Community Engagement


  • Offers a means by which participants in community engagement programs can process their experiences and examine what they’ve learned
  • Is an essential part of all service experiences--whether short or long-term community service, community-engaged learning, or alternative breaks 

Why involve students in reflection?

  • Students need a safe space and structure to process the totality of their service experiences in communities different from their own, including how the experiences affect them emotionally
  • Reflection inspires long-term commitment to service and helps students link immediate experience to the broader picture of related policy and long-term solutions to issues they’re addressing
  • It provides students with a venue to examine the connections between community engagement and academic work in the liberal arts context
  • It encourages personal growth and group growth by emphasizing the learning aspect of service

The Reflection Cycle

  • Before: Discussions prior to a service experience help students connect with one another, think about the purpose of what they’ll be doing, and recognize the value of reflection during and after the experience

Discussion questions—can be answered in writing and read anonymously:

  • What do you want to get out of this experience?
  • What new things do you think you might learn or experience?
  • What are you most looking forward to/most apprehensive about?
  • What problems or challenges might arise during this experience?
  • During: On long-term service experiences or alternative breaks, having a regular time set aside for reflection allows students a safe space to process and talk about their experience, and highlight their learning and growth as a primary component of the experience
  • After: At least one post-experience gathering is useful for transitioning and reorientation, particularly after alternative break trips or other long-term service experiences

Post-experience questions—

  • What is different for you as a result of this experience?
  • What do you or what will you do differently now?
  • How did your work address the issue? What are other ways?
  • How will you continue to build on what you’ve learned?

Reflection Process:

  • Find appropriate time: identify a time of day when students are likely to feel less anxious about their schedule and schedule more time than you anticipate needing.
  • Safe space: find a space that feels physically comfortable and where participants can sit where they want.
  • Set and keep ground rules: ideally, participants will set these rules, which helps them own and invest in the reflection, but the facilitator needs to ensure that respecting and appreciating all contributions are among the ground rules. Facilitator must also be sure that the rules are kept, even if that might mean gently interrupting a participant to be sure everyone has a chance to be heard.
  • Create community: a facilitator who appears relaxed and open sets that tone for the group. Pose initial questions that put people at ease and where everyone experiences having something valuable to contribute. In summarizing comments, be prepared to draw out similarities across difference.
  • Allow challenge by choice:  all are encouraged to share equally, but “challenge by choice” means it is participants’ own choice whether and how much to challenge themselves by sharing thoughts and experiences.
  • Remain neutral: facilitator treats all participants equally, welcomes and thanks all participants for their comments, and refrains from praising specific individuals or appearing to agree or disagree with anyone.
  • Consider different learning styles: varied reflection tools (writing/movement/pair and small group work/art activities, etc.) help meet the needs of different kinds of learners as well as both introverts and extroverts.