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Service Learning and the College Search

If you want to get involved with service learning, community outreach, and helping others in college, here's what to look for as you search for schools.

Some students already have a professional goal in mind when they start college. They’re clear on their major and career path and have a good idea of what they need to do to reach that goal. But if you’re not sure about a career—you just know you want to help people—don’t panic. College is the time to explore what already interests you, try new things, and find ways to turn your interests and passions into a fulfilling profession.

Colleges have many ways for students to get involved and give back. The key is to do some research on the school and their outreach activities. (Most of this information can be found on their website or promotional materials.) If helping others is a key factor in choosing a school, check out the Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, a list of higher education institutions that have been recognized by the Corporation for the National and Community Service for their efforts. You should also look for the following opportunities for students during your college search.  

Campus organizations

Most colleges hold an activities fair early in the fall semester. Student reps from the school’s clubs and organizations set up tables and have information available about their groups. New students can chat with current members, ask questions, and sign up for notices about meeting reminders, minutes, and other info. This is a great way to learn more about the groups that may be small in membership but large in impact.

Community service has become a big part of many colleges’ overall missions in the last decade or so, and some schools have made a significant investment in partnering with local, regional, and national organizations for student volunteer opportunities. Check out whether a school has a leadership center or website with more information about what’s available and how you can get involved.


Internships are a great way to gain professional experience and learn more about companies’ stewardship activities. Companies of all sizes have been stepping up their volunteerism in recent years, and many proudly share their involvement on their websites and social media pages. If you’re required to do an internship as part of your major, research companies’ outreach efforts. They can range from in-house events, like collecting donations for a local animal shelter or forming a Relay for Life team, to offsite events, like collecting trash during a community-wide cleanup or providing manpower for local beautification.

If you’re looking for something on a more grassroots level, research internship opportunities with nonprofit organizations. According to the National Council of Nonprofits website, these organizations “are formed to provide ‘public benefit.’” Whether they’re national groups like the American Cancer Society, Big Brothers Big Sisters, or the Make-a-Wish Foundation; smaller groups like community arts organizations, libraries, and animal shelters; or something in between, you don’t get more mission-oriented than a nonprofit. These groups often produce impressive results on small budgets. Internships are usually unpaid, but you’ll gain invaluable professional experience and make contacts with leaders that you can use in the future. 

Related: Top Careers for Students Who Want to Make a Difference

Service learning/mission programs and trips

Service learning is another way to benefit others. As the name would suggest, this is an initiative that combines learning objectives with community service. Schools often partner with community groups for various service learning projects. For example, a local theater might team up with a college’s marketing class to build their social media following. Or a school’s biology club might partner with a local municipality to collect data and present findings that support improved recycling efforts. Service learning differs from an internship in that you’re working on one project with a defined final product in mind. As an intern, you may be given a variety of tasks that may or may not contribute directly to an end goal. Some schools are strong believers in service learning, often allowing groups of faculty and students to travel abroad to compile data and complete projects.

Mission trips are another way to give back. Although usually affiliated with religious organizations, there are also secular groups that run mission trips to developing countries. Volunteers often live, work, and play within the community they’re serving and work on projects to improve the residents’ quality of life. You might do something physical, like build schools or houses in a remote village, or something to contribute to residents’ personal development, like teaching children basic reading and math skills or good personal hygiene habits.

Related: A Look Inside the Soul of Service Learning

Whether serving others is your professional goal or just an extracurricular activity, there are countless ways to do so in college. You may not be able to save the world, but you can make a big difference in your own community simply by starting right where you are in your college search and seeing where that path of service may lead.

Check out these “Making a Difference Colleges,” and find many more using our College Search tool.

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