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February 2003 - Issue No. #49 (p. 12-15)

Volunteerism: Education Beyond the Classroom

by Karen Mattison Yabuno

Former Lecturer, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

I. Why have students volunteer?

As an undergraduate, I participated in a service-learning course. For this, I was required to volunteer for an environmental organization, and then write a term paper about my experience. I found it to be a profound learning experience, and one that I really enjoyed as well. This is the kind of experience I wanted to give students in a course about environmental issues in Japan.

Volunteering can make environmental problems more real to students by enabling them to experience them firsthand. This also gives students a sense of empowerment in helping to solve these problems. For their term project, I had my students report on their experiences. In this way, students could also benefit from hearing about their classmates' experiences.

II. What was the course?

The course was entitled Japan and the Environment. In it, students learned about Japan's environmental history (Unit I), about environmental laws (Unit II), and about environmental organizations (Unit III) using information on the Internet and their volunteer activities. In Unit III, students volunteered 20 hours with various organizations, and then made a scrapbook about their experiences. At the end of the semester, they showed this scrapbook to a small group of their classmates, and described what volunteer work they did and what they learned from the experience.

III. How were students assessed?

The students were not actually assessed on the volunteer work itself, but on the course products reflecting this experience. There were two components to the assessment: a scrapbook, worth 20% of the final grade, and a reflective essay about their experience, worth 10%.

The scrapbook could contain anything the student felt explained his or her activity and a reaction to it, for example: pamphlets and brochures from the organization; brief summaries in English of this material; photographs of the student doing the activity; explanations of the activity; comments about conversations with other volunteers or the project leader; their feelings about the activity; articles related to the organization or activity from the newspaper or Internet; translations of the titles of these articles; and any other material they wished to include. My students included, for example, stickers, seeds, napkins made of kenaf, recipes for organic brownies and facial masks, instructions on how to build a solar oven, etc. The scrapbooks were then graded on organization, explanations, materials, and neatness (i.e. the "care factor").

IV. Where did students find organizations to volunteer for?

Students attended Earth Day events on April 20 and 21, 2002, in Hibiya Park, Tokyo. At the Earth Day events, there were booths staffed by different environmental groups. By visiting the booths, students could speak with members of different environmental organizations and collect printed information. The students then brought this information to class to share and discuss with classmates. If students were unable to attend Earth Day events because of other commitments, they were required to visit the Global Environmental Information Centre at the United Nations University in Tokyo to collect similar information.

After the students had collected and discussed this information with their classmates, they were required to contact 3 organizations to find out what volunteer opportunities existed. In some cases, the organizations they contacted didn't have any volunteer activities or the event dates fell outside of the timeframe of the class.

When this happened, I suggested that the students contact their local city hall or ward office to find out what environmental volunteer opportunities existed in their local area, such as recycling drives or trash collection.

V. How did students select their organizations?

There were several barriers and attractors related to the organizations that students selected. The barriers included time, distance, money, and repetition. The attractors were location, topic, companion-ship, and low skill requirements.

    (a) Barriers
  • Because this class was offered in the spring, several fourth year students complained about the time requirement (the requirement had not been included in the course description published in the university catalogue). Meeting a requirement of 20 hours volunteer work during peak job-hunting season was stressful for them. I didn't lower the required number of hours for them, but I didn't enforce it either. Regardless of the time spent volunteer ing, students were still able to learn something from the experience.

  • Some organizations were far from where students live, so they couldn't p articipate easily. In this case, while they may have been interested in beach cleaning in Kanagawa, for example, it was easier to volunteer near their home in Saitama. The time required to travel to a site lowered a student's interest in that activity.

  • Some organizations charge a fee to join or ask volunteers to pay for lunch. In the case of lunch, students didn't mind so much. However, paying membership fees for an organization made students uncomfortable. This was not only due to the cost, but also to the perceived responsibility associated with becoming a member. As a member, students felt they'd be pressured to continue interacting with the organization after the course had ended. Students preferred to participate as a one-shot or occasional volunteer in order to save their money and maintain their independent status.

