Fundamentally, criminal justice practitioners are public safety promoters, yet safety can be compromised if a divide exists between them and the communities they serve. The best way to train future criminal justice practitioners may be found in the progressive education proposed by John Dewey in the early 20th-century. Dewey’s experiential approach, specifically service-learning, has gained traction as an effective teaching tool for broadening perspectives, deepening understanding of diverse populations, and fostering higher order reasoning, all of which are critical characteristics for criminal justice professionals as well as for all American citizens. Undergraduate students participated in service-learning during a semester-long honors course on victim advocacy, and this qualitative study used a phenomenological approach to explore whether their lived experiences, as revealed in reflective responses to open-ended questions, effectuated learning. Findings were that service-learning involvement generated community commitment and instilled a deeper sense of civic responsibility, both of which have the potential to better promote public safety.
Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.1
Learning by doing is a concept universally understood. It is the basis for the scientific method and the emergence (and subsequent dominance) of empiricism during the Age of Enlightenment, which claims all knowledge is generated from experience (Locke, 1965). John Dewey (1938) formalized the concept of experiential learning in his educational philosophy, thus giving it a central place in academia. Dewey (1916) envisioned the benefits, however, to extend beyond the schoolhouse. For him, a primary purpose of education was to produce civic-minded, prosocial citizens for a better world and a safer society.
Dewey (1938), known for his progressive philosophy regarding education, first introduced the concept of experiential education in 1916. His approach was considered progressive as it veered away from the traditional classroom approach in which knowledge was transmitted to students solely through lectures. Dewey (1938) viewed the traditional model for teaching as a “cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past” (p. 19), and he was concerned because that approach did not allow for future changes. His vision for progressive teaching—and what he acknowledged would be a challenge to achieve—was that teachers would help students understand how “acquaintance with the past may be translated into a potent instrumentality for dealing effectively with the future” (p. 23). This presents challenges because every experience would need to be situated between, first, a firm foundation of established knowledge and, then afterwards, reflection time in which students would have ample opportunity to internally process all that they experienced firsthand. The quality of the experience would also need to be carefully considered as Dewey (1938) believed each new experience would have the potential to either retard growth or expand development; that it would be up to the teacher to plan the experience carefully to ensure students’ education was enhanced and not hindered. A worthwhile educational experience not only promotes knowledge and facilitates learning, but also allows students to recognize its relevance and to clearly see a broader significance (Dewey, 1938).
Based largely on Dewey’s educational philosophy, Kolb (1984) developed a 4-stage experiential learning cycle which models how information gained through experience is transformed into higher-level knowledge. In the first stage, students are immersed into the affective aspects of the experience; in the second stage, students reflect cognitively on the concrete experience, which then leads to the third stage where concrete concepts develop into abstract concepts; finally, in the last stage, students learn how broader concepts can be applied to new experiences. Kolb (1984) considered the last stage to be the active experimentation stage.
To guide student through Kolb’s 4-stage experiential learning cycle, it has been proposed that teachers need to provide students with three prompting questions: “What? So what? Now what?” (Burke & Bush, 2013, p. 58). This reflection-conceptualization-action process first articulated by Dewey (1938) and expanded upon by Kolb (1984) aligns with the four pillars of learning that have been identified by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 2016) as being essential for promoting global peace and security. Those four pillars of learning are: (1) learning to know (cognition), learning to do (experiential), learning to live together (social), and learning to be (existential). These pillars expand beyond abstract knowledge and enable them to become more ‘community-minded'.
Service-learning is being defined here as knowledge generated from direct experience with, and reflection resulting from, civic engagement and collaboration between students and community partners. Jacoby (1996) emphasized the role of faculty in designing and directing a structured partnership between students and community members so that community service goals will be met simultaneously with learning outcomes, which distinguishes g service-learning from other experiential learning methods. Four key components have been identified as being essential for service-learning to be successful: (1) The service must meet a community need; (2) the learning objectives of the course must align with the community service work being done; (3) there must be a reciprocal relationship between students and the community being served; and (4) the course must be designed so that, during and at the conclusion of the service work, there is ample time for reflection upon the experience (McCrea, 2004). In contrast to internships which allow students to work alongside a provider for career-specific training and preparation, service-learning is discipline-specific, embedded within curriculum, and designed for academic, intellectual, and civic growth (Jacoby, 1996; McCrea, 2004).
While theoretical discussions comprise much of the literature on service-learning (Madden, Davis, & Cronley, 2014), benefits have been found from self-report surveys of participants. Students report an improvement in subject matter comprehension (Abes, Jackson, & Jones, 2002), an increased motivation to learn, an enhancement in cultural awareness, and a stronger connection to their communities (Lemieux & Allen, 2007; Maccio, 2011). Penn (2003) found that involvement in service-learning enhanced students’ ability to use deductive logic and apply prevailing theory to specific situations. Hirschinger-Blank and Markowitz (2006) reported a decrease in students’ stereotypical attitudes after being involved in service-learning. Strage (2004) compared students who participated in service-learning to students who had not participated and found that the service-learning students achieved higher exam scores. Another comparative study found that students who were involved in service-learning self-reported an increase in interpersonal skills, such as learning to work well with others and a broadening of their personal perspectives (Burke & Bush, 2013).
