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Although it is apparent that community service benefits others in some way, before creating and maintaining widespread programs, policymakers would like to know how exactly students themselves benefit from participation in these activities. A great deal of research has been done on this subject, resulting in evidence for multiple kinds of benefits. Among the most significant gains reported are the psychological, social, and cognitive benefits experienced by students.
Overall, sources indicate that students have shown increases in positive feelings and mental health, and decreases in depression and stress.
From their analysis of collected data, Peggy Thoits and Lyndi Hewitt (2001) assert that “voluntary association membership contributes to decreased psychological distress and buffers the negative consequences of stressors (Rietschlin 1998); it increases satisfaction and decreases depression (Van Willigen 1998).
According to an article in Current Health 1 magazine, “[i]n a recent survey by Prudential Insurance Company, the number-one reason that young people named for volunteering was that it made them feel good. Eighty-nine percent said so.”
Steven Smith (1999) indicates that “[v]olunteering appears to be related to long life spans and improved mental health,” although he also notes that “…the type of volunteering is likely to make a big difference in the effects of mental health.”
By participating in service projects, students forge bonds with each other, as well as other members of the community. These bonds enhance their interpersonal skills and increase their social network. Additionally, volunteerism can lead to increased care for others and a desire to cooperate and get involved in positive ways, even among those who had previously exhibited antisocial tendencies (Smith 1999). Another major benefit of volunteering is the feeling of social connectedness that appears to be waning in our increasingly segmented society.
Many students have reported an increased sense of social responsibility, and a subsequent desire to “give back” to the communities from which they have come.
According to Steven Smith (1999), “[v]olunteering by teenagers… appears to modestly inhibit antisocial behaviors.” He also indicates that, in addition to reducing negative inclinations such as mistrust and lack of concern for others, volunteering can create positive forces. “Volunteerism can create social capital– that is, social networks of trust and cooperation– that can then promote greater political involvement in public affairs.” (Smith 1999)
In a 1991 article by Marty Brewster et al., various students offer their testimonials which link increased volunteerism to increased communication skills. Additionally, Matthew Nelson of the University of Michigan attests to similar gains in his personal reflection on past volunteering experiences.
Many sources indicate, and indeed many organizations have been set up on the premise, that community service projects help redirect energies of at-risk youth to more positive social activities. “For example, City Year, is a largely volunteer program that brings together young people from diverse backgrounds to work on community projects. It is hoped that participation in City Year activities will… offer youths more direction and hope for the future, and provide a learning experience on serious social problems.” (Smith 1999)
There is a common saying that “you learn something new everyday.” This definitely holds true for volunteering. With each new experience, old skills are developed as new ones are learned. New information is integrated with past experience, and one’s knowledge base grows.
Additionally, the lessons learned from volunteering frequently support and enrich understandings of how the community is set up to function. Furthermore, when students reflect upon and share their experiences, they experience great cognitive gains. Diane Hedin (1989) says that:
“One of the best supported findings of research about community service is that students learn most (knowledge about the people for whom they volunteer, attitudes about being responsible, and being active citizens, and problem solving skills) when they are in programs that have regular opportunities to process and talk about their direct experiences.”
These cognitive gains are a large part of the reason for incorporating volunteering and community service into various curricula and requirements.
An article by Steven Smith (1999) states that “[t]hrough participation in voluntary associations, individuals will develop a keener appreciation for civic affairs and understand more completely their obligations to participate in the political process.” Indeed, people learn about the politics of their civic systems by experiencing and observing the effects of the policies on their communities.
Sandra LeSourd (1997) states that “[p]erspective taking is the intellectual ability that is germane to affirmation of differences for clarification of the public good.” This means that it is necessary to take the perspectives of others in order to truly understand the benefits that come out of differences. By becoming involved in various aspects of community life, facets which students would be unlikely to involve themselves otherwise, students gain new information to consider and new ways to think about things. Frequently, they learn a lot from conversing with those whom they help or work with, as they may encounter new points of view. According to LeSourd (1997), this is beneficial because the “ideals of democratic life cannot encompass all members of the national community until people of different traditions listen to the voices of others.”
According to Diane Hedin (1989), “[t]he situations in which young people learn most are ones in which they have the opportunity to determine what needs to be done at developmentally appropriate levels of responsibility.” When students are given the opportunities and responsibilities of decision making in a task that is interesting and important to them, they tend to think more deeply about the issues at hand and “use their most complex thinking skills” (Hedin 1989) to solve the problem.