  • A final barrier was that picking up trash seemed to be the most common type of volunteer event offered. While students may enjoy doing this once, many didn't want to spend all 20 hours doing the same activity. Therefore, students volunteered with a variety of organizations to meet their time requirements.

  • (b) Attractors
  • Most students wanted to work near their homes in order to save both time and money on trains. To find these organizations, they usually called their local city hall or ward office to ask about activities. Some also found events through local advertisements.

  • A few students decided to work with organizations specific to animals or recycling because of their interest in these areas. In these cases, they chose organizations they found through the Earth Day event. Some organizations had work that students could do elsewhere even if the organization was located in Tokyo. For example, Friends of the Earth Japan asked students to survey the amount of trash generated by fast-food restaurants near their homes. In cases like this, students could satisfy two of their selection criteria: location and topic.

Companionship was a key attractor. Activities where students could join together with friends were more fun for them. Often, one student found an activity and then told three or four others about it. As a result, at the end of the semester, many students had volunteered for the same organizations. This had the unexpected side effect of class bonding. Students also enjoyed meeting people at their volunteer activities. They especially enjoyed the chance to talk to the activity leaders, who could tell them significant information about the volunteer organization, its environmental history, local involvement, etc. I was pleased that students could find mentors and sources of information in the field, rather than relying solely on me or on information from class.

At the beginning of the semester, students were concerned that they would need previous experience or special skills to participate in volunteer work, and were relieved when this was not the case. One student summarized the assets of the organization she chose with the following list of key points:

  • No entrance fee or annual fee
  • You can join just 1 time or with friends
  • No special preparation is needed
  • No special skills or volunteer experience are necessary

VI. What did students learn?

All of the students were impressed by the 'volunteer spirit' they saw, by which they meant the devotion and commitment of other volunteers, particularly the organizational staff and activity leaders. Many expressed a desire to continue volunteer work in the future.

In terms of content knowledge, what students learned from their volunteer experience depended on the organizations and on the activity type that they chose. For example, students who surveyed fast-food restaurants learned about packaging and waste disposal issues, while students who baked cookies with a solar oven learned about renewable energy.

After collecting trash, students voiced anger about the carelessness of litterers, and expressed a desire to stop this kind of behavior. A couple of students decided to carry pocket ashtrays after they saw how many cigarette butts are thrown on the ground. Students who planted flowers by roads felt a reconnection with nature, and felt pride in helping to beautify the world. Those who collected and sorted discarded clothing were shocked at the waste of money and resources the little-worn or never-used clothing represented.

VII. Conclusion

Volunteering is a great way to learn about social issues firsthand. Since the course was about Japan and the Environment, volunteering was a great tool for learning firsthand about environmental problems and how the non-profit sector is addressing them. Students were able to become directly involved with an issue while helping to solve it. As a result, the students also learned social responsibility and experienced personal growth. Students realized how their own behavior affects the environment, and that what they do really helps. As one student told me, "many a little makes a nickel!"

Volunteer Organizations
Focus of Organization or Activity Type
Nichinichi KaiPicking up trash by riverside
Friends of the Earth JapanSurveying fast-food restaurants about packaging waste
Hanamigawa hana no kaiPicking up trash by roadside and plant flowers in these areas
Umi wo tsukuru kaiBeach clean up
Ichihara tonbo ike no kaiMaking living places (ponds) for small animals and insects
Japan Seaborn Art AssociationMaking art from waste collected from river
JEANCleaning up Sanbanse tidal area
NicePicking up trash and plant flowers
Repack SokaCollecting old clothes for recycling
Urayasu CityPicking up trash
Chiba CityMaking solar oven, bake organic cookies, sell cookies, buy kenaf seeds with money from cookie sales, plant kenaf
Zushi CityBeach clean up

This article is based on a talk given by the author at the Peace as a Global Language PGL conference in September 2002.

Karen Mattison Yabuno
Former lecturer, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan


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