Madden et al., (2014) analyzed service-learning across two disciplines, social work and criminal justice, and found that service-learning was much less frequently offered as a component within criminal justice programs. Despite its rarity, there is a need and relevancy for service-learning in criminal justice, as these students frequently claim to have chosen their major because of a desire to help others and make a difference in the world (Dantzker, Kubin, & Stein, 1997; Krimmel & Tartaro, 1999). The current paper highlights the process of integrating service-learning into a victim advocacy course and uses feedback from student reflections to emphasize educational benefits, lessons, and challenges associated with service-learning within criminal justice related settings. Future recommendations and best practices are included to aid individuals wishing to design, execute, and evaluate a service-learning based curriculum.
This paper explores the impact of a 16-week victim advocacy course. Guided by Dewey’s model, the course incorporated service-learning by pairing students with five nonprofit organizations in the community and immersing them as direct service providers to at-risk clients. The sample was composed of 20 honor students across academic majors, 17 of whom completed the reflection component of this elective course.
Prior to the start of the semester, the instructor identified local nonprofits that included a component of victim advocacy in their mission and potential need for student support. Consistent with expectations set forth by Jacoby (1996) and Dewey (1938), she met one-on-one with several nonprofit leaders to ensure: (1) That students’ service to the organization would be meeting a genuine need of that organization; (2) that the work the students would perform for the organization would align with what she perceived her course learning objectives would be; and, (3) that there would be a reciprocal relationship between the students and the organizational members (as this was not meant to be a one-sided ‘students give and organizations take’ type of scenario, there needed to be a willingness of the nonprofits to work in collaborative partnership with the students). The instructor also needed to verify that course objectives and organizations’ goals were realistic and feasible given the 16-week time-frame. To ensure that each nonprofit organization had adequate support and that students had a sufficient workload (responsibilities), the 20 students were paired with five organizations.
Several planning meetings were scheduled over the summer to bring those five organizations together to brainstorm the structure and goals of the course, thus allowing organization leaders to feel an investment and influence in the class structure. First priority was to have the organizations explicitly identify their needs and what their personal goals would be to ensure that their expectations would be achievable during the semester. Secondly, it was necessary to establish the level of involvement the organizations wanted to have. The course was scheduled for a 2-hour block, once a week over the semester. Collectively, the organizations expressed an interest to check-in with their groups twice a month to help guide their work. On days where the organizations visited, the first hour was devoted to class lecture while the second hour was comprised of group meetings with assigned organizations.
The instructor, cognizant of the pre-existing literature, prepared her students with the prompting questions recommended by McCrea (2004) for a successful service-learning experience. The following sets out the “what,” “so what,” and “now what” presented and discovered throughout the course.
On the first day of class, students were asked why they were taking the course and what their expectations were. The students responded with various answers, such as: “I had heard you were a good teacher;” “I was interested in learning more about victim advocacy;” “it was the only class that fit my schedule.” Despite the fact that the course description noted this was a service-learning course with required student involvement in the community, all but one student stated that they expected a traditional format: having an assigned text, taking quizzes and exams, and perhaps participating in class discussions. The syllabus was then distributed to students detailing the unique course design, calendar, and requirements. One requirement was that students commit to a minimum of 10 hours in the field with their assigned organization. Any student who perceived this requirement as unattainable had the option to drop the course, but none of the students who registered for the course found this to be a problematic expectation. The five nonprofit groups that the students would partner with were described.
Students were then presented with the five nonprofit organizations and told they would be assigned to an education program that served at-risk juveniles in the inner city and run by a former felon or one of four organizations that (1) served crime victims, (2) worked with children impacted by homicide, (3) helped the homeless, or (4) focused on recovering drug addicts. There was an immediate level of discomfort displayed among the college students, many of whom had never been exposed to these population groups before. Course learning outcomes were reviewed in class, and students were told how each would align with the ‘what’ of the service work. The course learning objectives are set forth in the first column of Table 1.
Table 1. Course learning objectives and alignments
Course learning objectives
By course completion, students would:
By being assigned in groups to outside organization, students:
Affective, cognitive, multicultural, real-world, and social
Broaden their personal definition of victims and advocacy
Were exposed to diverse array of victims and formed collaborative partnership with advocates
Cognitive multicultural social
Gain insight into the reality of victimization through volunteer opportunities with advocates and those in need
Experienced firsthand the issues facing populations in need of assistance
Cognitive Multicultural Real-World Social
Identify and develop their own personal strengths and talents to help others
Gained greater sense of self-awareness
Affective real-world social
Experience personal growth and understanding of vulnerable populations
Pushed students beyond the textbook definitions and any initial stereotypes they had assigned
Affective cognitive multicultural
Understand the challenges that victim service providers / recipients face
Exposed firsthand to problems and issues existing for organizations
Affective cognitive real-world
Articulate how their major/future career could be impacted/linked to victims
Required students to identify direct link between their future career goals and victim advocacy
Contribute directly to the growth of local nonprofits
Provided tangible / measurable outcomes of student labor
Before the end of that first-class meeting, students were asked to rank the five organizations they would like to work with and to identify the skills they thought they could contribute and/or to identify the need areas in which they felt incapable of fulfilling. For example, a student may note that they are confident in public speaking, comfortable managing finances, strong in developing social media campaigns, passionate about fundraising, etc. Students’ rankings, interests, and skills were compared to organizational needs and paired accordingly. Students were then assigned to a nonprofit, introduced to their teammates, and dismissed from class.
