Soft skills and service learning: Can Virginia Western do more?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the “community” part of community college lately.

I light up every time I hear community-service ideas in our college forums, like the idea of building a Habitat for Humanity house (heard that one at a strategic planning brainstorm).

Or forming a Relay for Life team (Staff Senate).

Or establishing a student food pantry (I’m part of a small group working on some version of this right now).

I’m still new to Virginia Western, so it’s very likely I’ve missed some excellent examples around campus. So far, these are the most visible community-oriented initiatives I’ve found:

  • Students in our Community College Access Program (CCAP) must complete a 4-hour service learning project each semester. According to the Educational Foundation’s Impact magazine, these students contributed more than 2,800 hours volunteering in the Roanoke Valley in 2015-16. Examples include: Cleaning pens and walking dogs at Angels of Assisi, waiting on customers at the historic Buchanan Theatre, working at the kitchen in the Rescue Mission, and serving LOA Meals on Wheels. (If you know of an organization needing volunteer help, contact CCPA coordinator Carolyn Payne at 540-857-6371 or
  • Our Dental Hygiene Program partners with many community agencies to provide free dental care to underserved patients in Roanoke and two other distance learning locations, totaling $984,184 worth of preventive services last year alone.
  • Full-time employees receive 16 hours of leave each year for School Assistance and Volunteer Service. However, not all volunteer work is eligible.  If you have questions about what non-profit service qualifies during your normal work hours, contact the Human Resources Office. 

What other examples have I missed? I’m sure there are more, so please tell me … we should be shouting them from the rooftops!

Our college seems to welcome this kind of community spirit, and it dovetails with our mission, which is “to provide quality educational opportunities that empower students for success and strengthen communities.”

But last week, in this American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) article, I learned about other community colleges that have made community service and civic engagement a centerpiece of their schools.

At these colleges, faculty have integrated service learning into their coursework.

I plucked one of the best quotes of the article that explains why this is so important, especially at community colleges. This is from Sean Crossland, the director of the Thayne Center for Service & Learning at Salt Lake Community College:

“I see it as a great necessity, and an obligation of higher ed, to not just churn out the next round of the workforce but to create an engaged citizenry that can make informed decisions and engage in democracy.”

This also echoes what a room full of Roanoke-area guidance counselors heard during a CTE Career Pathways presentation our campus hosted on Sept. 20. Craig Balzer, of Balzer & Associates, was invited to discuss the business need for students with career and technical educations.

Balzer told us about how he grew up in Roanoke County — starting at Oak Grove Elementary (also my alma mater) — later graduated from Virginia Tech and moved to the big city of Charlotte. Then he came back to the Roanoke Valley to help build a thriving architectural, engineering and surveying firm that has expanded to serve five locations around Virginia.

He urged our region’s high school counselors to NOT focus on how much money these students can make in jobs that don’t require a 4-year degree (and these jobs do pay well, btw). Instead, he wants guidance staff to ask students what they want to DO with their lives. What do they want to build?

Balzer expects job candidates to come with a backpack of technical skills, yes. But soft skills — verbal and written communication, teamwork, personal responsibility — are what he values most.

Other Roanoke-area employers who responded to our recent Workforce Needs Survey agreed: 75% say soft skills are “very important” and 22% chose “important.”

But how do we teach soft skills? One way might be through service-learning projects, which are hands-on and require empathy and teamwork, building those soft skills while promoting agency, especially if they are student-driven.

Remember that 85% of Virginia Western’s alumni stay in the region. We have tremendous power to get our students more actively involved with *our* community — and in a thoughtful way, especially when projects are linked to course objectives.

I suggest you read the full article … but if you want a quick summary, I have listed some of the ideas that might inspire you to try something similar. Note that faculty at Nassau Community College are encouraged to host service-learning projects on campus because many students lack transportation.

  • Sustainable campus gardens
  • On-campus day-care center
  • Prom boutiques (free dresses for high school students)
  • Collecting books
  • Care kits for nursing home residents
  • Cellphones for soldiers
  • Conversational English “partners” for those learning the language
  • Blood pressure screenings at nearby churches on the part of nursing students
  • Merchandising internships at local stores undertaken by art and marketing students

Perhaps an Innovation Grant (through the Educational Foundation) might help get you started? Or if there’s a groundswell of interest, we might consider a bigger Foundation for Roanoke Valley grant to provide some college-wide support and guidance.

Come talk to us about your ideas in the Grants “Green House” on the top floor of Fishburn … we would love to help! (We also have a bowl full of jellybeans.)

— Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle
Grant Specialist

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About Stephanie

Stephanie SeagleStephanie Ogilvie Seagle has served as Grant Specialist at Virginia Western since 2016, but she prefers her honorary title: “Chief Joy Officer.” Stephanie spent most of her career at The Roanoke Times, a daily newspaper, where she served in various news and features roles including “Shoptimist” shopping columnist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies at George Mason University and a master’s of arts in liberal studies at Hollins University. Stephanie is a mom to one human daughter and multiple chihuahuas … and is obsessed with reading nonfiction, Halloween, and crafting glow necklaces inspired by the Mill Mountain Star. Glow Roanoke!