Learning By Serving: Community colleges blend classwork with service to the community

posted on Monday, August 29, 2022 in  College News

From free and low-cost dental clinics provided by dental hygienist students, to home building by students in construction programs, to more individualized service-learning across a wide array of courses, two-year schools are putting the "community" in community college by mixing academics and service in a panoply of creative ways.

These arrangements benefit students, nonprofit organizations they serve, and the community at large, providing a mix of technical and customer-service skills for the students along with added motivation and direction, services to nonprofits and their clientele, and new partnerships among nonprofits and colleges themselves.


At Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa, students in the Introduction to Construction Trades Pre-Apprenticeship take part in the WE Build Waterloo community-based program, which provides career training and counseling, as well as team-building and personal skills development.

Hawkeye Community College construction trades students get hands-on experience rehabbing houses in the community. From the standpoint of employers and the community, WE Build Waterloo churns out students with high-demand construction skills, industry-recognized certifications and experience in building or rehabbing residences to be sold to local, lower-income families through Habitat for Humanity. The program also connects students and potential employers. Donors provide financial help, mentoring, and building materials, tools and equipment.

"Every place with skilled trades is hiring," says Chris Hannan, director of workforce training and community development at Hawkeye. "We’ve started building competency-based education, teaching people skills so they can go into the workforce and then come back to get additional upskilling and credentialing. They become lifelong learners."

The 12-week program first ran in June 2020 after two pandemic-related delays.

WE Build Waterloo’s first project was with a local nonprofit called One City United that had acquired a house through an estate sale at relatively low cost that "needed everything done to it, and we needed a place for our students to learn," says Valerie Peterson, workforce development coordinator at Hawkeye. Starting in May 2021, the program forged a partnership with Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity and "we’re now building on their job sites, which is great for us," she says. "We’re able to focus more on the student experience vs. all the logistics of getting building materials and subcontractors. Plus, Habitat has families assigned to the house. It’s great for students to interact with those families and give them more of a sense of purpose."

Students come from a variety of backgrounds—some with little to no family support, some with prior criminal justice involvement—and seem to gain confidence in a broader sense while participating, Peterson says.

"It’s been cool to see the changes in the students," she says. "Some are coming from pretty rough places. One student heard about illegal activities in his neighborhood and reached out to us to help get the people involved and make the community safer. I’m not sure that’s something he would have done on his own."

The rehabs have been taking place in neighborhoods that haven’t had residential construction or rehabilitation activity in decades, Hannan says. "A lot of the students live in the communities we’re drawing from," he says. "They get to have a hand in rehabbing or building their community, while also getting job training for their next step in life."

"We’re helping connect students to family-sustaining employment opportunities," Peterson adds. "It’s a career pathway with strong wages and career advancement as they grow in their industry. For the community, it’s providing more affordable housing, which is needed in Waterloo, Iowa. We have employers who like to hire our students reaching out pretty consistently. They know our students have gotten their hands dirty and know what they’re getting themselves into, so they’re more likely to stay in the area [of employment], vs., ‘Let me try this out.’ We’re providing needed employees to keep communities running."

Beyond the employment skills and training, WE Build Waterloo helps get students ready to transition to the workforce in other ways, Hannan says. "We help get our students who are unbanked," he says. "They don’t have other things to get them through that process, like Social Security cards or a driver’s license. We’ll drive them to the DMV to help them get their driver’s license back. We have a relationship with local credit unions to get themselves a bank account, which can be a challenge for individuals transitioning to the workforce."

Pershonda Bruce, who received her certificate from the program in May, says she learned a lot about how to use tools properly and how to work as a team to get a job done—everything from how to take measurements, to how to listen to others in a small group. "It was a lot of hands-on stuff," she says.

Bruce has ambitions of opening a nonprofit organization that will serve those who have become homeless with a series of facilities aimed at returning them to self-sufficiency. "We would learn why they are homeless or going through a rough patch," she says. "Most of the programs I hear about help with women, or you have to be in an abusive relationship, or have children. There are not many programs for people that just fell on hard times."

WE Build Waterloo stays in contact with students for at least a year after they finish the program, but instructors and staff are happy to continue the relationship beyond that, Peterson says. Some of the first cohort from two years ago remain in touch. One former student touched base recently to say he was working full-time and taking registered apprenticeship classes in the evening—and having difficulty managing both.

"He was about to give up the extra schooling," she says. "He wasn’t sure what to do. We said, ‘Let’s reach out to your teachers and see where you stand.’ He was able to get back on track."

Another former student was facing issues with a co-worker—a journeyman assigned to supervise him—and wanted to quit. "We asked, ‘Have you talked with the boss?’" Peterson says. "They were able to work it out. Without those connections to us, working on their problem resolution skills—we were able to help them maintain employment. That’s a neat feature, being able to build relationships with students while they’re in the program, and for years to come."

As the program has continued, an increasing number of students have come via referrals from previous students or their family members, Peterson says. "We’re seeing some good growth in the program that speaks volumes about the aspect of community-based learning," she says. "It’s been a pretty successful model."

The program has received multiple grants and donations from local businesses, Peterson says. "The community has been wrapping their hands around the program," she says.

Hannan adds that they attempt to ensure that funding covers tuition, fees, tools, worksite clothes and PPE so that students don’t take on debt. "They usually don’t have to spend any money to complete this program because of the fundraising we do in the community, and at the statewide and national level," he says.

Peterson notes that program staff try to connect students with community resources like daycare, a food pantry and resources like federal SNAP benefits for those who qualify. "We look at the students as a whole and figure out what is out there to help them be successful," she says. "We see students struggle so we work with them individually to get all their needs met."

Earlier this year, Hawkeye received a federal Americorps grant for WE Build that provides $3,600 in living stipends paid out bimonthly as well as additional education awards once those who participate complete their Americorps service, Peterson says. "It’s a great addition for students to get a living stipend to pay for their basic needs, so they’re able to focus on the program and changing their future," she says. "We’re excited about that."

By Ed Finkel, Community College Journal


  1. Apprenticeship
  2. Community
  3. WE Build Waterloo
  4. Workforce Training and Community Development
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