Also involved in the “what” would be initial immersion into the affective aspects of the experience, as described by Kolb (1984). This immersion began during the second-class period when all five organizations were brought to campus. The organizational leaders shared their personal stories, their organization’s mission and values, and their needs and expectations. Students heard from a survivor of a kidnapping and sexual assault, from a former felon who had turned his life around on a path to help others, a mother who nearly lost her son to a drug overdose, a woman who lost her family to homicide, and a man who felt called to serve the homeless. The raw, personal nature of the evening provided an instant connection between the nonprofits and the students, allowing for immediate buy-in from the students to fulfill organizations’ needs, and generated excitement for both parties. One student described the emotional impact she personally felt from one of the leader’s introductory presentations and how that emotional bond strengthened over time: “I feel like he's been my best friend for ages, and I only met him three and-a-half months ago, when he made me cry telling me his life story” (ID#101).
This second session went beyond having students hear heart-wrenching stories from the organizational leaders. One nonprofit leader, whose organization fed the homeless, catered dinner for the entire class. This allowed organizational leaders to sit and eat dinner with their student team members. Over dinner, everyone began developing more personal, direct connections. The following is the ‘guiding’ concept that continually motivates the male organizational leader who serves the homeless, and his sentiment was infused into the classroom environment during this second session: Food brings people together and shows them they are valued and loved.
Once students were immersed in the affective domain, the instructor also led them into the cognitive learning domain. Butin (2005) identified this combination of affective and cognitive learning domains as the key component to effective service-learning. Course material exposed students to foundational knowledge on crime victimization. By using victim impact statements, interactive activities, and information from the text and scholarly articles, students developed a better understanding of the rates, challenges, treatments, and policies surrounding different types of victimization. Partnering and volunteering with the nonprofit organizations allowed the students to engage directly with the populations they were reading about in their texts and exposed them to the realities of advocacy work. While the texts and instructional content provided factual information to challenge students’ preconceptions, the social interactions with community members, crime victims, and those who had been labeled as felons and druggies allowed them to apply those principles to actual people and real-life situations.
By combining course material and service-learning, students learn how to become better critical thinkers (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Brookfield, 1990; Dewey, 1933; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Mezirow, 1991). This improvement in higher-level thinking might occur because students are confronted with a reality that contradicts a preconception in their service-learning work. For example, course content often uses statistics to provide information to students; and students may not always understand that statistics are created from aggregated data and may therefore accurately predict for overall group membership but cannot be used to predict for any single group member. While it is accurate to state that 76.6% of all prisoners released within the same period will recidivate within 5-years (Durose, Cooper & Snyder, 2014), it is inaccurate to rephrase that to state that it is highly likely that so-and-so who has been released from prison this year will recidivate within 5-years. Why? Because there is no way of knowing which grouping that single selected prisoner will fall into, whether part of the 76.6% that will recidivate or part of the 23.4% that will not. Students often have trouble seeing any difference between the two statements, and this can lead to faulty assumptions or even harmful stereotyping. One of the student-respondents shared her preconception:
This was one of the first times that I experienced a person turn his life around after doing hard time in prison. I know that most offenders will repeat their acts or commit another crime once they get out that will send them right back to prison (ID#104).
Having the instructor lecture that 580,900 prisoners were released from state prison in 2015 (Carson & Anderson, 2016) and then informing her students how, using the oft-cited recidivism rate, that translates to 135,950 of those ex-prisoners never reoffending for five years was not as impactful as when students met one former felon face-to-face who had managed to turn his life around. As Dewey (1916) stated, “[P]ersonal participation brings home the import of the material and the problems which it conveys” (p. 273). Allowing students to work with a reformed ex-prisoner (who would fall within the 23.4% grouping) provided the potential to do one or more of the following three things: (1) create an ‘aha’ teaching moment; (2) shatter a stereotype; and/or (3) promote critical thinking.
In addition to becoming affectively and cognitively engaged and gaining a deeper understanding of how their experiences with community work might be reflective of larger societal issues, students were also charged with the responsibility for envisioning how their major and career goals could provide a platform for victim advocacy in their future. The students were responsible for developing a presentation board to highlight how to directly include advocacy in their future career. For some, such as nursing and criminal justice students, this connection was easy. For others, such as aviation and construction management majors, the direct link between career and advocacy was one that required creativity and research into programming that included a civic connection.
Finally, at the end of the semester, a community celebration and presentation was held to allow students and the organization leaders to share their experiences, causes, prepared materials, events, and lessons learned through oral and written demonstrations. Students interacted directly with community leaders, family and school administrators, while practicing public speaking, networking with a variety of individuals, and learning from one another.
This study resulted from a one-semester victim advocacy honors course in which seniors from various majors across a Midwestern 4-year university were enrolled. The course was capped at 20 enrollees, and 17 of the students completed a voluntary, anonymous final course reflection. This qualitative survey contained open-ended prompts/questions related to students’ course-required community service experiences during the preceding 16-week course (see Appendix). The 14 reflection items were derived from both the Service Learning Benefit (SELEB) scale (Toncar, Reid, Burns, Anderson, & Nguyen, 2006) and the Articulated Learning (AL) approach as detailed by Ash and Clayton (2004). The SELEB scale emphasizes four dimensions of service-learning: practical skills, interpersonal skills, citizenship, and personal responsibility (Toncar et al., 2006), and the AL approach requires students to reflect deeply enough on their service-learning experience in order to articulate what was learned, how it was learned, why the learning is considered important, and how that learning might be further applied (Ash & Clayton, 2004). The AL approach presumes a positive learning experience and proposes that students be guided to recognize, through reflection, how their own lived experience led to academic learning, personal growth, and civic responsibility (Ash & Clayton, 2004).
