December 20, 2014  

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Graduate Students Assist United Way Agencies through Service Learning Project

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A group of graduate students at The University of Southern Mississippi recently used what they learned in the classroom to help local community service organizations in their efforts to obtain financial support for their work in the Pine Belt.

The Department of Educational Studies and Research in the College of Education and Psychology piloted a new course in the fall 2013 semester, REF 718, as a service-learning practicum in applied program evaluation. Students in the class, taught by Dr. Forest Lane, assisted local agencies including The Family YMCA, Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club, the Boy Scouts and DREAM of Hattiesburg, Inc. in the development of logic models for their applications for funding in 2014 from the United Way of Southeast Mississippi.

Logic models are used in evaluating programs to identify, clarify and apply defensible criteria to determine a program’s value or worth. “The goal for this project was to not only give our graduate students real experience in program evaluation, but also aid non-profit community agencies in developing evaluation plans that can better document the successes of their programs,” Lane said.

Funding allocations from United Way to the more than 20 community investment partners it supports will be made in March.

One of the agencies, DREAM, is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, Excellence in Action (Mississippi non-profit certification) with the Mississippi for Non-Profits and a Certified Prevention Agency with the Mississippi Department of Health, Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services. Its mission is to prevent and/or reduce the abuse of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

In accordance with its mission, DREAM provides numerous prevention services and programs throughout United Way of Southeast Mississippi's service area, including the DREAM Center’s after-school tutoring programs for students in grades K-12.

University and high school volunteers assist hundreds of students with homework, literacy, science and reading fair projects, leadership activities and other enrichment activities at the Center. Through the programming students improve their grades and, according to research cited by DREAM, those who perform well in school are less likely to abuse drugs and therefore lead healthier lifestyles.

Dr. Linda Vasquez, executive director of DREAM of Hattiesburg, Inc., said the assistance provided by the students with her agency’s funding application was not only a great experience for the students, but also helpful to DREAM in having another perspective on its proposed use of the requested funds.

“Having an outside reader examine and critique our funding proposal and what we want to do with our services was very helpful, and I was also impressed with how they put the theory they’ve learned in class into practice.” Vasquez said. “Sometimes when you’re so involved in your own work, you don’t ‘see the forest for the trees’ so to speak, so this was beneficial to us. We appreciate their work and I know they will be outstanding professionals in their field.”

Megan Dutton of Slidell, La., Amanda King of Petal, Miss. and Kenneth Thompson of Picayune, Miss., graduate students in the department’s Research, Evaluation, Statistics, and Assessment (RESA) doctoral program, were among the students in the class. They worked with DREAM, the Boys and Girls Club and the Boy Scouts, respectively, in creating a logic model for the evaluation component of each agency’s United Way application.

Thompson said the project not only allowed him to bridge the different academic disciplines within the program, it also gave him the chance to work in an applied situation to bridge the gap between academics and a career.

“While it is easy to think about simulations while in school, it is invaluable to have the opportunity to move beyond the classroom while having someone as knowledgeable as Dr. Lane mentor the process.  Additionally, it was a great opportunity to begin making professional contacts before graduating, and a really great feeling to use some of the knowledge we gained to help non-profit organizations.”

Dutton said the service-learning aspect of the course appealed to her, and believes the experience was great preparation for her career after graduation.

“I was able to get first-hand experience in applying program evaluation within our community, and learn the funding process agencies like DREAM go through,” Dutton said. “The project was also similar to consulting, which is something I am interested in. So as a result, I gained a lot from the project. I probably would not have been able to have such an experience if it wasn't for this course.”

King said REF 718 incorporated the objectives students learned throughout the RESA program to apply them in real-life situations. She said in the group that assisted the Boys and Girls Club, the students were able to examine the current logic model of the Boys and Girls Club and help the agency revise the model to better demonstrate their needs for future funding. 

“Over the course of the semester, I corresponded with the Boys and Girls Club through email and in person to learn about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats the program faces along with determining the goals and objectives of the program,” King said. “We were able to use the information with previous logic models to update the logic model to demonstrate what the program does with the money granted.”

King was impressed with how the Boys and Girls Club uses limited resources to provide “amazing programs for kids in the Hattiesburg community.”  “Working with the Boys and Girls Program, specifically, has been a humbling experience because of the amount of work this agency provides to the community,” she said.

For Dutton, the service-learning component greatly enhanced the impact of the course. “Anytime students practically apply the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to outside of the classroom activities, a true learning environment has been fostered and strengthened,” she said.

Dan Kibodeaux, executive director of the United Way of Southeast Mississippi, said a large part of what the students were able to do was help the agencies better communicate the outcomes and results of their work to those who contribute money and other resources to the United Way.

“When you give to the United Way, you want to know your money accomplishes something real, significant and meaningful,” Kibodeaux said. “With the help of these students, the agencies they assisted can more clearly explain to our donors what they do in terms that they can understand and agree with.”

Kibodeaux said the service-learning project was also another example of how Southern Miss gives back to the community. “This was a capacity-building project that benefited our agencies so they can continue improving our quality of life. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

Learn more about the Department of Educational Studies and Research at http://www.usm.edu/higher-education-research-statistics. To learn about the United Way of Southeast Mississippi, visit http://www.unitedwaysems.org/.