that these programs “add value to their experiences as teachers and scholars” (Finely & Staub, 2009, par. 5). Professors can appreciate how service-learning enhances student commitment and engagement to the school and course. Service-learning also amplifies the achievement of the course’s curriculum goals, proving to be a positive method for teaching (Strage, 2004). Service-learning helps provide professors with opportunities to more closely interact and help the students learn; this is because service participants are fifty percent more likely to spend minimally one hour per week interacting with faculty (Astin & Sax, 1998). In relation to the institution, undergraduates who participate in service-learning have an “increased likelihood of donating money to the undergraduate college,” which can then, in turn, benefit the school and its environment (Sax & Astin, 1997, p. 30).

The Need for Service-Learning Today

With the connections cultivated through service-learning, the gaps of division between others can close. According to a poll conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal in 2018, seventy percent of Americans feel that the nation is divided which is still true today as NPR reports how the COVID-19 crisis is driving political parties, and people, further apart (Chinni & Bronston, 2018; Elving, 2020). Service-learning can be an effective tool for bridging the divide in that it promotes people coming together to solve a shared issue. Studies demonstrate that the engagement in the community and participation in service-learning “facilitated cultural understanding, reduced racial stereotypes… and resulted in increased ability to empathize or take the perspectives of others” (Peters, 2011, p. S182). Another source cites that service-learning promotes racial understanding and the desire to help others in need (Sax & Astin, 1997). From service-learning, students gain the ability to work with people from different races and cultures while coming to understand the challenges they face in addition to the issues that plague the community and nation (Sax & Astin, 1998).

The case study of Ricardo testifies to the impacts that service-learning can have on helping students understand the true troubles of the people of the community. Ricardo was a student at California State University in a program which imbeds a service-learning component to enhance student learning success. For his service, Ricardo worked with at-risk youth to find beneficial opportunities, such as occupational and educational opportunities, that would help them avoid destructive behaviors, such as joining gangs and illegal drug use. When Ricardo started his service, he believed the reason for the troubles faced by the East Angelenos—such as systemic poverty—was a result of their “lack of initiative..., gang activity, and drug and alcohol abuse” (Martin, 2003, p. 418). Simply put, he thought that if these youth would take initiative and work hard, they could overcome their troubled life. Through his service, he began to connect with the youth of East Los Angeles and understand their hardships. He found that his initial assertions were not the solution to their very real problems. His service and connections led him to understand the issues of the community more deeply, which guided him to question and restructure his predetermined ideas about them. This prompted him to investigate better ways to help the youth and urge his entire agency to reevaluate how they help the locals--which helped to create better long-term solutions for success (Martin, 2003). Service-learning helped Ricardo develop a deeper understanding of the community, while giving him an opportunity to make a beneficial impact on those he served.

Like Ricardo, Tamika deepened her understanding of others in the community through her service-learning. Tamika volunteered with a non-profit agency that helps immigrants entering the United States. Initially while completing her service-learning, Tamika felt uncomfortable with the experience due to the differences between herself, an African American woman, and the immigrants who were Hispanic and Latino. She recognized that her disconnect was a barrier to attaining a deep understanding of the clients’ needs. So, she studied their language and culture, which was well-received and had “an immediate positive effect on her interactions with the clients” (Martin, 2003, p.420). When she made the effort to learn their background, Tamika was better able to converse with the clients and understand more clearly what they needed. After working with the clients and developing an understanding for their hardships, Tamika felt that the agency did not “address all the various needs of the recent immigrants” (Martin, 2003, p.419). She then presented recommendations to her agency that would improve their service.

Overall, service-learning helps students gain awareness, understanding, and respect for the people and problems of the public while also presenting students an opportunity to help solve the complex real-world problems that affect many.


The value of community and coming together to solve problems is especially visible through tragedy and disaster. During difficult times, communities can come together and overcome the adversity in their way (or at least alleviate some of the hardships). Similarly, schools can support their surrounding communities through service-learning programs in efforts to build a brighter more sustainable future for all to share. It just takes one connection to begin to make a change, and service-learning builds those links.

Overall, service-learning is invaluable on multiple fronts: for the individual, the school system, and the overall community. Service-learning aids in the student’s development: it helps them academically and provides opportunities for a student to gain self-insight and crucial skills needed to excel in life, while also promoting mental health. Service-learning not only proves to be a beneficial experience that builds up students’ values and education, it also helps the students to become more active and caring citizens, which is crucial for healing and connecting the world. Service-learning is a fruitful form of sustainable social infrastructure that substantially increases the social capital and its related benefits for both students and society.

Now more than ever, people need to come together and help one another, and service-learning is an impactful way for universities to encourage cohesion between students, faculty, and communities. There are so many factors driving people apart: divisive politics, COVID-19, racial tension, climate change, poverty, etc. The solution for all the hatred and fear is cooperation and understanding. We all share our community and our reality, and having sustainable forms of social infrastructure in place will build relationships and a better future for all of society. One connection at a time and the world can begin to heal and move towards a better future—service-learning is a key to that success.


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