After signing the IRB approved informed consent form, students responded to the 14 questions that asked them to reflect on their course expectations, personal experiences, and perceived impact. Responses were qualitatively analyzed by the two authors independently so as to capture the lived experience of the students. This was a phenomenological approach because the focus was solely on students’ subjective interpretations of their service-learning experiences. This approach is similar to how Berger and Luckmann (1967) defined the sociology of knowledge: “[It] is concerned with the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises” (p. 4).
Students’ reflections were first reviewed for word repetitions within and across responses, and then systematically sifted through to capture contextual meaning. Charmaz (2008) identified at least two stages to the qualitative coding process: the initial coding stage and the focused coding stage. In this data analysis, once initial coding was accomplished, response data were scrutinized to determine whether one or more of the codes could be fit into broader conceptual categories. This thematic analysis was done systematically, as first described by Glaser and Strauss (1967), because the process started out inductively with a refined focus on the data itself. This was followed by checking, double-checking, and cross-checking of the data. After individual coding and thematic development, both researchers met to share their results and reconcile any differences in the thematic analyses. Any coding discrepancies were easily resolved, thus removing the need to bring in a third coder.
The analysis was inductive, as the concepts and themes were developed from the data (e.g., Frith & Gleeson, 2004). As the themes emerged, the researchers determined that many were able to be captured within competencies previously supported in the service-learning literature. Two additional broad classifications were created for the themes that did not fit naturally into these categories. The results are organized by competency, and inclusive themes are noted within each category.
It has been proposed that service-learning benefits students by allowing them to process learning socially, emotionally, cognitively, and multiculturally (Gardner 1993; 1999; Howard-Hamilton 2000; Simons & Cleary, 2006). Ideally these processes evolve to also become competencies for the students. Except for two major themes that emerged from student responses—‘real world’/practical lessons and challenges—all other themes identified from the data could be encompassed within those four broad categories of learning competency. Therefore, this study’s qualitative analysis resulted in these six overarching, thematic categories: affective impact, cognitive impact, multicultural impact, real-world impact, social impact, and challenges. Table 2 shows the frequency distributions across these categories. Each broad category captured several emergent themes, which are further detailed below.
Table 2. Frequency distribution for thematic coding
The nature of this class led to an emotional journey for many students and allowed participants to not only learn about others, but to learn about themselves. Emotional growth, newfound self-awareness, and life-changing experiences were thematic concepts found within the “affective impact” category.
Many students admitted to crying when they heard the personal stories from the organizational leaders. Some students, as indicated in this representative quote, revealed discomfort when recognizing their own privileged position in society: “I cried ... a lot. This class was so moving, yet aggravating at times. It's hard when learning about what victims are going through to separate yourself from it as privileged” (ID#101). Students reported many ways in which the course allowed them to become more self-aware. Responses revealed students learned powerful lessons in self-worth, reinforced talents, and better understood their potential impact on the world around them. One student noted that through the experience he learned “I have self-worth and my life has value” (ID #115).
Students also recognized developmental growth in the way they think and act by being less judgmental, becoming more caring, developing a sense of responsibility, and uncovering their personal power to make a difference. The following quotes capture this progression:
The most valuable thing that I took away was the ability to see victims as victims. I used to judge people, I’ll be the first to admit it. But after I took this class, I successfully changed the way I think, speak, and act about diverse, stigmatized groups (ID#114).
I think I have become more caring. I think that I’m more willing to help others now than I was before, especially since I’ve seen how difficult it is for some people to help others in need. It’s like part of me thinks it’s my job to help others now, which I think is pretty cool (ID#102)
The biggest success I experienced in this class was seeing how capable I am of making a difference. I never thought that I would be able to be a part of such an important cause. I am so proud of myself and everyone else for staying positive throughout any challenge that we faced (ID#105).
Three students (ID#101, #109, and #116) expressed the idea that their experience restored their faith in humanity and/or instilled within them faith in their own generation. Many expressed amazement, as well as a sense of fulfillment, from seeing the positive impact their individual actions (as well as the collective actions of the entire class) had on others firsthand. As the following responses reveal, students gained a sense of gratitude or a greater self-awareness of how fortunate they are in comparison to others: “The class was phenomenal! It showed me firsthand how much people really do struggle. I often take for granted the things I have and the life I live” (ID#111). “So if I had to take away one lesson, it’s appreciate the little things, because to some, they aren’t so little” (ID#101).
Students recognized that the lessons they learned throughout the course would have long-term impacts, noting “it turns out this class was life changing” (ID #106). The following student felt she had a moral obligation to help after she met the young children co-victimized by homicide, and that emotion is what is directing her toward a career choice. “Looking into the face of the children affected by homicide rattled me to my bones. I felt an overwhelming sense of moral duty to spend my life mitigating gun-violence and socio-economic systems of oppression” (ID#107).
While the class centered on victim advocacy, the goal was for students to learn beyond the textbook through exposure to victim advocacy organizations, leaders, and clients. The themes that fit within the cognitive domain were direct transfer of knowledge, thinking creatively, discovering talents, broadening perspectives, and seeing firsthand the necessity of second chances.
One student revealed being in the process of formulating a theory because of the service-learning experience: “Due to the revelations about my personal journey from the class, I am currently developing a theory of social-enterprise around philanthropic principles” (ID#107). Every student reached a higher level of cognitive competency, and there were 76 other instances (see Table 2) in which students identified an ability to apply newly gained knowledge elsewhere, reported personal perspectives being broadened, provided commentary on the consequences of second chances, or revealed how the service-learning experience forced them to think creatively to solve problems or reach their assigned organizational goals. The exact words chosen by the students to articulate their responses were analyzed carefully, especially the verbs, because certain verbs (i.e., ponder, weigh, determine) infer more in-depth thought processes. Some students, however, were very explicit in describing their own cognitive journey:
This class impacted my personality by making me become a more introspective person. I previously found myself often jumping to conclusions about people and not taking into consideration their whole life story. When a person meets another person, it is one's whole life that has shaped his or her personality and demeanor. While the circumstances of one day can often negatively change that, for the most part, the first impression that one gets of another should not be based on one meeting. It is the mindfulness of this idea that can make people more patient, tolerant, and accepting (ID#112).
The following two students recognized that the cognitive processing path was not always smooth: “A good learning experience is not just about all of the positives, but also about the struggles” (ID#109). “The uniqueness of this course was in itself a struggle because of the learning curve: everything we did, we had to learn to do” (ID#113). The following student described this learning process: “We had to figure out to help these nonprofits with little time, money, and resources. We had to get creative to help and overcome what people expected of us and what we thought we could do” (ID#117).
Some students (IDs#103, 105, 106, 110, 113, and 117) described their experience as being eye-opening. The following student explained how this educational experience changed the way news reports were being viewed: “I see myself looking at articles in the news and wondering about everyone that has been impacted” (ID#108).
While the course material covered rehabilitation and reintegration, these concepts remained abstract and somewhat meaningless for the students until they met and interacted with organizational agents and the clients they served. Students took information from the textbook and class lessons and could see them come to life as they engaged in service work with high-risk individuals. Eighty-eight percent of students (n=15) reported that they better understood people that they may have originally prejudged or overlooked. The need for second chances became a palpable message within the students’ responses:
Every one of these organizations has helped me to understand people from different populations. After hearing Johnny speak, you can’t help but feel like prisoners should be given a second chance. It’s very hard to blame a drug addict when you are hearing their story from their hurt mother (ID#116).
Seeing my classmates pull together to make Johnnie’s dream a reality made me realize that everyone deserves a second chance. Knowing Johnnie’s story and witnessing his dreams come true gave me hope for so many other people in his position. … His story of second chances and hope inspires me to look at individuals who have made mistakes and know that they are human (ID#105).
I think that Johnnie taught me that second chances are necessary, and he showed us all how grateful he was to be a free man and to have a second chance every day we saw him. … Like I’ve said, Johnnie taught me a lot about second chances, and that’s a lesson I will carry with me forever and share with my kids and grandkids (ID#102).
This class has helped me realize that everyone deserves a second chance. More importantly though it has opened my eyes to the many different reasons that these people find themselves in these types of situations (ID#103).
The cognitive impact seen within the student responses illustrates how service-learning transports students beyond traditional learning environments, exposes them to a new way of processing information, and teaches lessons far beyond what definitions, figures, and statistics may allow them to understand. It is proposed that achieving this competency while still in school will better prepare those who plan on entering the criminal justice field.
The various organizations dealt with a diverse clientele, thus exposing the majority of students to populations that were unfamiliar to them. Despite initial fears and hesitations, the direct exposure to these populations broadened their understanding of various groups, allowed them to understand the impact of stereotypes and preconceived ideas of victimhood, and encouraged students to find personal connections with and similarities to those originally viewed as “different” than themselves.
Once students were provided the opportunity to communicate directly with the populations the nonprofit organizations served, they noticed that victimization, addiction, and homelessness were not dispositions that only targeted a specific type of person. Many students recognized that, with just one rash decision or one random act, anybody or everybody could find themselves in a place of despair. Through the service-learning experience, the following students recognized the limitations of a small-town worldview:
Coming from a small community, I didn't really have much exposure to many diverse populations, but through this class I can better understand these groups and how they can be different from the perceived stereotypes (ID#110).
This class has improved my understanding of people from diverse populations exponentially. Being from a small town and having grown up in it my entire life, I had not experienced many people from different backgrounds. While I do not see this as a negative attribute, I do understand such a situation can easily lend itself to creating close minded people (ID#112).
The following demonstrates how one student achieved intellectual maturity to the extent that reparations were made to those who had been previously wronged:
This course had a very personal impact on my understanding of people from diverse and stigmatized populations. The things I learned actually caused me to seek out a few people in my life and apologize to them for the judgment that I had cast on them (ID#114).
Ninety percent of the students in this study (n=15) reported that they gained a greater understanding of diverse populations. This understanding was reached in large part by students discovering shared experiences and concerns. This was epitomized by the following student response: “It really has shown how people from all backgrounds and populations from every walk of life deal with similar problems” (ID#117).
The multicultural lessons learned in this class were monumental. Originally scared and hesitant to engage with those who were “different,” these students embraced the organizations and their diverse clients, were able to recognize “sameness,” and developed a strong desire to form relationships with those from various backgrounds.
At the beginning of class, students noted a concern that they did not have many skills to offer to an advocacy-related course, and they struggled to see how this course would relate to their major or future career. As the course progressed, students began to find individual passions, practical lessons, and career links to victim advocacy. Many students developed a moral obligation to help those in need. One student noted that the emotions she felt after meeting the young children co-victimized by homicide was directing her toward a career choice:
After beginning my research, I began to see the changes I could make that could one day potentially save an individual's life. Having the ability to make these connections between the class and my future profession was a major success for me (ID#103).
The class encouraged students to stretch beyond basic textbook understandings of advocacy and to develop concrete ways their careers could be impacted by and directly impact advocacy efforts. Students took notice that their experiences interacting with organizations had the potential to open doors for them in their future careers:
This course will be the course I talk about in every graduate, job, or other professional interview. The practical experience offers quantifiable data showing monetary and professional success among our non-profits (ID#107).
I got told by several of the people we worked with that I had possible references and internship opportunities. I know that when the time comes, I can count on the advocates we worked with to influence my future professional career (ID#101).
Other students noted the way this experience strengthened skills or behaviors needed to be successful in their professional lives: “This course has laid a pathway for me to someday use my communication skills to help others” (ID#105). “[I learned] to take initiative and not rely on other people handling everything for you. We really worked hard, and I will now have that additional experienced work ethic for my future career” (ID#109).
From aviation and construction management to social work and criminal justice, students’ majors ranged broadly. Another learning objective of the course was to encourage students to be creative and find direct links between their major and advocacy. Several students had never considered such a connection:
The biggest successes I had in this class was learning how to apply my major of communication to nonprofits. I learned that I could use what I learned in my class to help this nonprofit run smoothly and be affected. I really saw the value of my degree and how wide and diverse it was (ID#117).
This class also introduces me to the ways in which my field commonly gives back, and ways that I believe it could benefit even more which I most likely would have never came to that conclusion on my own (ID#113).
Regardless of career aspirations, through the various volunteer efforts, nonprofit activities, business developments, and individual research projects, students strengthened their professional link to advocacy efforts and civic responsibility.
The social impact competency encapsulated themes of team building, overcoming group challenges, and increasing social awareness. These are themes which remain relevant for criminal justice workers. Service-learning class projects give students the opportunity to work out issues on their own facilitating team-building:
I think the most challenging aspect of this class for me personally was getting all of the members in the group to be cooperative and work as a team. At times, each group member was going a completely different direction. I'm just glad that we figured out how to work as a team in the end, or I don't think that we would have been as successful as we were at the end of the semester (ID#102).
Some students identified how their group service-learning experience helped develop a personal skill. To illustrate, it served as a confidence booster for the following student: “I feel like this class made me more confident in talking with others because of the group work we did” (ID#108). Another student felt like she learned how to gauge the talents of her teammates: “I learned how to identify the strengths in others and work with them accordingly in a group project” (ID#112).
Diversity in both talents and personalities was recognized as a team asset by the end of the service-learning project; however, some students did not recognize the value of team member diversity when group assignments were first made at the start of the semester.
When I was first put into groups, I thought the variety of different people would set us back because we weren't on the same page. I was very wrong about this. The demographics in this class was what made it so successful (ID#116).
All students within each assigned group were required to collaboratively accomplish the goal of helping their nonprofit organization in a way that was outside each team member’s existing comfort zone:
The group work was definitely challenging. None of us had any experience in digital media production, and our task was to create brochures and a DVD for the nonprofit organization we were assigned. It took a collaborative effort from everyone in the group to accomplish the goals (ID#113).
In their responses, five students (ID#102, #104, #105, #106, and #107) claimed a newfound commitment to community outreach because of their service-learning experiences. Here are two representative responses:
My group was challenging. Everyone was always busy, motivation was lost, agreements couldn't be made, but in the end we figured it out. It was never about us anyway, it was always about helping those who cannot help themselves … I will continue to change lives even after this class (ID#106).
This class solidified my internal commitment to public service and philanthropy … Many underestimated the impact just a few committed people can have on the world, but I have watched 20 millennials led by a brilliant yet quirky homicide expert change thousands of lives with no money, limited time, and an abundance of strength and talent (ID#107)
Undoubtedly, the structure of the course and the required engagement pressed students to reevaluate themselves and others, thus progressing socially and discovering ways to successfully engage with their peers and their community.
While survey items #10 and #11 asked students to identify challenges, some students responded by explaining how a problem was solved or an obstacle overcome, and these were categorized under the cognitive impact theme. In this category is where students identified challenges in terms of perceived negative experiences, both in response to #10 and #11 and in response to other survey items. There were 37 responses organized within this “challenges” theme because, despite the careful design of the course and the overwhelming growth and positivity ultimately experienced by the students, everything did not always run smoothly throughout the semester. The subcategories within this theme were: noncooperation by organization (whether because of illness, lack of communication, vague expectations, or otherwise), noncooperation by classmates, fear of failing, inadequate resources, and time constraints. A number of students identified personal struggles with time demands as the class required volunteer hours and event participation beyond the scheduled course block:
I think the biggest challenge I faced was time. I felt like this class was a consistent balancing act of time. I was busy with other class and work, so trying to find time to help my nonprofit and really commit to this class was hard (ID#117).
They also faced common hurdles that occur when placed within a group setting, including communication issues, difficulty in the division of responsibilities, and lack of initiative from classmates:
There weren’t really any personal challenges that I faced. The most challenges came from the group I worked with. The lack of motivation and enthusiasm from my team was really discouraging, and that had a slight impact on me because it’s hard to keep going and be positive when no one else that’s helping you has the same attitude (ID#106).
There were also challenges working directly with the organizations. Students felt some organizations struggled to provide communication or guidance, sent mixed messages of desires and expectations, and were sometimes difficult to reach for feedback:
One of the biggest challenges we had as a class was finding what the specific needs were for each of our organizations. Some of the organizations came in with a clear-cut agenda for what they wanted to accomplish while other groups’ needs were more vague (ID#103).
Unexpected illnesses within two of the organizations also created unforeseen and unpreventable obstacles. These problems, however, allowed students to see firsthand how, in the real world, events can occur that are beyond anyone’s control. As one student put it, “More often than not, things do not go according to plan and that sometimes means you have to start all over” (ID#117).
Service-learning is rarely offered in criminal justice curriculum (Madden et al., 2014), despite the fact that many students express a desire to help others as their main reason for pursing such a degree (Dantzker, Kubin, & Stein, 1997; Krimmel & Tartaro, 1999). The current sample noted that their isolated world-view initially made it difficult to relate to or understand concepts and populations related to victim advocacy. Student immersion with victims, at-risk youth, homeless individuals, addicts and their families, and former prisoners transformed the learning environment, taking students beyond the text and traditional course expectations.
The results demonstrate how service-learning benefits students by engaging them emotionally, cognitively, and socially. All students revealed an emotional aspect to their experience. Because emotion provides the motivation to learn and may help break down mental barriers or resistance to learning, previous literature has set forth the idea that all higher-level thinking may need to proceed from an affective domain platform (DioGuardi, 2016). Dewey (1934) himself considered emotion to be the force that fuels reflection, and it is reflection which elevates an experience to one in which cognitive domain learning occurs. Dewey (1910) described reflection as examining a topic so thoroughly that nothing important is being overlooked. Such degree of thoroughness would not occur without sufficient emotional investment; students need to be attentive and interested. “Emotion is the moving and cementing force. It selects what is congruous and dyes what is selected with its color, thereby giving qualitative unity to material externally disparate and dissimilar” (Dewey, 1934, p. 42).
For Dewey (1910), reflection itself is higher order thinking, which must be the goal of every worthwhile educational experience. Reflection provides students with “the ability to step back and ponder one’s own experience, to abstract from it some meaning or knowledge relevant to other experiences” (Hutchings & Witzorff, 1988, p. 15). Dewey (1910) made it clear that reflective thinking would rarely be easy; that, in fact, it would be a painful process; and the findings from this study reveal the discomfort students felt as they articulated their struggles in cognitively processing their experience.
Six of the students explicitly described their service-learning experience as being eye-opening, and Dewey (1916) claimed that, “Only gradually and with a widening of the area of vision through a growth of social sympathies does thinking develop to include what lies beyond our direct interests; a fact of great significance for education” (p. 142). Another student elaborated on how she cannot help but to look at every newspaper article differently as she wonders about the human impact hidden behind the headlines.
This research revealed the multicultural impact as students uncovered and examined their own implicit biases. Dewey (2016) described prejudices as being the product of a stubborn mind which has stopped developing, whereas “intellectual growth means constant expansion of horizons and consequent formation of new purposes and new responses” (p. 182). Findings confirm a myriad of service-learning research results, which found a decrease in stereotypical thinking, and an increase in understanding other cultures and races (e.g., Astin & Sax, 1998; Eyler & Giles, 1999; and Giles & Eyler, 1994). Keen and Hall (2009) suggested that multicultural competence is reached not because of the service-learning, per se, but because of the ongoing dialogue that occurs between those providing the service and those being served. Students discovered similarities between people from different cultures and themselves through close interaction with the nonprofit organizations’ clients, which was a positive academic outcome also identified by Eyler and Giles (1999). This personal growth may be the greatest lesson for those entering the field of criminal justice.
In addition to the social impact (i.e., the service-learning experience strengthened the way students cooperated with and worked within their student groups), students also reported professional development outcomes that would aid their future careers. Traditionally, students have turned to internships as their sole exposure to the “real world,” but employers are looking for experiences beyond internships to set candidates apart (Burke & Bush, 2013; Hirschinger-Blank & Markowitz, 2006; Penn, 2003). The students in this course recognized that this opportunity enhanced their ability to network with professionals, made them more aware and confident of their skills, and provided an experience they could incorporate in future job interviews. Perhaps even more powerful than their professional development was how students now saw their future careers needing to include a component of civic responsibility and engagement, and prior research found a correlation between student volunteer work during college and later participation in community service (Astin, Sax, & Avalos, 1999). Dewey believed that intelligence has an obligation to respect others as well as itself, and that educators have a responsibility to prepare students to fully participate in society and do their part to promote public welfare within their communities (Fishman & McCarthy, 1998). Dewey (1916) was concerned with the role of education in developing a progressive society, one in which the citizens would be bound “together in cooperative human pursuits and results” (p. 98).
There were challenges similar to what was found in prior service-learning literature (Rosing, Reed, Ferrari, & Bothne, 2010), but students in this honor course brainstormed with each other to find solutions to emerging problems and shared their ongoing struggles with each other. Both brainstorming and sharing were identified by Keen and Hall (2009) as being the most beneficial activities within a service-learning experience.
However, the simplest way to evaluate the success of this service-learning course is to explore the material contributions students made to their teams:
We as a class had success in helping these companies. We raised over four thousand dollars for our organizations. We created promotional materials for them. We were able to launch a nonprofit. We helped a nonprofit continue an event that they thought they would have to cancel. We gave these nonprofits hope and energy to continue helping people (ID#106).
The class created a multitude of creative marketing materials, including a DVD and press packet for the homeless food service organization, original branding, social media, and business materials for the public speaker, and a new logo, mission/vision statement, manual, and website for the addiction group. With funding being recognized as the major deficit for these groups, the class also raised $350 for the addiction leader to attend a conference in Washington, DC and another $600 from a Halloween run, raised over $4,000 for the crime victims’ unit through a social media site and dinner, and helped book the speaker with more than 10 paid speaking opportunities. Finally, the students contributed many hours feeding the homeless, organizing and hosting activity booths at the children’s Christmas party, and participating in community education events.
It should be noted that the course instructor recognized her own influence on the class, and that her role and leadership may have impacted study results as well as outcomes. One potential influence is that students may have altered their behavior because they knew they were being observed or measured on their performance, commonly known as the Hawthorne Effect (Kember, 2003). The possibility exists that the instructor’s own passion for victim advocacy might have fueled the students’ motivation. Additionally, her dual role of researcher and instructor may have influenced the way she interpreted students’ responses (Deeley, 2010). However, this latter conflict was somewhat mitigated by the second author (who is not actively involved in victim advocacy) blindly coding all responses and emergent themes independently.
This service-learning/victim advocacy course was a valuable education experience as students demonstrated an ability to relate their experience to course content as well as other venues both through their responses and through their presentation boards, and were also able to recognize the real-world relevance of the service-learning experience (Dewey, 1938). Many, and arguably all, demonstrated higher order thinking as they applied general principles to their personal observations and revealed an expanded awareness of community-wide and society-wide problems and issues. Perhaps the most important finding came from the “social impacts” because all students became more engaged in their communities, and most expressed the intention to continue with community outreach. Mendel-Reyes (1998) referred to service-learning as “pedagogy for citizenship” (p. 34), and the students who completed this 16-week course show all indications that they will be the good citizens produced from a worthwhile education, as required by John Dewey.
Public safety is threatened when discord and divisiveness exist within society. Mutual trust and respect must be reestablished between the citizenry and criminal justice system. One starting point might involve walking down John Dewey’s educational pathway to foster civic-mindedness in aspiring criminal justice system workers and to rekindle a collaborative community spirit among all members of society. Effective service-learning can have a significant, long-term impact on students, including the way they learn, how they think and view the world around them, the manner in which they see themselves, and in how they define their role and purpose in their communities. Despite challenges, such as limited financial resources and time, this course is an example of how powerful service-learning can be, particularly in the criminal justice arena. The process requires a significant amount of work from the instructor as well as from students and participating organizations, but the reward creates a worthwhile experience for all parties involved. Given the current divide and distress within so many of our communities and the perceived disconnect between criminal justice practitioners and the clients they serve, direct exposure of students to vulnerable, at-risk populations has never been more important. This unique learning experience allows students to see we are all similar and can make a difference in the lives of others, thus potentially improving the future welfare of our society.
HONR3000. Victim advocacy reflection
What were your expectations when you registered for this course?
How would you see this course as influencing your future professional career?
How did this class impact you personally?
How has this class improved your understanding of people from diverse populations (former prisoner, addicts, homeless individuals, crime victims)?
Describe your experience working within a group.
Describe your experience working with a nonprofit organization.
What did you learn about operating a nonprofit?
Which group/organization impacted you the most in a positive way? Why?
Overall, what challenges did you personally encounter in this class?
As a class what challenges did we face?
Overall, what successes did you personally experience in this class?
As a class, what successes did we experience?
If you have to pinpoint one specific lesson, life experience, or moment in this class, what would it be, and how did it influence you?
Is there any other message or reflection you would like to share? If so, please detail below!
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Ashley Peake Wellman received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in Criminology, Law and Society and is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Missouri. Dr. Wellman can be reached at her address: 300 Humphreys-UCM, Warrensburg, MO 64093 or her email address: [email protected] Her research focuses on violent offending and violent victimization. Her primary research focuses on the lived experiences of families left behind in an unsolved murder, often referred to as cold case homicide survivors. Additional work centers on the emotional, physical and psychological tolls of sexual assault on its survivors, along with social reactions and interpretations of sexual assault. Dr. Wellman is dedicated to advocating for awareness and resources for victims of violence. Her work appears in several outlets including the Journal of Death and Dying, the Journal of Family Studies and the Journal of Loss and Trauma.
Sherri DioGuardi is Assistant Professor at the University of Central Missouri (UCM). She received her Ph.D. from University of Florida (UF) in Criminology, Law and Society, and her M.B.A. from Saint Leo University. Dr. DioGuardi's research centers on the impact of law and policy on individuals, and she focuses primarily on workers within the criminal justice system or on those who aspire to work within the field. She has published on the death penalty, sex trafficking, and pedagogy. For the past three years, Dr. DioGuardi has been a faculty advisor for LAE-GED, the award-winning UCM chapter of the American Criminal Justice Association—Lambda Alpha Epsilon.